The Empire Diner’s reputation tends to precede it. After all, there aren’t too many 1940’s-era dining cars left in New York. This one has bragging rights to glossy, Art Moderne exteriors, which has made it a sought-after city symbol in television shows, like Law & Order, and seminal movies such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan. So it only makes sense that the landmark eatery’s newest executive chef, Amanda Freitag, brings her own star power to bear, having worked for years under Jimmy Bradley at The Harrison, and eventually emerging as a food celebrity as a regular on Iron Chef and Chopped.
And while it might seem odd to find somewhat fussy, highly conceptualized creations on a greasy spoon menu (Buffalo Skate Wings, Matzoh Ball Marrow Soup) it’s actually rings true to Empire’s ethos in its heyday, which often valued style over substance, and forwent jukeboxes and hamburgers for haute cuisine and upright piano music. So it feels like a bit of a throwaway to order Freitag’s unembellished, low-brow diner options, like Patty Melts, Fish and Chips, and yes, All Day Pancakes, when a slew of clever, chef-driven offerings sound so appealing on paper, such as Lox & Burrata with Everything Bagel Spice, Orzo Mac n’ Cheese with Black Truffle Butter, and a Twice-Baked Potato with Ramp Puree and Caviar.
But don’t be swayed to take the stylish route: While lovely to look at, the restructured items often prove overwrought, as in the Lox & Burrata (minus the bagel, or any other bread substitute, for that matter), which left it dearly lacking in texture, the delicate, creamy cheese wholly sublimated by the pungent fish. The overcooked Orzo, improbably swapped in for sturdier pastas such as penne or elbows, quickly congealed into a salty mass. And the ample-sounding Twice-Baked Potato actually emerged as three skimpy, crème fraiche-laked wedges, which left us wishing we had just gone for the fat, salt and pepper-tossed French Fries accompanying hearty planks of greaseless, malt vinegar-sprinkled Hake, the gloriously greasy Patty Melt, the beef traditionally bound in a dripping, grilled cheese sandwich made with Swiss, caramelized onions and rye, and the juicy Burger, balanced on a brioche bun with cheddar cheese, pickles, onion and lettuce, and drowned in special sauce.
We appreciate Empire Diner’s style, but when it comes with craveable, greasy food fare (in the future, at least), we’d just as soon stick with substance.