.Best Local Chinese Food Monarch: Empress M

Premium Napa wines have long been enjoyed in China, so it’s only fair that gourmet Chinese cuisine finally arrived in Napa, thanks to entrepreneur and visionary, Margaret Wong, and her executive chef, Peter Huang. Yes, for ages there have been Chinese restaurants in Napa. But there has never been a Chinese restaurant in Napa as extraordinary as Empress M, which features eight distinct regional cuisines. That would be like a single U.S. restaurant offering food in the style of New Orleans, New England, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, the Deep South, California and Tex-Mex. Empress M offers food from Canton, Szechuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Hunan, Fujian, Jiangsu and Hui. Remember folks, China is larger than the U.S., with more than one-and-a-half billion mouths to feed and regional dishes for every taste.

Empress M is a theme restaurant that’s built around the life and legend of Wu Zetian, the only woman who ever ruled China during the Tang Dynasty. You can’t help but learn about Chinese history and culture while you eat at the Empress, where Wu Zetian herself is at the center of the mural in the VIP room, where Thomas Megna seated Rachel Kohn Obut, a Napa farmer, her fifteen-month old daughter, Arya, and I, once I explained I came from the Bohemian. Megna helped us order six dishes from the more than two-dozen items on the menu, which include spectacular dim sum, elegant small plates like crispy walnut shrimp and amazing dishes like Peking roast duck that’s served with steamed buns, cucumber, scallions and sweet soy paste.

If I were to name the 10 best restaurants in Northern California, Empress M would be near the top of the list. You can eat indoors or outdoors. You can take your time, as we did, sipping one of the many Chinese teas, then begin your meal with potstickers before moving on to spicy Szechuan calamari, and if you’re adventurous you can try the “wood ear salad” that’s made with black and silver mushrooms. The menu is in Chinese and in English. Children are welcome. The wait staff is friendly. The steamed rice is tasty. Thomas Megna, who created the concept for the restaurant, is a fount of information about nearly everything Chinese, and deserves credit for helping to “bridge the food gap” between the U.S. and the nation that gave the world the Great Wall, gunpowder, printing, silk & wontons.—JR

Empress M, 221 Silverado Trail, Napa. 707.927.5485. www.empressm.us

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