One year ago this week Globe restaurant critic Devra First surprised herself by liking Big Night Entertainment Group's Red Lantern, which she gave two stars, saying "The first time I visited Red Lantern, I ate a lot of things. Including my words." On the anniversary of that review, she gives the group's newest restaurant, Empire, an even better score: two and a half stars. In her Red Lantern review, First wrote that other restaurants from the same owners are for "people who want to go out, but not to dinner," and her review of Empire echoes the sentiment that the food is better than one would expect at a restaurant that is largely a club.
Last year First wrote "The more Buddha statues there are per square foot, the less focused a restaurant's food tends to be. Red Lantern has many Buddha statues..." This year she writes that one way to know that you're in "a certain breed of Asian-themed nightclub cum restaurant" is to "count the lanterns, Buddha statues, foo dogs, and dragons around you." Does Empire fit the bill? "Number of lanterns at the new place: infinite."
But onto the experience. First likes the service, salt and pepper calamari, tom kah-like Thai scallop soup, a Cornish hen marinated in miso, and "star anise-scented Munchkins with warm centers, combining the best of doughnut holes and gingerbread." Less successful are steamed buns with shiitake ("dry"), a seemingly lost stuffed tomato ("ripped right off a Brit's breakfast plate"), fresh rolls with grilled beef ("dull") and too-cream cheesy lobster and crab rangoons. Are there any other kind?
Still, "each Asian restaurant and lounge Big Night opens improves upon the last." So, three stars next time? [BG]