With bold strokes, The Golden Lotus opens on the heels of Empire Chinese, offering a menu of Cantonese specialties that are carbon copies of its neighbor but not nearly as fine — yet.
When Empire Chinese opened last year it set the standard for high-style Cantonese cooking in Portland. Starved for good Chinese food, Portlanders flocked to it — and still do — like bees to honey. Empire also embodied that pivotal spirit to attract both the critical hipster crowd who jam tables nightly and diners at large, who exhibit a populist yen for authentic Chinese cooking.
Empire, however, unknowingly spawned a twin. It goes by the name of The Golden Lotus, the new householder on the plaza at the 511 Congress St. office tower where Shanghai Tokyo ignominiously once stood.
It’s no surprise that Lotus’s menu is nearly a carbon copy of Empire’s. Under the ownership of chef Joe Teng — formerly on the line at Empire and before that manager at the old Wok Inn for many years — he took his crew from the shuttered Wok to Empire and now The Golden Lotus.
In a brief telephone chat with Empire co-owner Theresa Chan, I brought up the subject of kitchen-staff fluctuations. She explained that Empire always has its core chefs running the show (under Chan’s critical eye), and the ebb and flow of personnel doesn’t affect them.
I awarded Empire 4 1/2 stars last December as Portland Press Herald’s restaurant critic — I would now appraise it with 5. Hail to the Queen Bee, the kitchen has never missed a beat.
I’ve been to The Golden Lotus three times since they opened last week. I visited it for lunch, then dinner with friends and finally an afternoon meal of soup and dim sum at the bar earlier this week.
The food has been a mixed bag, not unexpected from a kitchen that’s finding its stride so early in the game. But I’m also encouraged by their potential. I say that because I had a chance to meet the chefs, after my various meals there, including Teng. The rest of the kitchen staff mostly hail from Hong Kong. They still show the vestiges of fast-food cooking with overly sweet, cornstarch-heavy glop that coat typical preparations. But they’re very capable of stepping up their game, leaving behind the clichés of American-style Chinese cooking — the dogma of strip-mall dining — and create the fine fare of this daunting cuisine.
A special lunch plate ($9.25) of General Tso’s chicken exhibited, however, that typical sweetness. The wok fried chicken nuggets had good flavor enhanced by its marinade of Shaoxing wine and rice-wine vinegar; ultimately corn starch and sugar got the better of it. It was served with the typical dome of white rice, a quarter of a cob of corn (watery), pristinely fresh, steamed broccoli and two pork and shrimp dumplings ( sui mai), which were a tad heavy.
With two friends in tow, dinner several days later gave us the chance to explore the kitchen’s mettle more thoroughly. One of my friends said the place reminded him — in a good way — of the old-fashioned American-Chinese restaurants that we all grew up on.
Peking duck in a Chinese style barbecue sauce filled the steamed buns. The meat was a little chewy, but the flavor of the meat and the soft, subtle texture of the buns were a good rendition of this dish.
The egg rolls — all crispy and crunchy on the outside (just like Empire’s) — were stuffed with well-seasoned local beef and diced vegetable — a fine filling that didn’t try to imitate pastrami, one of the calling cards of today’s Asian-fusion chefs.
One of my favorite dishes at Empire is the walnut shrimp. A nearly identical version is served at Lotus. The shrimp is batter fried and moistened with a thick, sweet, cloying dressing unlike Empire’s more refined citrusy mayonnaise.
The char sui bao (pork buns) was the least successful of our dishes. The bun dough didn’t display that essential gossamer lightness but was instead very dense and chewy; the hoisin pork filling, however, was lusciously good.
Our next dish was presented as a special token from the kitchen. It was described as sweet and sour pork, Hong Kong style. Instead of the usual batter-coated nuggets of pork, these were big pieces of roast pork on the bone bathed in a typical sweet and sour sauce. It was so sweet, though, it prompted one of my friends to say, “I can still taste the granules of brown sugar in the sauce.”
Another entrée was the stir-fried flounder that’s presented in the crispy skinned shell of the fish — another Empire creation. Lotus’s version was good but still lacked the finesse accomplished in Empire’s kitchen.
We had another sweet and sour pork dish, this time presented over stir-fried broccoli. It was sticky-sweet, but we cleaned out the plate completely. It was like eating potato chips — after that first chip you’ve got to finish the entire bag.
Kung Pao chicken — stir fried breast meat over egg noodles, peanuts, peppers and onions—was a good savory blend of garlic and spices, wholly different from Empire’s though not altogether as satisfying.
There’s a full bar and a nice selection of Chinese beers. I had the Lucky Buddha, a Hong Kong-style brew served in an embossed bottle. Though I’m not a beer drinker, I enjoyed its smoothness.
It wasn’t until my recent second lunch that I began to see the kitchen’s potential. Spicy pork belly filled a steamed bun with tender meat swathed in hoisin and served with pickled vegetables. The hot and sour soup was another good dish; typically, run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants serve a soup of wallpaper-paste thickness. This version captured the essence of sweet, sour and spicy in a silken broth. The lobster dumplings were beautifully made, the dough wrapper light and delicate and filled with big, briny chunks of lobster.
To its credit Golden Lotus has given new life to the previously moribund space formerly occupied by Shanghai Tokyo (probably one of the worst Asian restaurant to hit our shores) and perked up the plaza of this architecturally horrific high rise built in the 1970s . The room is a very attractive contemporary space, avoiding the usual kitsch and clichés of American Chinese restaurant décor. The booths are big and comfortable, and the tables by the windows overlooking the avenue offer a bird’s eye view of Congress Street and Monument Square. Because of its downtown business district location, it’s apt to be a popular place for lunch. And for Merrill Auditorium devotees, it’s centrally located for pre-event dining.
There’s a separate bar along the rear of the room; and the former sushi station — empty now — will be, according to Teng, the place for formal Chinese tea service and a showcase for desserts.
In the last several years Portland — and other parts of Maine — have had a significant influx of fine Asian restaurants. Following in the footsteps of Empire, the Miyake lineup, Boda and Long Grain to Cara Sadler’s fusion offerings at Tao Yuan and her soon-to open Bao Bao Dumpling House, there’s the potential for an establishment like The Golden Lotus to make its mark.