Filler Cosmopolitan Chow

Empire Café & Lounge Is A Downtown Delight.
By Rebecca Cook

THE FIRST WORD I had on the Empire, a recent addition to the downtown dining scene located in the former State Theatre, was that it was a trendy, happening place to sip cocktails at sundown.

Chow I thus approached this review experience with trepidation; catching the latest bar scene is definitely not my style.

What I discovered at the Empire, however, is a restaurant that has as many different personalities as there are hours in the day. When you go there is almost as important as what you eat and drink there.

Owner George Munzar and partner Jeff Gallea have renovated the former movie theater to resemble an exclusive speakeasy from the 1920s: polished hardwood floors, red-brick walls, a vaulted ceiling, royal-blue velvet booths, an ascending banistered staircase and a classic antique-looking wooden back bar, complete with mirror and sculpted moldings, set the mood. All that's needed is a back entrance and a password.

It is a milieu that might appeal to a wide range of customers. Indeed, it does.

Lunch time looks to be predominantly the Oxford-shirt, chino pants and pantyhose set, briefly set free from their downtown work day for a mid-day repast.

Empire chef Mike Groat, formerly of the Blue Mountain Café, offers these hungry office refugees several tempting lunch options, including soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza, calzones, quesadillas and elegant pastas.

The soup, which changes daily, is an excellent way to begin any meal.

On one occasion the special was a thick chick pea stew with a rich tomato base suffused with chunks of tomato, carrots and onions. Another time, the soup was a lighter and more delicate carrot soup, with a thin cream base, large, thick carrot slices, chopped onion and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

For lunch, my companion and I stuck to sandwich-or-salad selections, he trying the homemade veggie burger while I dived into the Empire's chicken and grape salad.

The veggie burger was huge, served on a fluffy kaiser-like bun and topped with lettuce and tomato.

Those familiar with meatless hamburgers are well aware that they can be devoid of flavor. The Empire's version, however, was deftly seasoned and tender, with a taste reminiscent of a delicious Thanksgiving bread stuffing.

The chicken and grape salad, served on a bed of dark greens, was fresh and especially tasty when topped with the Empire's honey mustard dressing.

Image The service at lunch was attentive, efficient and well-timed for those on a schedule.

Despite what I had been told, happy hour at the Empire was fairly low-key, with nary a designer label in sight.

None of the tables were occupied when we arrived, but there seemed to be a familiar group anchoring down at the end of the bar and a continuous pool game being played in the back room.

To avoid feeling left out of the action, my companion and I opted to eat dinner at the bar.

We began with an appetizer of the Mediterranean quesadilla, served with sun-dried tomatoes, sliced black olives, red onions and melted parmesan and mozzarella cheese. Accompanied by salsa and sour cream, this was a marvelous way to take the edge off a gnawing hunger.

My companion sampled the diablo pasta that night, linguine or fettucini mixed with slices of red and green bell peppers, green chiles, onions, orange jalapeño sauce and spicy Cajun spices.

Although somewhat incendiary, the dish did not so overwhelm the palate that the distinctive flavors of the individual ingredients were obliterated.

I tried one of the Empire's small, personal-pan white pizzas, this one topped with mozzarella cheese, pine nuts, more sun-dried tomatoes and onions.

The crust was yeasty and of a medium thickness, similar to the now-popular Boboli phenomenon. Although deeply satisfying from a cheese perspective, I thought the pizza could use some pizazz. Adding garlic, pepperoncini or onion might have made the dish more memorable.

Desserts should be considered when eating at the Empire. The standing menu offers tiramisu and brownie pie, in addition to daily crepe and pie specials and several dessert coffees.

The tiramisu at the Empire is more cakelike than other versions I've tried but equally rich and yummy with mascarpone cheese, espresso and chocolate.

An orange-butterscotch crepe was a delightful sweet treat, topped with whipped cream and served slightly warm.

Rumored to be quite good is the brownie pie, which was not available on either of my visits. More's the pity.

The last seating for dinner is at 8:30 p.m., after which a young trendy bar crowd appears.

Although the clientele fluctuates throughout the day at the Empire, I can report that the food is consistently good. Check it out. And if you catch the late crowd, be sure to wear black. TW

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