When considering a romantic San Francisco restaurant, is Empress by Boon on your list of choices? If not, then maybe it should, and maybe even at the top of your list. After all, none other than the 2022 California Michelin Guide lists this Chinatown restaurant among the Bay Area’s most romantic restaurants. What’s more, that same Michelin Guide also includes it among the Best Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco. With all this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Empress by Boon is led by its namesake Michelin starred chef Ho Chee Boon. To that end, it may be time for you to look at this restaurant a bit closer.
About Empress by Boon
838 Grant Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Occupying the space of the landmark Empress of China, Empress by Boon has been open for a little more than year. However, interest here was immediate and sustained, knowing that Ho Chee Boon was leading this modern Cantonese restaurant. That’s due to a masterful culinary career that stretches more than three decades. Indeed, he is best known as the esteemed international executive chef of Michelin star restaurant Hakkasan.
Chef Hoo Chee Boon and Hakkasan
Chef Boon was at the helm when Hakkasan first opened in 2001 in London. By 2003, Hakkasan became the first Chinese restaurant to earn a Michelin star in Great Britain. Additional Michelin stars were eventually bestowed upon Hakkasan Mayfair and Hakkasan New York. In addition, Hakkasan has been ranked among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants several times. Today, Hakkasan operates multiple restaurants worldwide, as well as a high profile nightclub at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Empress by Boon Economic Boost To Chinatown
In like manner was the re-opening of a popular spot that was known for hosting banquets and special events for nearly 50 years. Indeed, the opening of Empress by Boon also represented the economic reemergence of a historic San Francisco neighborhood. Equally important is that Chef Boon’s restaurant also holds a banquet area that harkens back memories of a time when banquet halls were thriving in America’s oldest Chinatown. Lastly, the broader appeal of this restaurant are of course, the chef and his cuisine. In fact, Chef Ho Chee Boon is incredibly modest and gracious, despite having a Michelin award-winning background. Equally impressive is how the friendly, Malaysian-born chef engages with many of his guests.
Chinatown Location and View
Empress by Boon is literally in the heart of Chinatown, on lively Grant Street between Washington and Clay Streets. In fact, historic Portsmouth Square, the social center of San Francisco Chinatown is right next door. The fresh produce on Stockton Street is just one block away, with Old Saint Mary’s and Dragon Gate further down on Grant Street. While the location is understandably important, the views from the sixth level restaurant are stellar. In fact, the view is part of what makes Empress by Boon a romantic Bay Area restaurant. The most prominent structure you can see from the restaurant is clearly Coit Tower. However, you can also catch glimpses of the San Francisco Bay as well.
Service and Hospitality
As one would expect from a restaurant led by a Michelin starred chef, the service and hospitality is phenomenal. Assisting Chef Ho Chee Boon is an elite staff that includes pastry chef Rory MacDonald, whose resume includes Hakkasan and Gordon Ramsay. One of the first staff members you’re likely to meet is general manager James Minch, previously with Michelin starred Spruce. Leading the beverages services are sommelier Haley Moore and bar manager Emily Parian. Not only is the management team top flight. but the servers are well versed in the menu and drink options. Of course the servers are quite friendly as are the bussers.
Empress by Boon Ambiance and Décor
In a completely reimagined space designed by UK-based Atelier LLYS, the restaurant space is stunning. The obvious centerpiece is the original wooden pergola from Empress of China. An enormous structure with a skylight, this area alternately operates as a tearoom and bar lounge. The surrounding décor is a blend of modern furnishing amid the original carved wood panels. Just past the tearoom and stylish bar is the expansive dining area. Here you will find a number of seating configurations, including spots for couples, party of four and larger groups. Accompanying the sophisticated furnishings are nearly floor to ceiling windows and Asian-themed artwork. In all, Empress by Boon encompasses 7,500 square feet.
Bar, Tea and Coffee Service
Empress by Boon features a lavish full bar available for premium wine and spirits and crafted cocktails. More than 20 wines are available by glass, with selections primarily from the California Wine Country and Europe. Equally important are more than 150 wines by the bottle, including selections from the Bordeaux wine region. For instance, a 1999 Mouton Rothchild Pauillac is on the wine list as is the 24th Edition of Krug Rosé. Craft cocktails start at $15 and feature intriguing names like “Between Heaven and Earth” and “Terminus”. Among your tea and coffee options are Jasmine Tea, Formosa Oolong, espresso and French Press.
Current Menu Highlights
The current prix fixe menu is available for $98 per person and features eight modern Cantonese dishes. However, the menu is subject to change as Chef Boon develops additional lavish dishes. With the current menu, you can also order a supplemental dish, Pipa Duck for an additional $48. Optional wine pairing is available for $60 and a choice of desserts are approximately $18 each.
Summer Truffle Puff
The Summer Truffle Puff is the first dish you will have. That is, of course, unless Chef Boon crafts a surprise amuse-bouche for you. Be that as it may, you will find the Summer Truffle Puff to be an exceptionally tasty introduction. In fact, many past guests have said this dish was among their favorites of their dinner.
Crispy Tiger Prawn
With the Crispy Tiger Prawn, you will enjoy traditional Cantonese flavors with a modern twist. It comes with a lathering of sesame vinegar and sits atop a slice of watermelon. Despite its small size, you can still enjoy two or maybe three bites from the dish. The recommendation is to try a bit of the watermelon, before sampling the tiger prawn.
Steamed Shrimp and Squid Dumplings
There is a good chance you have never had dumplings like these standout creations from Chef Boon. Although dumplings are a staple food in China, Chef Boon has a delicious and yes, humorous version of his own. In this case, you will see one dumpling with squid-like colors and the other with shrimp colors. Each of these have an accompaniment resembling eyes, while the other end resembles tentacles. Of course, both are delicious but make sure to try some of the broth for added flavor.
Grilled Alaskan Black Cod
Another favorite dish from Empress by Boon’s current menu is the Grilled Alaskan Black Cod. Cooked to Michelin-like perfection, it comes with cauliflower, along with soya, honey and walnut. As a result, you may be among many past customers who say this was among the evening’s top highlights. By the way, the fresh organic cauliflower comes from the restaurant’s farm in Gilroy.
New England Lobster
In terms of presentation, the New England Lobster was the finest, alongside the Summer Truffle Puff. That’s because like the dumplings, you likely haven’t had a lobster dish like Chef Boon’s. In more detail, you will have a bite sized portion of the lobster. However, in addition is the head of the lobster complete with one antenna and garnish accents. Moreover, this lobster dish also stood out on its own for its distinctive flavors. For this dish, you will need to use the smaller fork and a knife to pull out the lobster meat. By all means, you should find the lobster exceptionally delicious.
Braised Crispy Short Ribs
This dish arrived at the same time as the final two dishes, Sugar Snap Peas and Dried Scallop & Peanut Rice. In other words, you try each of these dishes together, while placing portions on a separate dish. The short ribs are superb as are the other two complementary dishes. Like the Black Cod, the ribs were expertly prepared and soft and tender. This trio of dishes are so good, they should please even the most finicky of San Francisco gourmands.
Pipa Duck (Supplement $48)
By all means, you should order the add-on dish Pipa Duck. As long as it fits your evening’s budget and your appetite, it will most definitely be a highlight. After all, it’s a signature dish of Chef Ho Chee Boon, with premium slices of fatty duck meat. That’s not to mention how beautiful the chef has created this delicacy. On the other hand, those aforementioned finicky diners might question why this dish is priced as it is. At this point, you can ask for more details from your knowledgable server. Please note that this dish does not appear on the online menu.
About The Author
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer who served as the National Travel Writer for CBS from 2012-2019. More than 900 of his stories still appear in syndication across 23 CBS websites, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. During his peak years with CBS, Randy had a reported digital audience reach of 489 million and 5.5 million monthly visitors. Additionally, his stories have appeared in the Daily Meal, CBS News, CBS Radio, Engadget and Radio.com. He earned a Media Fellowship from Stanford University in 2012.