29505 W. Nine Mile Rd., Farmington Hills
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Just because it includes "basil intestines" and "pork stomach with celery," that doesn't mean you should shun everything else on an excellent authentic Chinese menu.
Though it's five years old, I've never seen Empire Dynasty on anyone's list of genuine Chinese restaurants in the area (where you find Shangri-La, Golden Harvest, Kai Garden and Hong Hua), but it belongs there. (Thanks to alert reader Mark Cooper for clueing me in; other readers, please do likewise.)
The owners and chef are from Shandong, an eastern coastal province that produced one of the eight traditional Chinese cuisines, and many of the dishes are from there. Shandong is known for its seafood, complex vinegars and de-emphasis on rice.
Their website is straightforward about the Empire's offerings: There's an "American menu," with the familiar almond chicken, egg foo young, even chop suey; you'll be brought that automatically if you're round-eyed. And there's the "Chinese menu," with English translations, which offers stomach and intestines cooked six ways but also such delights as steamed whitefish and Szechuan boiled fish. I would like to eat my way through all the 72 non-offal dishes on the Empire menu.
We're used to eating our fish fried, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we thereby miss out on what poaching can do, which is to concentrate the flavors. Asian steamed whitefish comes to your table simmering in a thin, salty garlic sauce, still cooking in its metal pan. The enormous fish is firm but soft, bones removed.
A very distinct variation is Szechuan-style boiled fish, a gorgeous dish of golden whitefish, in a crimson sauce sprinkled with bright green cilantro stems, seasoned with ginger and plenty of Chinese hot red peppers and prickly ash, the pungent tiny black berries also known as Sichuan pepper. My party agreed this was the best of our five dishes one evening.
There are 21 seafood dishes, featuring sea cucumber, clams, squid, shrimp, scallops and "Fish with Pickled Vegetables in a Pot." "Happy Family" is "All Seafood." For a special party, diners can pre-order live fish that will be sacrificed at the last moment.
Turning to birds and land animals, you'll find mutton with fennel seeds, chicken-style sweet and sour pork, and chicken with explosive chili pepper. Empire duck was our favorite on this list; though it's cooked very crisp, the interior loses none of its fatty lusciousness. Peking duck is also available.
Lamb with basil is cooked with quivery Chinese black mushrooms and big sprigs of the herb. It's hot, but much less so than the Szechuan fish, and you can, of course, ask for adjustments when you order.
I wanted noodles, and asked for zha jiang, which the waiter said was Korean. Manager Gina later explained that Shandong people who'd lived in Korea had adapted various of their dishes. There's a tableside show of mixing black bean sauce into the dark, thick wheat noodles with chopsticks, then cutting the noodles with scissors. All of Empire's noodles are house-made.
Zha jiang includes baby shrimp and onions but the overall flavor is strong and smoky, very satisfying, a winter dish.
A hearty vegetable dish is eggplant with ginger garlic sauce. The sauce is almost barbecue-like, and the eggplant, cut in strips, not rounds, retains a pleasing firmness, as the red and green peppers retain their crispness. The Chinese do wonders with eggplant; the Mandarin word qié zi (sounds like "chedze") is what people say when they smile for a photograph.
On the American menu, the dishes of most interest are labeled "fusion," handwritten on the inside cover. They all seem to feature fruit, in unusual ways. My friend asked for "Seafood Wonder," which was shrimp and scallops with asparagus — and strawberries — in a ginger blackberry sauce. Warm strawberries were an interesting touch, at least to try once. Sesame shrimp comes with water chestnuts and big florets of broccoli in a honey garlic sauce; it's quite sweet, with that familiar American-Chinese flavor as the under note.
Empire Dynasty is located in a strip mall that's seen better days, but inside it's decorated with dramatic pictures like downtown Hong Kong from the air and Colbert-style eagles swooping over the Great Wall. Service can be slow when tables are full, though it's certainly worth the wait. We saw tables of both Caucasians and Chinese, the latter seated around a big round table in the Chinese style.
Gina said that the Empire's chef has been cooking for 30 years, 15 of them in China, where he had a "top license." I asked if he preferred cooking in the American-Chinese style or one of the Chinese cuisines. The American style is easier, she said, whereas Chinese style is all "one for one cooking." I was admonished when I asked if my zha jiang noodles could be brought first, as an appetizer. "It's a big dish," the waiter said. "It takes time."