JAN 13, 2014 – I don’t know much about the history of the Empire Diner other than what Wikipedia tells me, but it appears to have been a mostly-beloved Chelsea institution that’s lived, died and been reborn a few times since it opened in the 40s. This time around, Amanda Freitag is breathing new life into the space more than three years after its doors last closed. It’s also a new start in Manhattan for Freitag, marking her return to the restaurant business after a hiatus that’s included a ton of TV that’s likely to pay dividends in the form of copious crowds of eager clientele.
The doors re-opened on January 7th, so a few days later I decided to check it out with a few friends on a Sunday night. Empire doesn’t currently take reservations, so we put our name down for dinner and fifteen minutes later were seated (don’t expect that to last). What follows is a rundown of our meal.
The menu is filled with familiar diner favorites, some being riffed on more than others. Our first appetizer starred charred octopus served with the ubiquitous greek salad with cucumber, feta and mint. Definitely a fresh start to the meal, the salad isn’t any great departure from the usual flavor profile but does have some tasty, tender octopus that isn’t overly charred (a pet peeve of mine).
Next up came the cripsy skate wings wrapped around a salad of carrot and celery ribbons dressed with creme fraiche. This dish struck me as a a really successful take on buffalo wings, with a really familiar hot sauce and light, creamy salad. The fish was nicely cooked, but probably could have been a bit crispier if I’m getting picky. The obvious element omitted from the dish was blue cheese, which would have certainly added more depth. That said, I’m not entirely sure I missed it.
My favorite dish of the night was the oyster pan roast, a creamy delight in which you’ll find poached oysters, pieces of tender pork belly, potatoes and pumpernickel two ways (soaked and crouton-form). As rich as this should have been, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its balance — the pork belly was used judiciously, the plentiful chives helped add some welcome green and each bite satisfied without overwhelming.
Some quick notes on this one:
– Would have loved more soft pumpernickel to soak up saucy leftovers. The crouton does add texture and still needs to be there, but this dish screams bread mop
– Found a small bit of oyster shell
– Hit the table warm rather than hot due to some timing issues in the kitchen (it’s early days, so I don’t expect this to be an issue in a week or two)
We also ordered a Patty Melt because you kinda have to at a place like this. While you could argue that a chef doesn’t really need to tweak the original, I thought this might have played it a little safe. Was this everything you want in a patty melt? Pretty much, but I didn’t think the caramelized onions gave it a strong enough twist. I’ve had almost this exact same burger with caraway rye bread (Rose & Sons in Toronto), and would highly recommend it. We ended up adding some of the excellent ketchup from our fish & chips and found that gave it a really nice extra dimension.
Speaking of those fish & chips, this version of the hake variety felt right. Great batter, flaky fish, and a solid serving of fries and tartar sauce. Another very literal interpretation of the standard, but in this case I can’t and don’t want to argue with the result.
Alongside our mains, we also wanted to order the roasted brussels sprouts with chili jam. As a rule of thumb, I order a side of brussels sprouts with most meals, and I recommend you adopt that same practice at Empire Diner. Chili jam is a fantastic addition that when tossed with the hot brussels sprouts seems to liquify a bit and seep in between the individual leaves of each sprout. What you’re left with is a juicy combo of roasted, spicy, sweet and acidic flavors that can only be described as addictive.
We finished the night with one dessert and three spoons. All desserts are made in-house (save the ice cream brought in from Il Laboratorio del Gelato), so we decided to give the black and white cheesecake a try. It was a decent cheesecake, but probably the most pedestrian taste of the night. Not particularly light or rich or flavorful, just unfortunately decent.
(this pickled vegetable martini is great by the way!)
Having been open only a few days, I think Empire Diner’s off to a great start. There’s a clear direction, some dishes I’d already call standouts and the potential to further explore and elevate more diner favorites. There are still some early kinks, but they’re all part of the process and shouldn’t deter you at all from checking it out before the crowds discover it.
Best Bite(s): Brussels Sprouts with Chili Jam, Oyster Pan Roast, Skate Wings, Fish & Chips