Take one step past the tall, imposing doors leading into Boston’s Empire, and you’ll quickly discover that the restaurant lives up to the grandeur implied by its name.
The interior of this Seaport District Asian lounge is palatial, with high ceilings, multiple dining areas, and long marble tables.
Candles and hanging lanterns cast a soft glow on golden leather couches dotted with red throw pillows. “Reserved” signs sit perched atop lounge tables, giving the room an air of exclusivity.
Elegant and fashionable, Empire’s the sort of place that might prompt you to glance at your fellow patrons and make sure you’re appropriately dressed for a special evening. Casual, it is not.
It’s exactly the kind of establishment that could be long on style and short on substance. Which is what makes an evening at the bar such a pleasant surprise.
A Passion for Cocktails
Nancy Nguyen is Empire’s bar manager, and it’s her enthusiasm for cocktail creation that makes sitting at the bar such a charming experience.
She happily talks about longtime crowd favorites on the drink menu. She runs through new additions and the evening’s specials. If it’s a quiet night, she might pull out her phone and share pictures of her more inspired boozy creations.
Nancy’s been with Empire since it first opened, nearly five years ago. Management initially eyed her as a cocktail waitress, but she insisted on being behind the bar.
Today she presides over a cocktail program full of time-honored tiki drinks, original concoctions, and traditional libations reinterpreted with an Asian-inspired twist.
At first glance, the “classic” Mai Tai looks less like the real thing and more like the tiki imposter served at so many Polynesian restaurants. But in this case, looks are deceiving – it’s boozy, bold, and balanced instead of sweet and syrupy.
The Shinjuku is a Tokyo twist on a Manhattan. Made with Akashi White Oak whiskey, sweet vermouth, and umami bitters, it’s nutty and aromatic, with uncommon spices on the nose.
The Oku Mule, a simple but effective mix of double oak bourbon, lime, and ginger beer, was one of the specials during my visit. It got high marks for presentation, arriving in a funky tiki glass and bubbling with dry ice.
And that wasn’t even the most elaborate serving vessel of the night. Bringing me what she described as “one of those off-the-menu Nancy drinks,” the ebullient bar manager served up a combination of vodka, grapefruit, St. Germain, lime, Thai basil and soda water – in a cantaloupe.
The cantaloupe certainly made for a conversation piece, as people kept coming by to ask what I was drinking. And this hefty two-hander lacked a name, it was fruity, strong, and refreshing.
As with the stunning ambiance and snazzy drinks, Empire’s food program doesn’t suffer for style and presentation. Sushi “cupcakes,” one of the most popular dishes, combine broiled lobster and sea scallop, pressed sushi rice, spicy garlic butter, and marinated uni. And as you can see, they do sort of look like mini cupcakes.
If you’re looking for variety, Tuna Three Ways gives you exactly that – tuna roll, tuna sashimi, and a red dragon roll.
It’s a broad, expansive menu with noodle dishes, steak and seafood, and an array of sushi.
Beneath the Surface
With its opulent atmosphere and 14,000 square feet of space, Empire could easily feel cold and impersonal. True, it’s probably not the most obvious spot for throwing back a few High Lifes after work.
But it’s also not lacking in personality. And if you’re there when Nancy Nguyen is behind the bar, it’s easy to kick back and appreciate the joy with which she approaches her craft.
Address: 1 Marina Park Drive, Boston
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