A little less than a month ago I was invited to a special menu tasting at Imperia, a sushi lounge downtown I’ve heard about but somehow had never visited, despite my never-ending obsession with sushi. A group of Austin food writers (myself included) was treated to a lavish multi-course dinner, and I have to say it was a pretty amazing introduction to what Imperia’s menu has to offer these days. Let me tell you, it’s more than your basic sushi rolls.
Note: I meant to get this post up earlier, but all my traveling has caused me to get a little behind. Anyway, better late than never, and my lateness in no way implies that our meal at Imperia wasn’t glorious!
You’ll have to excuse the photo quality – the lighting was really dim (which made for a sultry atmosphere, but tough for taking pictures) and I had only brought my old iPhone instead of an actual camera. Annnywayyy just imagine this food without a flash and in a dim, romantic setting. Okay? Okay.
Our first taste was more of a playful amuse bouche than a course of actual food: frou-frou tequila jelly shots served in spoons. Since I happen to be a fan of Jell-O shots in general, I was diggin’ it. They were definitely very tequila-y but I’m not sure if you could count them as an alcoholic “beverage” or not?
We started out the actual food portion of the night with a trendy brussels sprout dish, somewhat similar to the famous East Side King menu item. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with brussels sprouts as far as I’m concerned, especially in a recipe with an Asian flair. Into it.
Next up was a lovely (and giant!) platter of sushi to share. Now, sushi is what I always thought of when I heard the name “Imperia” so I was interested to see how it measured up to the other sushi hotspots downtown.
I’m happy to report that everything we tried was tasty and fresh! Their fanciest, most Americanized specialty roll was the Hot Lips Roll: a California roll with escolar and spicy garlic miso. (By the way, when I call a roll “Americanized” I don’t mean that as an insult – I think there’s room for everything from traditional Japanese maki and sashimi to super saucy American fusion rolls in this country!) That roll right in front is what I always called a Vegas Roll in my years of slingin’ sushi in Seattle: tempura fried unagi (freshwater eel) and cream cheese drizzled in sweet-spicy teriyaki sauce. Imperia calls this a Bank Roll, though. Tomato, tomahto. Either way it was sweet and indulgent. My favorites were probably the simple salmon sashimi “rose” in the middle of the platter and the basic hamachi (yellowtail) maki. So fresh!
We tried one more sushi dish, the Red, White and Bleu: snapper sashimi with yuzu bleu cheese and bacon apple marmalade. Now, I know what I just said about Americanized sushi being okay in my book, but I’d never had sushi combined with blue cheese before and I was slightly skeptical of this one – but you know what, it was really good! I would definitely order this again.
Our main dish was sight to behold: an entire Thai snapper with Thai soba salad and Thai cabbage slaw. This bad boy is marinated in Thai spices for 48 hours and then deep fried until crispy. Normally I’m not a fan of fried things but the coating on this was so light and non-greasy that I really didn’t mind. You eat the snapper by cutting/scraping out chunks of its meat with your fork, chopsticks, or hands, so it was really easy to pull off the fried skin if you wanted to.
Not gonna lie – this snapper looks totally freaky. I mean, it still had its eyes and TEETH! Yiiiiikes! It was so, so good though. Once I got the first bite of fish in my mouth, I forgot about its freaky face. The rest of the gigundo cutting board was covered in fresh lime wedges, fresh cucumber, sambal chili, marinated cherry tomatoes, and fried basil leaves among other things. OH, and the sauces! The chef brought out about a million sauces, all brilliant. If you love Thai food, you know that the magic of Thai is the fact that its flavors balance salty, sweet, spicy, and sour… It was so fun to craft the perfect bite.
The sides were winners too, especially the cabbage slaw. I ate about three servings for that. I’m a huge cole slaw fanatic, though.
One thing to note: the whole Thai snapper is not available on Imperia’s regular menu, but if you call ahead and talk to the manager the kitchen will be happy to whip it up for your group as long as they have some advance notice.
We ended the evening on a sweet (but not too sweet) note with some housemade elderflower popsicles. They really hit the spot because we were all stuffed from the insanely huge board of fish and accouterments. Having just a light little ice pop was a nice way to top off the meal.
I definitely have fond memories of our night at Imperia. Now that I’ve experienced its diverse offerings and lush, trendy atmosphere for myself, Imperia has been added to my mental list of swanky sushi places to eat at downtown before a night out. If all that food didn’t convince you, just look at this chandelier!