January 27, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Empire Diner (CLOSED)

Tonight’s “Green Plate special,” shrimp and grits scores haute diner impact.
Tonight’s “Green Plate special,” shrimp and grits scores haute diner impact.

          We’re ooohing and aaahing and nudging each other. A $6 side of crispy Brussels sprouts with chili jam is definitely a hit at our table. And the loaded potatoes. Do not consider loitering at the Empire Diner without staking a share in that sexed-up mélange. If nubbins of foie gras, lardons of bacon and swaths of sour cream on fingerling chunks don’t race your pulse, bite on a jolt of jalapeño. Why are we so revved up? It’s a diner.

“Loaded potatoes” are a must: fingerlings with foie gras, bacon chunks and sour cream.

          Chef Amanda Freitag and her team have rescued this sleek, Art Moderne 40s diner  -- a threatened landmark -- just as far west Manhattan is stirring with new clubs, a surge of hungry young, starchitect high-rises, and the High Line’s yellow brick road. Were we waiting for this? It seems we were. It’s a diner. (David Waltuck had one of his first jobs here in the late 70s before going off to open Chanterelle in deserted Soho with his wife Karen in 1979.)

We scored two seats at the counter with a view of the early action.

          I crashed through the mostly youngish crowd on an early Friday with my friend Francesco, in town just for a week. “I’m hungry for American diner food,” he’d said when I mentioned Empire’s reincarnation. Halfway through my Old Fashioned, side-by-side at the counter tended by bartending star Nick, I was feeling Lana Turnerish. (Nick had warned me the drink was strong.)

Cheddar and fontina ooze from this luscious grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.

          The two of us are knocked out by those potatoes, and the sensuous $13 grilled cheese-and-tomato with cheddar and fontina oozing out between thick slices of toast. The beef chili with lime crema strikes me as skimpy and over-gentrified. 

Nick, the bar-tending star, races back and forth, shaking your drink, taking your order.

          Nick, doubling as captain, temptor and activist bartender, has sold us on the green plate special – shrimp and grits. (“Get it? It’s not the blue plate. It’s the green plate,” he said.) The beatification of a low-country notion works: oversized shrimp, exquisitely cooked, with scattered strips of pork, in a savory puddle. It’s a diner, but better.

A different cream pie is promised everyday: this is chocolate ganache and espresso.

          The apple pie crust has a near-diner heft – it’s true to the haute diner concept, warmed and good and just $2 more for à la mode (vanilla, served alongside so it doesn’t melt). My chocoholic pal Francesco promises he’ll be back whenever he passes by just for the chocolate ganache coffee cream pie. I decide not to break his heart by telling tell him it’s a different cream pie everyday too.

The original was built in the Art Moderne style by a dining car company in 1946.

          Do I need to say I can’t wait to taste more? A few days later we’re four in a booth. My friend, Quilted Giraffe chef Barry Wine, has already been by three times on his own in the first ten days. He’s ready to taste the burger on brioche, with its “special sauce,” a wink to McDonald’s. This is just one of the playful asides on this menu to smile at as you wait for your $13 cocktail: an Empire Diner pickled martini or the Levinson’s Old Fashioned. Service can be a little slow. It’s early after all, and there are 65 seats plus the bar in this diner.

Our foursome shared this excellent burger in brioche with secret sauce and decent fries.

          We debate matzo ball soup with marrow and the French onion with “bagel bread pudding croutons,” deciding not to. And we unanimously reject the PLT from mutual pork belly fatigue. Curiosity settles on Lox & Burrata and the Happy Waitress – poached egg layered with Taylor ham, cheese sauce and Freitag’s ubiquitous chili jam – a happy $9 breakfast.

Lox comes with creamy burrata, salmon roe and everything-but spice (but no bagel).

          The lush burrata creaminess with house-cured salmon and everything bagel spice (but no bagel) is a sensuous upgrade from mere cream cheese. Creamy orzo mac’n’cheese with broccoli and black truffle butter is a best buy at $10, but I’d like to see what the chef could do with real macaroni and a real crust. Orzo doesn’t do it for me.

The Happy Waitress is a poached egg layered with ham, cheese sauce and chili jam. 

          We could easily make an el cheapo dinner of $8 to $13 starters or the $11 to $16 all day menu of pancakes, omelettes and the patty melt, but main plates are only $19 to $24, except for the unpriced butcher’s cut steak and potatoes. What jacks the check up is the need to taste everything. 

Battered hake with tartar sauce and decent fries makes less-than-thrilling fish and chips.

          Fish & Chips – battered hake with tartar sauce and very ordinary fries with a side of vinegar – is good enough. I want my diner to have great chips, though I guess that’s not exactly classic. But the burger is first-rate. I wish I’d insisted we try the crispy Buffalo skate wings with hot sauce, crème friache and carrot and celery sticks, hee hee.

          The oyster pan roast doesn’t need its pork belly add-in (except as a statement of “isn’t this fun?”) and the pumpernickel triangles just remind me of how much I used to love the pan roast at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, served really hot in a bowl, half-and-half thickened with a slog of white bread.

Chef Amanda Freitag is famous for her Brussels sprouts vision. These are a triumph.

          Tonight the kitchen sends out the cream pie of the day – a delicious celebration of banana -- and a great-looking $8 banana split, perfect for a quartet that had begged off dessert, except for the rice pudding parfait Barry was so high on. “It was better yesterday,” he notes. Well, it’s a diner.

You don’t expect to see such a stylish banana split for just $8 these days, but: it’s a diner.

          Manager Todd McMullen stops by the table to bask in our enthusiasm. For now, he says, they’ll only be serving dinner, but soon, lunch. “Then delivery and brunch,” he says. “After that breakfast and late night.” It will be a full-service diner.

          It’s turnover time and a pod of hopefuls are shedding Michelin Man wraps when in walks Geoffrey Zakarian with his wife and Hill Country’s Marc Glosserman. Geoffrey spies the food world faces at our booth. “This is Florent,” he cries. “It’s our Florent. It’s the hottest opening in years,” he exalts. “Someone has opened a diner. No bullshit. It’s a diner.”

          It’s his fourth visit, Zakarian confides. And next morning at my request, emails me his musts: Chili fries. Lemon chicken. The matzo ball soup. Brooklyn Blackout Cake. He underlines the evolution of dessert. “Finally someone has the balls to do a simple slice of chocolate cake.”

210 Tenth Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street. 212 596 7523. Dinner 5:30 to 11:30


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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