Empire PalaceMy first trip to the Empire Palace took place a few months ago.  A friend called to ask if I would meet him for lunch.  He was a bit surprised that I didn’t know anything about what he described as one of his favorite restaurants. While I wasn’t in “review mode” at the time, I can tell you that I left feeling that the food was good (I had the pepper steak), the restaurant was pleasant, and the staff was friendly.  I left that lunch believing that this was a good place, and I was looking forward to returning for some in-depth research.

Soon enough I was pleased to find someone who understands most things Asian and was willing to join me for dinner.  My acquaintance Ellen is an acupuncturist who has experienced Asian food offerings both in the USA and in China.

As we drove into the Empire Palace parking lot I knew I was in a very safe area.  It is in a small professional section off of McKnight Road, about 10 miles from the center of Pittsburgh.  The lot was almost full.  The only parking spot that could be found was in a corner just about as far from the front door as you could get.  Business was good.

Phyllis, our hostess, greeted us as we entered the lobby.  I met Phyllis at the lunch I had with my friend a few months ago.  She meets hundreds of people so I really didn’t expect her to know me, but after exchanging pleasantries she stopped to say, “Where do I know you from?”  After a short, silent, awkward pause she remembered my name.  That was a great feeling.  We were told that if we wanted a booth we would have to wait a while, if a table was okay we could be seated immediately.  Phyllis led us to our table.

We sat for just a few minutes before our waitress approached with menus and a smile.  Our waitress, Michelle, promised to return shortly and left us to our initial research.  I dove into the huge menu and when Michelle returned I had yet to make a decision.  Ellen was ready but I was not; the menu has too many enticing items for me to review quickly.  Ordering an appetizer gave me a little time to pick the perfect meal.  But even just selecting an appetizer could take a while with so many things to choose from.  I started scanning the list of possibilities: octopus sushi, sea urchin, eel don.  With our waitress’ assistance, we decided to try the California roll.  While we waited for our Maki I had a few leisurely minutes to decide on dinner.

Empire Palace is a large, busy place.  They could serve over a hundred customers in the main dining room and probably 40 in the bar area.  When I walked in, the restaurant was about 90 percent full.  Meals were being delivered, water glasses were refilled and tables were cleared and prepared for new customers in a very team-oriented, efficient manner. The high ceilings and carpeted floors help buffer the noise.  The main dining room has a clean, modern, Asian feel; it’s one of those bright cheerful rooms that I just like being in.

Our California roll Maki arrived and it looked beautiful. Eight perfectly formed pieces that showed the crabstick, avocado, cucumber and tobico like they were small pieces of art.  While the California rolls would have been delicious without any sauces, the soy sauce with wasabi took the flavors up to a new level.  While the chopsticks may not have added anything to the flavors they added a lot to the experience.

Soon, the entrees arrived, Ellen had ordered the Ginger Chicken while I had the Sizzling Scallops with Beef.  The presentation was beautiful.  Sometimes you are served meals that just look so good you hate to dig in, but thankfully we got over that quickly.  All the elements of my scallop dish where done to perfection.  Nothing was overdone, nothing that needed to be in an oven for a few move minutes.  My meal was good, in fact it was very good; Ellen said she felt the same about hers.

I was pleasantly surprised when I received the check.  It was a great meal at a reasonable price.  There are times when I am walking away from a restaurant and I know I’ll be back; this was one of those times.  The only misstep was that I should have traded Ellen’s leftovers for mine just to try another delicious dish.

By Tom Pollard