RED BANK: MIXED ASIAN AMID ROMANCE

122314 oriental3Thick Japanese style udon noodles and a tender steak entree served on a fun, wonky-shaped plate. Below, waitress Yuki explained not only the vast menu offerings but the story of the wall mural. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

By SUSAN ERICSON

122314 oriental1An ancient Chinese myth full of romance and heartbreak is the theme of murals gracing two walls at Oriental Empire, a recent addition to the Red Bank dining scene in English Plaza.

Found amid the murals of the Seven Sisters and the glowing stars, there are earthy wooden tables, stools at a counter with a view of the parking lot, a flat screen TV in one corner and a large hibachi grill.

Like the contradictory decor, the menu also offers choices to suit a myriad of tastes. True to the restaurant name, the food – while decidedly Asian –  is not specific to one country or ethnicity. Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Indian influences can all be found here, and some of the dishes seem to be a fusion of the different styles and cultures, like the starter of samosas that we shared.

122314 oriental5Oriental Empire’s front counter. Below, the Sticky Rice Pudding dessert. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

122314 oriental2Six crispy, non-traditional wonton-wrapped, spicy green pea-flecked, potato filled dumplings served with a soothing curry-laced coconut milk dipping sauce were a tantalizing and unexpected starter. Added to the delight of such a delicious menu option was the price: $5 for a fresh-made gourmet appetizer is quite the bargain.

Hop-scotching around the menu to try as many different variations on a theme as possible in one meal, we ordered the House Special Chow Udon, a definite Japanese dish, and the Royal Steak, a Cantonese.

Big, fat wheat-based udon noodles, usually found in a brothy soup bowl at Japanese restaurants, were given a lo mein-meets-hibachi treatment. A mountain of slurpable noodles, mixed in with green onions, egg, slivers of roast pork, chicken and big shrimp came in a bowl that was more than enough for two people. Filling and comforting, this is a perfect cold weather lunch or dinner item.

Tender slices of strip steak in the Royal Steak dish were more traditionally Chinese. Served with plenty of fresh mushrooms and sweet baby spinach in a non-cloying oyster sauce, it was succulent alternative to the many spicy dishes offered. The steak dish and the udon noodles, both around $13, are budget friendly in both cost and portion size.

There are several dessert choices on the menu at Oriental Empire, and one not to be missed, especially during the holidays, according to our waitress Abby, is the Sticky Rice Pudding. This unique amalgam of not-too-sweet sticky rice is topped with red bean paste, sweet walnuts and lotus beans. A taste sensation of unusual texture, this dish might take some getting used to. And yet, we found ourselves making plans that same night for our next visit, mixing cultural flavors in our heads and hoping to try the Thai specialties along with the up-scale Chef’s Suggestions on the menu.

Oriental Empire has an online ordering service at its website to expedite takeout pick-ups.

SUSAN-ERICSON