Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
Imperia confuses Austinites with its delicious and disgusting fancy Asian-food offerings
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., April 25, 2008
Imperia310 Colorado, 472-6770
Monday-Thursday, 4pm-12mid; Friday, 4pm-1am; Saturday, 5:30pm-1am; Sunday, 5:30pm-12mid
Located in the very heart of the Warehouse District, Imperia opened last fall to quite a bit of fanfare. The space it occupies was completely remodeled by designers Dick Clark and Joel Mozersky, and the end result is truly gorgeous. Black, cream, and chrome combine to create a dining room that is austere without being cold and elegant without feeling formal. Drama is achieved through understatement, and the effect is both bracing and soothing, like a perfect cocktail.
Ahhhh, cocktails: This is where Imperia excels. The cocktail menu is inventive, and the cocktails themselves are compellingly good. The raspberry-lychee martini ($9), adorned with a fresh raspberry-stuffed lychee fruit, sparkles with the tiniest of ice flakes and is delicately restorative. The Asian pear martini ($9), a lovely chartreuse color with a circular slice of fresh Asian pear floating within, is slightly sweeter but equally unique, and the ginger mojito ($9) exemplifies the fusion concept perfectly, the ginger adding a spicy note to the cold tartness of the Cuban favorite. Imperia has a discriminating and appropriate wine list, but the cocktails fascinate and are remembered days later with longing.
Both dim sum and small plates are offered as appetizers, and the portions are comparable. The Sea Bass Kushiyaki Skewer ($13), recommended by our server, was outstanding: soft, perfectly cooked sea bass, marinated and grilled with a sweet miso-based glaze. The Firecracker Shrimp ($9) were also a favorite, the crisply fried shrimp wrapped in lettuce leaves and served with a sublime fresh-citrus dipping sauce. The yuzu-crusted oysters ($12) were acceptable but unremarkable and rather small, but the Thai chicken satay ($8), made entirely of rubbery dark meat with an imperceptible curry, was actually dreadful. The appetizers covered the entire range of merit, from heavenly to unpalatable, and this pattern continued throughout the meal.
Entrées at Imperia are generously portioned, so much so that most can be comfortably split. I had my heart set on the shrimp and lobster pad thai ($34), and I was not disappointed. There were lovely huge chunks of lobster and enormous shrimp, and all the ingredients of this complex dish were melded together in a perfect balance. The Imperia Dragon Rib ($29), highly recommended by our server, was the hit of the table. This gigantic braised beef rib was so tender that it could be eaten with chopsticks, and the flavor was extremely savory and rich. It was without exception the best beef rib I have ever tasted. The Korean rib eye ($29) was perfectly grilled, and the wok-flashed chive blossoms that accompanied it were an ideal complement. Our particular rib eye steak was, unfortunately, cut on the thin side and unpleasantly gristly; less than half of it was edible.
For vegetables, we tried the eggplant and the long beans. The Hot and Sour Japanese Eggplant ($7) was delightful: julienned eggplant, sautéed to crisp perfection in a tangy and fiery sauce. It would make a convert of the most hardened eggplant hater. The Thai long beans with pork cracklins ($9) were the opposite of delightful: withered and chewy, with an off flavor. We sent them back, and they were replaced, but from the same batch. The server gets points for trying to fix the problem, but on a busy weekend night, the problem couldn't really be fixed.
For dessert, we tried the banana cake, the Yin Yang Pots de Crème, and the Molten Chocolate Cake. After stuffing ourselves so ridiculously, the desserts would have had to be veritable works of genius to get our attention ... and, happily, they were!
The Pots de Crème ($7), served with coconut cookies, were white chocolate ginger and wasabi chocolate, and both were velvety, rich, and amazing. The hint of ginger in the white chocolate and the hint of wasabi in the dark chocolate were just sufficient to enhance the flavors. The Molten Chocolate Cake ($8) was achingly, bitterly chocolate and served with a scoop of house-made fresh coconut ice cream. Nevertheless, the banana cake (again, recommended by our server) was hands down the winner. The cake is steamed rather than baked, giving it a light, moist texture. Topped with the fresh coconut ice cream and crumbled coconut cookies, it was superlative. We completely finished all three desserts, even though we were no longer even remotely hungry. They were that good.
The service, in all areas and at every moment, was first-rate. It is truly a stellar staff. From the hostess to the server to the bartender, all were not only friendly but genuine and extremely knowledgeable, as well.
The fact that some of the dishes were unsatisfactory didn't ruin the evening, as we were all sharing and tasting each dish. But the unevenness of the quality goes a long way to explain why many Austinites adore Imperia and others are less than thrilled. As it happened, the same member of our party ordered the chicken satay, the long beans, and the rib eye, and had she been condemned to eating only what she personally ordered, certainly she would never return. I ordered the sea bass, the Firecracker Shrimp, and the pad thai, and if I had sampled only my own choices, I would have thought, equally mistakenly, that Imperia was perfection itself.
Competition is fierce is the restaurant business, and the stakes go up as you ascend the price scale. When folks are laying out serious bucks, there is an expectation of excellence. If that expectation is disappointed often enough, the resulting word of mouth can break an otherwise superior establishment. Imperia is a worthy restaurant, deserving of lasting success; without greater attention to consistency, it may elude them.