“What would a diner be without delicious dessert?” The question was a good one, and worth considering, and our waitress posed it rhetorically but with sincerity.
Having just cleaned up a mean slice of lemon pie, crowned with warm, airy meringue, toasty just on top, AND the best Neapolitan banana split we’ve had in years, my friend and I are powerless to disagree with her, even if her question didn’t actually beg an answer. But more on that split later.
Those desserts crown Iron Chef star Amanda Freitag’s stylish revamp of Chelsea’s Empire Diner, (210 10th Avenue, 212-596-7523) which opened January 7. Freitag’s renovation features more tables and a shorter counter than the short-lived Highliner that preceded it.
Those seeking an authentic diner experience, look elsewhere: the only chrome in this place is on the facade, and from what we experienced, the front of the house is still negotiating its notion of hospitality: You won’t get the spare, fast-friendly service of a diner, nor the “yes, please” warmth of a neighborhood restaurant. But aggravations are mostly minor, even this early in the game, so why not sip a cocktail and be chill, eh?
Empire’s eight house cocktails ($13), include a martini with jalapeño-infused vodka and pickled vegetable juice, or a citrusy chilkoot rush, with bourbon, crushed cranberry, and honey, although we skirted the issue and stuck to standbys: a well-made dirty gin martini and our old friend whiskey rocks, though we were somewhat tempted to stray.
Chef de cuisine Jeff Creager’s menu offers intriguing remakes of diner classics, but they are remakes and not classics, so look elsewhere for a 24-hour two-egg breakfast or make-your-own omelets; the only eggs available here are a simple omelette ($12) with fine herbs, crème fraiche, and brioche toast, and a poached-egg starter with ham and cheddar called the happy waitress ($9).
But those with an open mind will find plenty to sample. A bowl of soft, spongy skate “wings” ($11), tossed in buffalo sauce over wide, thin strips of carrot and celery dices in creamy dressing are a merry, crave-worthy salad for folks who like fish AND wings. Creager’s also twisted matzo ball soup into a strange dish where a horseradishy matzo ball sits atop a fat ring of marrow bone in mild broth ($8). A “PLT” ($9) — a toasty starter with supple pork belly, avocado, and hearty sundried tomatoes — bears little resemblance to the classic diner sandwich, but it’s worth a taste and maybe even a repeat.
An extraordinarily fragrant roast chicken entree ($20) with ricotta, charred lemon, and carrots is delicate and pleasantly sweet, and the burger ($16) is a fine, fat patty on brioche served with crisp, well-salted garlic-tinged fries. Get it with a side of broccoli ($6) dusted with pecorino and crisp garlic chips for a dose of green.
But best of all were the desserts. That pie was a fine excuse for lemon meringue ($8), but the banana split ($8), may become our Thursday-after-galleries stopover on the way to the train. The banana’s glazed with burnt sugar, the walnuts crisp and gooey with caramel-rich chocolate sauce, a bit of creme fraiche, and of course, a cherry on top.