Every time I buy bok choy at the market, I imagine it’s going to taste the way it does at a restaurant. Leaves as tender as wilted spinach, the stems retaining a pleasant crunch. But in reality, I routinely overcook it. At Empress, Chef Ho Chee Boon’s new restaurant in Chinatown, he makes a baby bok choy, stir-fried with garlic, with the same care and attention to detail that he gives to shrimp dumplings, pork ribs, and a golden, crispy plate of quail. Although he doesn’t like to talk about them, his Michelin stars are shining brightly.
The produce at Empress comes from a farm in Gilroy that his business partners invested in. Boon will choose certain seasonal vegetables and the farmers there plant the crops he wants to work with. When I spoke with Boon, he kindly shared the technique that prevents his bok choy from withering.
“Soaking the bok choy in water for five to 10 minutes allows the dirt and sediment to sink to the bottom of the pot,” he explains. But the water needs to be boiled before you drop the bok choy in. “You can put oil and salt in the water and basically blanche it.” After that, you can saute it with garlic or onions until it’s 80 percent cooked. “Then you can take it off the stove and the bok choy will finish cooking with the residual heat,” he says.
Eating at Empress is a cinematic experience. You walk through the gates of Chinatown to arrive at a glass front door. A lone sentry stands behind his hallway podium. He checks to see if your name is on the list. Once you’re confirmed, he opens the elevator door, presses the button and turns his head away as you ascend upward. Before you can cross into the dining room, lit up artfully like a theater stage, the host and hostess greet you with a friendly, yet restrained, enthusiasm. There’s a bar directly behind them stocked with tall mirrored shelves of alcohol that seem to multiply as you walk by.
There’s a restaurant scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), set in San Francisco, in which Jimmy Stewart swoons over his first glimpse of Kim Novak. Inside, the wallpaper is a rich red brocade that’s as intricately patterned as the human heart. The decor is an extension of Novak’s allure. The atmosphere inflames Stewart, making him more susceptible to falling in love at first sight. It’s part of an illusion that separates him from the stained pavement outside. With panoramic views facing north, and east toward Coit Tower, Empress also fulfills the fantasy of stepping into another, more refined world — one in which practicality and reason no longer matter.
Empress gently alters time and reality. Characters in certain Wong Kar-wai films would feel at ease slipping in and out of the turquoise, leather booths and chairs. The era conjured up fills your chest with a dubious sense of pride. You’ve gained admittance to an exclusive club, if only for an evening. The king and queen of Atlantis could enjoy a banquet there, where they’d nibble on a variety of their own loyal subjects — whether finned or crustaceous.
Prices weren’t listed on the menu we received, which suggested that old maxim: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” The only misstep in the creation of this celestial place is the music. In this transportive space, I expected to hear great jazz albums and sultry singers. Instead, the steady, thumping beat of some artificial soundtrack kept thundering across the room in booming waves. It prohibited intimate conversations. On weekends, I would expect an amplified sound for bar patrons and to distract people while they’re waiting for a table. But on a weeknight? That choice suggests management’s calculated desire for a younger set of diners. Everything else about Empress — especially the lush, varying, sensual tones of the blue decor — lends itself to the idea of attracting regulars, young and old romantics alike.
At this early stage in the Empress’ life cycle, courses are served prix fixe. In the future, Boon says he’d like to add an à la carte menu as well. He didn’t do so initially because they weren’t able to hire enough kitchen staff in time for the restaurant’s opening. As it stands now, I would eat any dish that Boon dreams up even without having the opportunity to choose something in particular.
Our meal began with steamed shrimp in a broth and topped with caviar. If the proportions, temperatures, or textures were off, this refined plate of dim sum could have failed. But the shrimp was perfectly poached and wrapped in a thin bandana of dumpling dough. The chosen caviar, Kaluga, were small in size and number, adding just the right touch of salt. Served in a bowl, even the temperature of the warm broth complemented the shrimp.
Boon explained the idea behind the appetizer, “In Cantonese food, normally the flavor is not very salty. The shrimp and caviar are a perfect match because it helps to bring out the freshness in both ingredients.” The chef has set out to raise people’s awareness of Cantonese cuisine and techniques. He says he wants to create more traditional food but with a modern sensibility and techniques.
When it comes to which Chinese city serves the best dim sum — Guangzhou or Hong Kong — Guangzhou is the clear winner for the chef. “I know that not a lot of people in Guangzhou use caviar,” he says, “but I started using it in Europe at Hakkasan. The first time was for my crispy duck with caviar on top.” Boon is primarily interested in pursuing new creations in the kitchen but adds, “As long as people are happy eating my food, that makes me happy.”
The interview with Chef Boon was conducted in English and Mandarin, translated by Becca Kao.
Empress by Boon
Mon-Sat, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
838 Grant Ave.