Long-Cooked Beef Pho at Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge
by MC Slim JB
| July 23, 2012
Photo: JOEL VEAK
A food-writer pal of mine once archly suggested that there are only five types of fine-dining restaurants in Boston. He was being satirical, but barely — the longer you dine out here, the easier it is to experience déjà vu. Consider this one: a soaring, nightclubby place with an over-the-top Asian theme, a big bar, lots of lounge seating and conventional dining tables, a sushi bar, a dining bar overlooking an open kitchen where wok masters ply their trade, a thumping Euro-house soundtrack, many fancy cocktails, and an eclectic list of beer, wine, and sake. The food is better than you expect from nightclub people, the prices a bit eye-popping. Sound familiar? Regular readers of Food Coma may be reminded of our summer 2011 review of Red Lantern, the Back Bay’s answer to Tao and Buddha Bar on Stanhope Street.
Not content with that smash, its owners have essentially recreated Red Lantern on an even larger scale (with 350 seats and 14,000 square feet) in the white-hot Seaport District. Called Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge (1 Marina Park Drive, Boston, 617.295.0001), it repeats many Red Lantern kitchen motifs, including a lineup of cooked-seafood maki like the “fish and chips” roll ($14), which wraps skillfully tempura-fried cod and malt-vinegar mayo in sushi rice. Other Red Lantern hits like a creditable stir-fry of Singapore street noodles ($23 bowl, $42 platter) and warm steamed buns ($10 for two with shiitakes, $15 with Wagyu beef) also recur here. Inari-style sushi ($8 for two pieces) stuffs fried-tofu pouches with rice, green beans, carrots, shiitakes, microgreens, and a lot of mayo-based sauce; it’s messy but tasty, reminiscent of Hawaiian cone sushi.
The price of long-cooked beef pho ($26 small, $46 large) will draw eye rolls from your food-nerd friends who haunt Dorchester Vietnamese joints. Regardless, this bowl packs a lot of flavor: a rich stock with proper accents of charred aromatics, thin rice noodles that require vigorous stirring to finish cooking in the steaming broth, and thin-sliced rare tenderloin and meltingly tender oxtail with a wonderful hint of star anise, plus mung-bean sprouts, daikon, fresh mint, holy basil, and chopped bird chilies to add by hand. Its gorgeous clay-pot presentation is of a piece with Empire’s broader appeal: it’s exquisitely packaged, located in Boston’s hot-hot-hot dining neighborhood of the moment, and packed with pretty, fetchingly attired staff and patrons. With those sexy, shiny trappings, you may well forgive the familiar concept and premium prices.