We never imagined we'd get to review the one restaurant chain in the city that needs no introduction. Beloved of families looking for a cosy shawarma dinner, as well as a byword for hard drinkers (so, everyone reading this?) for whom a night on the town is incomplete without a visit: truly, the sun never sets on this Empire. This year, this cult restaurant celebrates its 50-year anniversary with a brand-new restaurant - its eighteenth! - in JP Nagar. Curious to see how it re-imagines itself for 2018, we set out to investigate.
Raja Ravi (Sha)warma
Like other Empire outlets in the city, this one’s brand-new fairy-lit facade can be spotted from way down the road. What may have begun as a modest aesthetic choice remains a beacon in the dark to the bleary, hungry and inebriated. The other reassuringly familiar feature is the supreme detachment of the waitstaff, who are more consumed by their phones than anything you may have to say.
A take-out counter dominates the first floor, where an impressive rotisserie displays rows of whole chickens, licked by blue flame. The carnivore in us needs no other welcome. We proceed to the dining area upstairs, minimal and self-assured in its design: exactly the sort of space you expect from a classic where the food is the atmosphere. It’s a curious sort of reverse-engineering of décor, because the Indiranagar flagship has a vibe that can only be described as Gulf chic.
Empire’s shawarma, even if half the size of any other self-respecting Bangalore shawarma, remains the most popular item on the menu. The roll is so thin, it may as well be a spring roll; the filling, shredded cabbage and onion in spicy mayo, is studded with shreds of chicken. It is by no means a generous portion, but the meat is perfectly grilled, with just the right ratio of charred-to-tender.
For us, the full Empire experience is incomplete without their butter chicken and ghee rice. (In a shockingly attentive moment, our server even pauses to ask us if we’d like boneless or bone-in.) This curious combination of a Kerala specialty and a Punjabi invention is probably the most obvious culinary metaphor there is for the melting pot that is Bangalore. Perhaps inevitably, the butter chicken leaves much to be desired; but the ghee rice, oh the ghee rice. Kaima, short grained, soft and fluffy is cooked to be just the right amount of buttery: to eat it is to feel the sunshine of Malabar on your face: a testament to Empire’s North Kerala roots.
Departing from our standard beverage order of ThumsUp, we ask for fresh lime soda (not sweet), and wave at the treadmill hamsters in the gym across the street, silently celebrating our mutually divergent but equally adult life choices.
Empire’s best, its grilled chicken, we save for last. It comes with a vile cinnamon- and clove-infused tomato sauce that must be avoided at all costs. With ribbons of pickled red onions strewn artfully over the dish, and a small heaping on the side of chilli powder mixed with salt, the meat itself is heaven in a plate of hell chicken or “naraka kozhi,” as it is called in Kerala. With beautifully burnished chilli-stained red skin, and pearly white meat beneath, this is the crown jewel of Empire: the Bangalore version of a Sunday roast. JP Nagar has fallen to the best kind of conquest.
Getting there: 5th Phase, Ayodya Nagar, 5th Phase, Annaiah Reddy Layout, JP Nagar, Bengaluru, Karnataka 560078. Timings: 12:00 PM-1:00 AM. Meal for two costs Rs. 600.
Accessibility: One short flight of stairs.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
This review was contributed by Aysha Tanya, food writer and co-founder of The Goya Journal.
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