By Linda Bausch
Empress M, an authentic Chinese restaurant, is situated at the curve of Silverado Trail just off of Imola—the setting chosen by a knowledgeable and ambitious group of people who love food and Napa Valley. The owners and executive team of culinary professionals have utilized their expertise to create “meaningful and sustainable exchanges involving culinary, education and historical programs.” As quoted for their website empress.us.
Margaret Wong, the owner and driving force behind the endeavor is an expert in global trade and US China relations. At Empress M, her intent was to present a unique, yet traditional, Chinese culinary offering and peek into the Chinese culture. Relating her own personal journey to that of Empress Wu ZeTian, the only Chinese Empress, who had three distinct stages of her life—from concubine, to wife of Emperor, then Empress—here, in Napa, Margaret Wong created Empress M—M as in Margaret.
Tucked in the courtyard, surrounded by mature foliage, is an open patio with outdoor seating for casual dining. There is plenty of indoor seating, and the décor keeps your eye wandering. A huge, wooden carving mounted on the main wall is a conversation piece on its own.
On this early spring afternoon, the weather was the perfect temperature for sitting outside. We arrived between lunch and dinner and were pleasantly surprised to learn the previous “Happy Hour” process had changed. Up until a few weeks before our visit, there were only limited menu items available during Happy Hour, as the chefs were out of the kitchen at that time. Well, sometimes change is good, but in this case, change was great! Our server, Jeff, informed us we were now able to order off of the Happy Hour menu or from the full menu any time of the day. The chefs were in the kitchen.
We ordered our drinks and took a little time to peruse the menu options. My martini came exactly as requested, Tanqueray gin, straight up and pretty dirty! It was perfect. My guest was happy to have his iced tea delivered—with lime—his preferred citrus of choice. (I know, it seems silly to mention, but in all honesty, he almost always has to ask for lime a second time, so when it the iced tea comes with it the first time, we notice!)
After the drinks arrived and we placed our order, Jeff brought out the selection of sweet, spicy, and tangy condiment sauces which promised to pair well with the menu items we selected from the Dim Sum and Small Plates menus. Our appetites were definitely piqued at this point. The table was then set with elegant share plates—a grey-toned floral graphic and a tiny hint of red which pops the logo—and the enameled chopsticks added to the ambiance.
We began with the Pan-Fried Pot Stickers, they were as expected; the tender noodle packets which had a tasty filling of pork and cabbage were steamed and then crisped on one side. The spicy sauce and soy was an excellent accompaniment.
Our shared Beef Chow Fun was prepared generously with rib eye steak, bean sprouts, onion and wide rice noodles. The brown sauce was silky and savory, a classic rendition that we will enjoy again.
Before we came to the restaurant, we were told by our friends not to miss the Phoenix Fried Shrimps. This was decidedly an excellent suggestion. The size of these succulent shrimps—delicious crunchy morsels—was impressive. There were two on the plate and they were very filling. We didn’t get to these until quite a while after they arrived at the table, but when we did they were still piping hot and oh-so-good.
To us, no Chinese restaurant outing is complete without Crispy Walnut Shrimp; it is always one of our favorites. The shrimp are well battered and bathed in a subtle, vanilla honey sauce.
Looking at the menu, we chuckled when we saw Empress Banana Cream Pie in the dessert column. That was a little unexpected, but we knew right away we were going to have dessert tonight! We were happy when the huge piece of pie came to the table. We were already full, but who cares when such a tasty piece of creamy, banana goodness shows up. The pie is made in-house, piled high with luscious whipped cream, banana custard and chunks of ripe banana; it was the perfect ending to our meal. The service and food were excellent.
The full menu is extensive and boasts many familiar items prepared in the classic Chinese style, using only the freshest meat, seafood and vegetables. Vegetarian options are noted. Our next visit will include a variety of items, starting with Lettuce Cups and Hot and Sour Soup, Mongolian Lamb Chops, Dan Dan Noodles, and Emperor Baked Sea Bass, I can’t wait!
Empress M welcomes guests seven days a week. Happy hours are hosted between 3pm and 5pm every day. There is fun to be had in the bar for industry locals with a discount on Monday nights. Tuesday is Locals’ Night. Wednesday is Karaoke Night in the bar and Thursday night—Ladies Night, come on in for a 10% discount on cocktails. On Friday evening enjoy your favorite local bands and featured musicians playing. Ask about their special Chef’s Menu available only on Sunday, details are on the website.
There are special perks with Empress M Dynasty Club with exclusive rewards and special member benefits. Empress M welcomes private events including weddings, business lunches, dinners, or cocktail receptions. Call for details.