Empire Diner Rises Again in Chelsea -- with a Chopped Judge in Charge
TGIF: Thank goodness it's Freitag and not Fieri.
For its first 30 years, the Empire Diner was an archetypal greasy spoon scrambling eggs and flapping jacks with the best of them. But the gleaming chrome Fodero dining car didn't find footing outside the then-gritty community until its renovation in 1976, when it was given a menu overhaul and an external facelift, outfitted with a metal silhouette of the Empire State Building, and the back wall of the adjoining building was emblazoned with the word "EAT." For a time, its nouveau American fare, golden era charm, and quirky atmosphere — with celebrity sightings, live piano music, and TV and movie cameos — were a downtown fixture.
Amanda Freitag, who lives in the neighborhood and garnered acclaim as executive chef of the Harrison before leaving that restaurant and rising up the Food Network ranks, took over the iconic space in January.
It would seem that she's chosen an optimal time to return to her craft. Today it's celebrity chefs, not traditional celebrities, who populate the plush gray leather booths and banquettes. Freitag's Chopped cohorts have been spotted on social media enjoying meals amid diners corralled into the center of the front dining room, where waiters squeeze past the L-shaped bar and four-tops turn into communal two-tops when things get busy. Befriend her or her colleagues on Facebook, and you'll be treated to comments like, "You are the chef of my life," "I saw Chris Santos eating dinner!" and, in reference to fellow Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian, "We named our baby after you!" Sometimes, the price of celebrity chefdom is a kindergarten class whose middle names are all Mystery Basket. Still, the space feels duly revitalized, its glamorous heyday not so far removed under the glow of exposed Edison filaments. Eventually, a cozy upstairs nook will operate as a waiting room and lounge. For now, it's mostly romantically lit storage.
The kitchen's approach is similarly earnest in its interpretations of comfort food, but often the culinary fireworks dissipate between menu description and execution. That was the consensus on an appetizer of Freitag's Buffalo skate wings, which feature waffle-fry–size flaps of ray fish doused in hot sauce, served with raw shavings of carrot and celery for texture, and dressed with crème fraîche in place of blue cheese. At the Harrison, the same fish received a greaseless cornmeal coating. Here, the wings sit in a lumpy pile, soggy from over-saucing.
A starter of French onion soup suffers "a similarly murky fate, its deep flavors bogged down by gummy bagel bread pudding croutons hidden beneath the surface like sodden icebergs. Loaded potatoes showcase smashed fingerlings in place of sturdier russets or Yukon golds. Tangy caramelized onions accent the spuds, along with bacon, sour cream, foie gras, and jalapeños. Rich, spicy, acidic — it's a fine and messy plate of food, even if the nubbins of sautéed duck liver are mostly drowned out by sour cream, and the potatoes could be crispier.
Freitag has done an admirable job guiding the restaurant to its current phase, which now includes lunch options such "as turkey meatloaf, a dish that initially performed well as a "green plate special" at dinner. The eventual plan is to operate around the clock, a welcome notion on an island that's all too quickly disappearing to national chains. For now, take pleasure in the All Day section of the menu, where you can indulge your breakfast-for-dinner fantasies with buttermilk pancakes and an herb-flecked omelet. Among the same offerings, a patty melt was seared hard and well-done on one visit, medium well another, and seemingly indifferent to the caramelized onions and Swiss cheese that accompanied both times. Better to stick with the cheffy burger despite too-thick brioche; it comes with fries instead of the patty melt's vegetable chips.
In building her public persona, Freitag has occasionally tapped her German heritage with a cooking style that veers toward sturdier fare. A succulent bone-in pork chop comes topped with crisped pancetta, and even roasted chicken perfumed with lemon feels particularly substantial, but it's her trout almondine that elicited the most compliments from my table. Moist and soaked in brown butter, the two boneless fillets were pristine, enlivened by earthy-sweet parsnip purée and thin slips of shaved parsnip.
Desserts were hit or miss, with a highlight being the cinnamon and rice pudding parfait layered with crunchy cinnamon crisped rice. A special chocolate cream pie with a brittle Oreo crust faltered doubly with over-whipped cream that had separated, well on its way to becoming butter. Were it served at 4 a.m., it might just be acceptable.
See also: 11 Classic NYC Diners
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