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The Empire Lounge still has a way to go

It's one of those things that has come to define a floor that's actually concerned with the happiness and comfort of its guests, a little thing that shows a staff out for more than just tips and a night with no complaints.

Fixing a wobbly table.

True, a restaurant that really had its act together would have no wobbly tables at all. Before the start of service, one of the junior servers would walk the floor, laying a hand gently on the edge of each of the tables in the room, making sure that they're all steady and stable. He would check the lay of the tablecloth, the polish on the silver and all that other stuff, too. I know this because I've worked in restaurants, under chefs and owners who were that focused on perfection. I know it because I've watched the server whose job it was to check the tables.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be no shaky tables. There would be no spots on the silver, no stains on the tablecloth; everything that came out of the kitchen would be ideal in every way. But we do not live in a perfect world. And even if the best restaurants in Denver and Boulder sometimes approach the outer boundaries of flawless rightness — the borderline that separates, say, the exhausted boredom and careless slack of a Denny's night shift or Olive Garden Friday night from a place where the staff realizes that careful attention and a nicely wiped plate is something worth aspiring to — Louisville is still something of the Wild West. The last time I was there, it was for a wop burger at the decades-old Blue Parrot, an Italian joint that, along with the equally venerable Colacci's, was the town's dining claim to fame. But then Colacci's became a Pasquini's and, finally last December, The Empire Lounge and Restaurant.

At the entry to the Empire on a Saturday night with an over-full house and spillover crowds starting to pack the bar, the host gave me a dinosaur (a large plastic Tyrannosaurus rex) that would mark me as first or fifth or tenth in line waiting for a table. I felt less ridiculous than I perhaps should have, sitting in the lounge (comfy couches, green shag carpets, glass coffee table) with the dinosaur guarding my beer. The host checked on our party several times, assuring me that it wouldn't be too long, but we were fine. The vibe at the Empire is warm, comfortable, flashier than your average neighborhood tavern but still relaxed. If you were ever a fan of the show Northern Exposure, imagine the Brick redone by the guys behind Snooze: a kind of retro, wood-and-brick joint with a little neon, a little accent lighting. And dinosaurs. Besides, in the lounge I was close to the kitchen's pass and could watch and listen to the crew at work.

That crew: young guys, mostly. Up-and-comers led by Jim Cohen, a serious, heavyweight chef with historical ties to the fledgling regional-food movement of the '80s and to Colorado through Tante Louise, where he was the chef more than two decades ago. As a matter of fact, Tante Louise was where Julia Child found Cohen before naming him one of the top chefs in America and inviting him to be her first guest on Dining With Julia in 1983. He went on to cook in Vail (at the Wildflower and Cucina Rustica), in Arizona (at the Phoenician in Scottsdale) and Las Vegas (at Terrazza at Caesars Palace), and he got a James Beard nomination for "Best Chef Southwest" in 1991.

But the food in this kitchen actually harks back even further, to the kind of experimentation Cohen was into back in the dark ages of American gastronomy, when he cooked at the Plum Tree Cafe in Denver in the 1970s. And while it might seem weird now to call American regional cooking an "experiment," back then it really was. When beef Welly and coulibiac of salmon and Jell-O fruit molds and ham with pineapple rings were the norm, even a polenta cake could be seen as revolutionary.

So when we were finally taken to our table, handed our menus and told to take our time (even though the bar was shoulder-bumping close and the floor starting to back up), the old insurgent dishes were what interested me — the local veggies with romesco, the house-cured gravlax and homemade mozzarella. These simply didn't exist when Cohen started his line time. Certainly not in Colorado. And the grilled polenta with prosciutto? That probably wasn't seen anywhere outside the Bay Area.

It could be the French Laundry effect, but I love it whenever I see a place with the potential for greatness that's off the beaten path, outside the normal concentrations of restaurant excellence. And the Empire definitely qualifies. It has a blooded chef, an owner (Brendan McManus, partners with Cohen) who's also a food guy — an ex-cook, a 25-year industry veteran who spent a decade as a manager with Dave Query and his Big Red F restaurant group — and a staff that knows enough to shim the tables when they get off-kilter.

 

I was looking at the menu, sipping my lime-spiked Tecate, when a waiter crouched to perform some minute adjustment to one table leg. "There you go," he said, slapping a hand down on the table to be sure. "Much better." And then he straightened the settings on the table, smiled and walked off. It's important, that little bit of extra attention. I wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't done it (unless, of course, I'd ended up with a bowl of soup in my lap), but I did notice that he did. It was a sign of the house caring enough to stumble, sometimes stride, toward something better.

After fixing the table, our server brought biscuits and soft butter. The biscuits were a little salty, but I liked that; it showed they were handmade. And while the cured meat platter that soon followed wasn't overwhelming, it was fine: a little prosciutto, a little sopresata, a little bologna (something I've never seen before on a charcuterie plate) studded with chunks of olive. It wasn't the prettiest presentation I've ever encountered, but it didn't last long enough for presentation to be much of a concern.

But the gravlax was a disappointment. It was cut thick, dripping with olive oil, and tasted smoky — not at all like the salt and dill and weird, back-tongue sweetness I'd been hoping for. Actually, what it tasted like was salmon sashimi — just raw fish and oil. There were no potatoes, either. I shoved it around the plate a little, ate what I could stomach and left the rest behind: critical roadkill.

On an earlier visit, I'd had beers at the bar, deviled eggs and Roman gnocchi the size of ravioli in a meaty, rustic red sauce that I liked quite a lot. This time I passed over the Italian potato dumplings for the other Italian starch, grilled polenta. It's a genius idea when a kitchen can pull it off, smooth and creamy and stiff and charred at the same time. But it's a tough trick: The polenta has to be just the right consistency — not hard, yet able to hold its shape and not melt through the slats of the grill. The Empire's kitchen made an admirable effort, but the polenta cake (for lack of a better word) fell to pieces as soon as we breathed on it. It was ugly, the plate badly composed — but it was also delicious. The flavor was exactly right, the curls of prosciutto on top like a bonus, a little something extra. I'm not sure how it made it out of the kitchen looking the way it did, but I'm glad it landed on our table.

A calamari salad followed, and it was huge, a meal in itself. It was also delicious — a bit too Chinois in the bowl for my tastes, but with crispy calamari rings tucked in among chopped field greens and lettuces and a miso vinaigrette boosted with the bite of a good, mild balsamic.

The Empire's menu changes often. Always seasonally, sometimes weekly, occasionally day-to-day or in the middle of a service. The steaks were gone by the time we'd ordered, and the grilled asparagus with shirred egg (baked in cream or butter) and ham was off the menu. So, too, was the simple plate of grilled trumpet mushrooms over polenta — replaced, I assume, by the grilled-polenta casualty already set before us. There were still flatbread pizza specials, though, from the wood-burning oven (the simple margherita was decent), as well as a roasted leg of lamb, trout with confusingly tri-citric rémoulade (lemon, orange and grapefruit), and two-cheese mac-and-cheese with pancetta served in a small tin bucket.

None of these plates were great. Not one of them so overwhelmed me that I, as Julia Child once did, instantly recognized the talent in the kitchen. The trout was a bit muddled (though perfectly cooked). The lamb was satisfyingly rustic (served on the bone, slow-roasted, and in a puddle of good, rich sauce) but lacking some singing high note that would have elevated it. And the mac-and-cheese was just mac-and-cheese — served everywhere now, and no longer in the least bit radical.

I left thinking many things about the Empire. That I'd enjoyed it, for certain, and enjoyed it a little more for being in Louisville — not Denver or Boulder or the burbs. But I'd also been hoping for so much more. I understand that chef Cohen and McManus are shooting for something less than fine dining — for "serious campfire cuisine," in Cohen's words, and for the simplicity of a neighborhood tavern with a high bar set for the kitchen. But all of these competing ideals and concepts have not yet come together at the Empire. The restaurant is on its way, but it hasn't yet arrived at that perfect place. With this crew, though, I still have hopes that it will get there someday.

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