Empire not quite on fire
Grill and bar charms with its outside oasis, but the kitchen is inconsistent
After nearly 20 years, Empire Grill & Tap Room still boasts the best al fresco dining spot in the area. It's a spacious, well-cared-for oasis with bubbling fountain, climbing wisteria, fragrant jasmine, showy trumpet vines and shades of green dotted with flowers everywhere, at least in warmer months. It's a tad chilly in winter but propane heaters make temperate days doable.
Inside, the decor doesn't disappoint. Stylish wood chairs flank a long, linen-lined banquette opposite the 36-foot-long Honduras mahogany wood bar. The lighting is chic as are the overhead paned ceiling tiles. The only distractions, other than groups of loud men hugging the bar at times, are the corner TVs dedicated to sports. Despite the patio's tranquility, inside is still a barroom.
The menu is sturdy, better than bar food, often approaching solid restaurant fare. But Empire underachieves food-wise, not always, but often enough to notice. One day at lunch, with the place sparsely filled, I was presented with a menu that was badly stained. Not a great calling card for a just-arrived patron. The menus were paper, too, so why not a crisp clean one?
Most of the fare tasted fresh, but one evening, the Empire chocolate cake ($7.50) was covered with chocolate sauce to disguise the somewhat crusty edges indicative of a cake not the freshest. The pecan pie ($7.50), on the other hand, was deliriously good. Packed with pecans in crusty syrupy goodness, it was fork-tender, yet not overly sweet.
For starters, the poached artichoke ($9.75), while noteworthy, came with a tame garlic aioli sauce. The 'choke was perfectly poached but I didn't bother with the empty-calorie sauce at all.
Polenta cakes ($10.25) with creamy gorgonzola and Fontina cheeses and sauteed shiitake mushrooms were a robust affair. This could have been a meal itself with an added side salad. The polenta and runny cheeses were layered and cakelike, with the sauteed shiitakes heaped atop with creamy, earthy flavors that did not overpower the palate.
I've always loved Empire's deep-fried calamari ($13.50). The crisp, mouthwatering calamari was well battered and fried a tempting tawny brown. The fried jalapenos that were interspersed added an additional flavor note, yet I prefer the fried lemon slices Empire used to serve. They just made the dish tangier. Still, no complaints.
One day, the soup du jour was chicken vegetable ($5.75). Large chunks of chicken breast accompanied the requisite chicken stock, onion, pepper, celery and tomato base. Good flavors overall, and a generous portion.
I had an issue with all but one of the main courses I tried. Not every ingredient on the plate was a problem, but something was askew with each order. The breast of range chicken ($19.25) with tarragon Dijon mustard sauce, for example, was devoid of any tarragon or mustardy flavors. Though everything on the plate was tender, including the medallions of potato and broccoli rabe, the dish needed revving up.
The grilled pork chop ($22.25) had been marinated in "Asian spices," then grilled and glazed with a light barbecue sauce. French fries and broccoli rabe accompanied. It was pretty on the plate but the chop was too thick and too chewy; my jaw was tired halfway through. I finally gave up. Vastly better would have been two chops cut more thinly, and the presentation would not have suffered.
The pricey crab cakes ($25.50) were coupled with a benign red bell pepper cream sauce. Crab was in evidence, and flecks of red and green bell pepper added to the prettiness, without too much filler. The accompanying snap peas were vibrant, but the medallions of potato were cold and hard.
The penne pasta ($18.75) with asparagus, sweet red peppers, red onions, tomato and basil was simple and tasty enough. The portion size has increased over the years and it's now more than plenty.
The wine list was reasonable with no particular regional focus or grape type. The Pinot Noir I ordered was out of stock. Second choice was Educated Guess, 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir ($12 /$48). That wine retails in the $20- to $25-per-bottle range.
The wine was typical of the Carneros region, light and fruity. However, it finished a tad on the bitter side. Pinot Noir is still tricky business for California winemakers; it is a difficult grape to coax and most winemakers still make it as if it were a soft-sided Cabernet. A few West Coast winemakers get it right, and more will in time.
One of Empire's main attractions is a large selection of single-malt scotch, rum, cognac and port, as well as the 16 beers on tap. That is why that beautiful mahogany bar is ever busy.
Empire Grill & Tap Room is well rooted after nearly two decades. I wish my patio looked as inviting. But I also wish Empire's kitchen would take the next step up in consistency and quality. It has everything else going for it.
Empire Grill & Tap Room
651 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Hours: Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Dinner: Sat.-Sun. 3:30-11 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Corkage fee: $20
Children: booster seats
Outdoor dining: patio
Party facilities: no
Noise level: can be loud indoors
Bathroom cleanliness: good