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The Empire of my imagination

The Empire Lounge and Restaurant is no dinosaur, even if its inspiration dates back to the '70s.

At the front, on a Saturday night with an overfull house and spillover crowds starting to pack the bar, I’d been given a dinosaur -- a large, plastic tyrannosaurus rex—and had felt less ridiculous than I perhaps should have, sitting in the lounge (comfy couches, green shag carpets, glass coffee table) with the dinosaur on the table guarding my beer. The host checked on our party several times, assured me that it wouldn’t be too long, but we were fine. The vibe at 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.

The crew was mostly young guys. 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 Restaurant and Cucina Rustica), in Arizona (at the Phoenician in Scottsdale) and Las Vegas (at Terrazza at Caesar’s Palace), and he got a James Beard nomination for “Best chef Southwest” in 1991.

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But the food in this kitchen actually harkens 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 Café in Denver in the 1970s. And while it may 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 in the mountain west.

Perhaps I was a victim of my bloated expectations. While the Empire Lounge and Restaurant in Louisville, which I review in this week's Cafe, is by no stretch a bad restaurant, I wanted the place to be spectacular, rather than merely very good. But at least it has the potential to go all the way, rather than go the way of that dinosaur.

My meals at the Empire made me hunger for a neighborhood place that wasn't quite ambitious, so I stopped by an old standby, Johnny's Diner, for Second Helping. For Bite Me, I checked in with Dan Landes, who's got an empire of his own going with WaterCourse. And finally, I tracked down some news regarding the reappearance of Ruben Mackintosh. Read all about it tomorrow when the paper hits the street -- and this website. -- Jason Sheehan

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