Cafe Society

The Empire Lounge still has a way to go

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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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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan