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Home » First look inside Empress by Boon, the blockbuster S.F. Chinatown restaurant opening next week

First look inside Empress by Boon, the blockbuster S.F. Chinatown restaurant opening next week

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Empress by Boon is arguably the most splashy blockbuster of a restaurant opening to hit San Francisco since the pandemic began.

Occupying the top floor of the historic Empress of China banquet restaurant space at 838 Grant Ave. in Chinatown, the new 7,500-square-foot restaurant offers sweeping views of San Francisco and a stunning design to match. It opens June 18, with reservations largely booked up until July — even with a whopping 156 seats across multiple dining rooms, the tea lounge and the bar.

Ho Chee Boon, best known as the longtime executive chef of upscale international Chinese chain Hakkasan, is starting out with a $68 tasting menu — a way for Boon to introduce diners to his take on modern Cantonese dishes using unexpected ingredients.

It opens with a steamed shrimp dumpling topped with caviar — Boon generally loves the idea of serving higher end dim sum — and moves onto heartier fare like grilled rib eye with tofu and a Sichuan peppercorn-infused sauce, evoking mapo tofu.

Steamed shrimp dumplings with caviar will be on the opening prix-fixe menu at Empress by Boon.

Nick Otto/Special to The Chronicle

For the restaurant’s first month in business, diners must order the prix-fixe. After that, Boon plans to gauge diners’ reactions to develop a new menu — likely a mix of a la carte options and a seasonal prix-fixe. Boon will use organic produce such as pea shoots from Empress by Boon’s own 200-acre Gilroy farm, something the chef described as “a dream come true” and “the perfect way to offer a farm-to-table experience like no other in San Francisco.”

That said, Boon already has some ideas for dishes he wants to serve down the line. While not on the opening tasting menu, Peking duck is likely to be a staple of the restaurant, with ducks sourced from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a fourth-generation farm in Pennsylvania.

“The ducks we serve are specifically bred to have great natural favor and unmatched crispy skin with an ideal meat-to-fat ratio,” Boon said by email.

The crispy chicken with curry and milk at Empress by Boon in San Francisco.

The crispy chicken with curry and milk at Empress by Boon in San Francisco.

Nick Otto/Special to The Chronicle

Dishes won’t necessarily be strictly Chinese, either. Boon, who was born in Malaysia, plans to serve a spicy, peanut-laced beef salad inspired by shrimp paste-spiked snacks and fruit salads he grew up eating at street stalls. South Asian flavors inform a crispy chicken with curry and milk, heady with curry leaves, galangal and turmeric.

The space, designed by Atelier LLYS, features three distinct atmospheres to highlight different views of the city’s skyline. Royal blue curved booths are elevated along the north-facing windows, giving diners a striking look at Coit Tower. To the east, there’s a dining room surrounded by maroon, carved wood screens, with a chef’s prep table taking center stage.

The tea lounge, with plush seats and low tables, is contained within the same intricate wooden pergola that used to sit inside the original Empress of China. Restored fixtures from the former banquet restaurant are peppered throughout the space.

Empress by Boon opens June 18 in San Francisco, taking over the top floor of the legendary Empress of China space on Grant Avenue.

Empress by Boon opens June 18 in San Francisco, taking over the top floor of the legendary Empress of China space on Grant Avenue.

Nick Otto/Special to The Chronicle

Large banquet restaurants like the original Empress of China, which closed in 2014, have served as important gathering spaces for Chinatown’s many family associations, community organizations and cultural celebrations. But they’re expensive to maintain — and most have shuttered in recent years. Mister Jiu’s took over Four Seas in 2016. China Live and Eight Tables replaced Gold Mountain one year later. China Live owner George Chen included a banquet hall in his complex but said it was a losing game financially.

Some Chinatown organizations unsuccessfully fought Empress by Boon’s arrival, hoping to keep the legendary Empress space geared toward the people who live in Chinatown. But Boon hopes his activation of the space brings helpful energy to the neighborhood.

“I hope to continue the special location’s dining legacy with modern and approachable cuisine in an elegant, reimagined dining atmosphere,” Boon said. “I want to provide a positive contribution for the people of this great city that I love so dearly.”

Empress by Boon. Opening June 18. 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 838 Grant Ave., San Francisco. 415-757-0728 or theempresssf.com

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker

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