From the first bite of food at Empress by Boon, I knew this would be a dinner to remember. The steamed shrimp with Kaluga caviar “small eat” brought a big burst of texture and flavor. The savory swirls of caviar set the stage for more delights at the new San Francisco restaurant.
This dim sum made it easier to understand how Chef Ho Chee Boon received a Michelin star at Hakkasan New York City after only eight months. Add in the elegance of our table setting with iconic city views, and I was hooked.
Opened in June 2021, Empress by Boon is attracting many diners—prime weekend reservations are booked out for two months.
Chef Boon’s mastery of Chinese cooking techniques and his artistic sensibilities are a grand combination for a reincarnation of a former Chinatown culinary destination. Boon has big shoes to fill. The home of the beloved Empress of China for nearly 50 years, Empress by Boon replaced the once go-to place for tourists, wedding parties, birthday dinners, dinner events albeit cultural or political.
The restaurant is located on the third floor of a building in the heart of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. The tall windows in the two dining areas overlook a city which has welcomed the chef’s takeover as a renewal of the neighborhood which had lost some of its luster and tourist trade during the pandemic.
Though aware of the elegance and scale of the upscale Empress of China, I had never dined there during visits to Chinatown. I was pleased to discover that Chef Boon re-purposed the grand pergola and wooden panels of the former venue into the backdrop for the Tea Lounge of his restaurant.
Another nod to the history of Empress of China which launched upscale Cantonese dining to San Francisco and beyond, Boon kept the original turquoise sign and added the modern, simplistic blue panel sign with the Empress by Boon logo.
The redesign had brought shades-of-blue dynamism to the north-facing room which overlooks Coit Tower and the North Beach area. The back area, known as the East Room, has a more traditional ambiance with darker wood and pops of reddish-orange color elements. There are maroon carved wood screens around the chef’s prep table.
Both the Tea Lounge and the bar with inviting red accents are first-come, first-served for drinks or dining.
Ho Chee Boon was born in Malaysia and began his cooking career there. Before earning Michelin stars with the Hakkasan Group in New York City and then serving as International Development Chef, Boon worked at restaurants around the globe: Turandot in Moscow, Breeze in Bangkok, The Ritz Carlton Singapore, East Ocean in Hong Kong, and Sofitel Hotel in Malaysia.
For all the awards and international acclaim, Chef Boon is self-effacing and humble. The cooking is what matters to him. When I dined at the Empress, Boon paused for a photo not in the most picturesque spot of the well-designed restaurant, but by the kitchen at the pass where the culinary team sets the food for service. Later in the tour, Boon showed me around the East Room with some pride but wanted me in the photo.
During his travels, Boon imbibed creative ideas from all the cuisines and continued his love for and mastery of Cantonese cuisine. A turning point for the culinarian was opening the Hakkasan San Francisco in late 2012. Boon fell in love with the energy and farm-to-table sensibilities of the city along with its rich Chinese culinary history. He settled here and jumped at the opportunity to re-imagine the Empress.
I asked the chef about his personal favorite cuisines. “I don’t have any real favorites. I enjoy all cuisines although I’m partial to Thai and Korean food,” said Boon.
That said, Boon incorporates his native Malaysian flavors such as lemongrass and fresh curry leaves into his food. A key feature of his kitchen is the cornucopia of produce grown on the restaurant’s farm in Gilroy about 80 miles south of San Francisco. Boon eagerly awaits seasonal vegetables such as pea shoots, Shanghai bok choy, herbs, and baby broccoli.
Boon also pays close attention to beverages from craft cocktails to fine wines. Haley Moore, his experienced, local sommelier presents a collection of wines from around the world to match the diverse courses of the meal. When asked about his plans for wine events, the chef replied, “Yes, we would love to do these [winemaker dinners or food and wine pairings] in the near future.”
The bar and tea lounge menu includes a plate of garlic stir-fried seasonal vegetables, fried rice with dried scallop and shrimp, and hand-pulled noodles with enoki, shiitake, and shimeji mushrooms, and fried rice with dried scallop, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. The “small eat” menu ranges from steamed zucchini-prawn dumplings to Iberico ham Shanghai Xiao long bao (dumplings).
In the main dining rooms, the servers know the prix fixe menu, the drinks, and how to seamlessly deliver the meal. During my mid-summer feast, freshness and a light touch in cooking were the keys. The clove-smoked baby pork ribs with plum sauce were far from cloying. I’m not usually a rib fan and yet I devoured Boon’s rendition to the bone. The crispy quail with chili-garlic in 20-year Huadiao wine were presented as light and crunchy without a hint of heaviness. I yearned for another serving of quail—but with menu at hand, I knew there were three more courses to arrive.
My choice for a cocktail for the first courses was a wise one. The Blue Rose with 14 Rum, lychee, rose syrup, baijiu, lemon, and sparkling wine arrived in a stunning turquoise color which matched the table décor and was mercifully not-too-sweet despite the addition of lychee which can overwhelm many drinks. Other popular cocktails include the Nanjing Cocktail featuring duck fat-washed Knob Creek Rye, plum, Sichuan bitters and the Empress at Sea with fino sherry.
The baked sea bass with sake honey, soy and egg white was the shining light of the star-studded evening. The fish arrived with dual sides, the pulled noodles and mushrooms and garlic stir-fried baby bok choy. The grilled rib eye with tofu in mala sauce was also excellent.
But alas, I may find neither of the mains on my next visit. “I enjoy cooking and trying out new dishes, so my menu will be ever changing,” said Boon. “I want to evolve the dishes with new presentations and ingredients that match my culinary perspective. Using Cantonese culinary techniques, my team and I preserve the natural flavors of food to create something distinctive and special for guests.”
The fall menu has featured crispy duck with pine nut and cloud ear mushroom. The mains offered grilled Alcatraz Island halibut and braised pork belly with Australian black truffle. Boon has implemented an à la carte option of Peking duck from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a fourth-generation producer in Pennsylvania.
The desserts currently on the menu are no doubt tantalizing. Among the mid-summer versions was a creative trio of Brillat Savarin cheesecake made with the French cheese, caramelized baby banana and banana and passionfruit sorbet. I was thankful the previous courses were relatively small which made full enjoyment of the desserts feasible.
Along with attention to quality on the plate, in the glass and the overall ambiance of the Empress, Boon has a vision for the Chinatown dining venue beyond a destination for out-of-towners and celebrations. “I hope that locals and visitors alike visit the restaurant to enjoy the experience and the Cantonese menu that will still be set at an approachable price point for a range of diners. We are confident we can provide a positive experience for diners while also contributing to the post-pandemic revitalization of the community.”
Feature photo by Jean Bai
Empress by Boon is located at 838 Grant Street, San Francisco, CA (415) 757-0728