Empire Chinese Kitchen - Portland, ME

Marti stumbled onstage.  Upon touching the polished wood his thick-soled prescription shoes let out a hideous squark. Draped in an ill-fitting suit, his shirt half-un-tucked, his tie askew and a distinct mustard stain on the crotch of his black pants he turned to the audience with a mole-like squint.

            The audience roared. Nearly one hundred thousand of them were packed into the stadium to see Marti perform. The house lights had come down and only the varnished brown stage, Marti and his instrument were lit. Camera flashes popped from the darkness of the crowd. Marti sneezed wetly into his tie and then scratched his boat-like posterior.

            To say that Marti moved with ungainly slowness would be an affront to both words. He was a hoving slug of a man. His instrument lay across the stage, glinting like a dentist’s tools under the harsh spotlights. Upon reaching center stage, Marti got tangled in his own feet and toppled like a warm tower of cheese. Instantaneously, a severe, black-suited man with commanding eyebrows appeared from the wings and helped Marti to his feet. The clapping had died to just a thunderous din, hoarse voices shouting Marti’s name from every nook and cranny of the packed amphitheater.

            Upon getting Marti upright, the severe man melted into the wings.

            Marti’s skin had a sickly pale sheen of grease. After wobbling to some sort of steady standing position, he flashed his teeth at the audience. They were tiny, each with ample breathing room in its space in Marti’s gums. At Marti’s direct recognition of the assembled crowd, pandemonium took hold.

            Marti waved a grotesque claw of a hand, nails yellow and long, and the top nearly blew off the place.

It was time for Marti to perform.

            Marti took what seemed to be his first steps in the direction of his instrument. His hands shook and sweat had formed two black half moons beneath his arms. Like the visible stink that emanated from Marti’s ovoid frame, the giddy anticipation in the place was palpable. They had come for Marti, and here, in all his glory, Marti was.

            With a languishing plop, Marti lay himself on the cold metal of his instrument. Its seat was form fitted to fit Marti’s ungainly proportions.

If one expected — finally seated in his instrument — an eerie calm to descend on Marti’s stricken, shaking face, they would be wrong. He continued to fidget and generally look miserably nervous. Something appeared horribly wrong. Yet the audience seemed either not to notice or actively love Marti’s discomfort, because as soon as his ghastly rump touched the shining metal of his instrument’s seat, the collective roar became a howling typhoon.

            Marti lay there, bathing awkwardly in the adulation of the audience as the severe man appeared again. He lifted a colander-like apparatus from behind the instrument and placed it on Marti’s grease-slicked head.

At last his fidgeting ceased. The instrument began to hum and the audience dove into a buzzing silence.

            From its center, the chair and Marti himself began to let off a hazy glow. Slowly, steadily the instrument began to pulse with ethereal light. The audience fell completely silent and their faces were illuminated into glowing ovals of anticipation. Marti’s torso, or the region just above it, shook with a terrible violent whiteness before disappearing. Marti and the chair had vanished.

The audience gasped. But then, beneath their exclamations and whispered excitement, a low note pierced the turmoil.

It was beautiful.

            The note rose and snaked its sibilant way through the air, as if sung for each individual specifically. Simply one note blanketed the stadium, immaculate in its pitch and timbre. It made you feel heavy, pushed down into your seat with the beauty of it. As the note trailed off and the stillness of the theatre was nearly complete, the visions exploded into view.

            Pure thought made manifest: primal views of the neuron’s potential, not of a specific idea but of the kernel of an idea, not a happy vision but a vision of happiness incarnate. Sights, with now glorious sounds emanating from them, glittered on the stage and with each pulse of their unthinkable shape ruined the crowd with the ecstasy of their presence.

            Marti’s mind had made this. This shifting, coagulation of joy that now entranced the entire audience and millions watching remotely. There was no execution by Marti involved. Pure and simply put, these were the potential of Marti’s thoughts. A vision into the unknown realm of could, where the power of his untapped dreams were allowed to escape.

            At first, many tried to play the instrument, including men of incredible caliber and executional skill in every other realm of life. Piano grandmasters, writers, doctors and the highest-minded physicists all had tried their hand at it. But what the instrument amplified was not execution, but the opposite. So those with little, those losers, those outcasts, those good-for-nothings found that their talents far outstripped society’s elite. Beauty sprung from barren soil, not fertile ground. In other words, the machine ran on potential, not execution.

            Tears of joy painted the audience's cheeks. Spouses hugged, children held their parents clothes, lovers squeezed each other’s thighs, all sobbing and laughing at the purity of an emotion so perfectly raw. Like transposition into the very heart of both their sweetest nostalgia and highest triumph, the people were engulfed in the sight and sound that Marti’s mind expelled. The tones were more meaningful than any instrument plucked or blown. The sights were more arresting than the birth of a first child or the naked back of a newfound love. There was no Marti and the audience during the nearly three-hour show. It was simply individuals by themselves, alone with not what they thought they wanted but with what they needed at a fundamental level. Marti presented them with what they had been denied by the very structure of their minds: purity, clarity and unmitigated happiness. And it was not a cheap empty happiness but a lasting appreciation of the full, tragic beauty of our brief station on this floating rock and the significance and impossibility of us all being here at this exact point in time, striving valiantly — together and alone — to find meaning in nothing.

            At last, the stage went silent. Every member of the audience sat mute, basking in the afterglow of their mutually departed bliss. Marti lay in his chair, fidgeting, sweat ringing his waist and crotch. The severe man slipped beside him and removed the helmet. With ungainly gyrations, Marti wiggled himself out of his seat. The crowd remained in stunned silence as Marti wobbled to the center of the stage. Marti bowed, revealing an ominously dark stain on the seat of his pants. A mile away, a flock of crows were startled from a pine tree at the explosion of cheers.

            A retinue of security guards rose from below the stage, holding the frothing masses back. Marti hobbled away from the instrument, now lying inert and sodden. He only fell once before disappearing behind the silk curtains of the stage.





Well-prepared and flavorful, this is Empire’s strong suit. The dishes each have a unique feel and match their price in terms of sophistication. Really great stuff.


Early in the Month

It’s not expensive, per se. But it won’t be your go-to spot when the well is starting to run dry.


Wood Enthusiast

Wood, bamboo, other types of carbon. A spare, cohesive space with just enough decoration to give it an authentically hip feel. Very nice job.


The Catch

This is what spawned the review. In its raw, conceptual form, Empire is everything you want: great Chinese fare, cool atmosphere, reasonably-ish priced. In execution, it all falls apart. I’ve been to Empire at least five times in trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, every single time I’ve been there something has gone wrong. My first experience was of being stranded by the bar without service for a two-hour meal in which my appetizer of choice ran out after I had ordered it. Second time was much the same as the first, much waiting by the window seats. Third time I tried sitting in the main dining area and there was literally an aphid in one of my dining-mate’s noodles. Fourth and fifth were a bit better but still included basic misses like not getting utensils before our food, long waits, missing servers and water that stayed empty the whole meal. I don’t want you to think of this as purely the servers’ fault, it’s not. This seems like a fundamental flaw in Empire’s very structure. Something needs to be worked out with either the food preparation or the communication, because as it stands, food takes way too long and is way too inconsistent. I want to like Empire so much because the food and ambience are so great, but there is no escaping the vortex of unhappiness that has been my experience dining in.



I’m not going to say skip it, because I know it’s great. I didn’t even mention the concert venue upstairs, which is also awesome. Empire is a great place it just really needs to get its act together before I go in there to eat again.