Restaurant Reviews

Empire Strikes Back

For a while, it was kingfish. The Dallas Morning News drooled. D magazine ogled. Esquire magazine named it the best seafood restaurant in the country in 1997. When chef Chris Svalesen and businessman Steven Upright opened Fish (tagged "an upscale seafood restaurant") in the Paramount Hotel in late 1996, they had no idea visitors and locals would flock downtown to plunk down $36 to stare at a hunk of lone fish on a bare plate.

They did, largely as the result of the tireless concierge drumming of Upright, who was known to turn a wrong number to his cell phone into dinner reservations at Fish. But like the dot-com frenzy of the same epoch, Fish rage slowly ebbed. First, Svalesen decamped and was replaced by former Gershwin's chef George Grieser. After that, Grieser was replaced by runabout chef Marc Haines, who was hired to thumbscrew some discipline into the operation.

Then the air conditioner broke.

In retrospect, it seems droll that a restaurant of such crowds and caliber could be undone by a pooped compressor. But after Fish shut down in April 2001, Upright sued the hotel's (now the Hotel Lawrence) new owners, Big D Hotel Associates, among others, for breach of contract and damages.

Now the air conditioning seems to be working fine, and so does that pulse point where Fish used to beat: Empire Bar & Grill. The restaurant is modest, with a clean crispness. The interior of Fish, as drab as a ballpark rest room dolled up with a fresh coat of paint and a basket of clean linens, has given way to columns and walls done up in used "old Chicago" brick and rich mustard hues. The bar has been turned 90 degrees and has been promiscuously paneled with wood. Raised leather banquettes ring the windows offering swell views of the Federal Building and the mirror ball architecture of the Hyatt Regency at Reunion.

Empire's menu is modest: pizza, sandwiches, beef tenderloin, fresh fish. The prices are modest, too, with a 14-ounce rib eye at $25 being the priciest beast on the roster. And it's fair to say this restaurant probably won't be tickling Esquire's love handles anytime soon.

But it might tickle yours. Shrimp and pork potstickers looked like a bowl of tiny tail-less skates in a puddle of ginger ponzu sauce. Resembling a smudge of war paint, a bright red dot of pepper sauce is affixed to the won ton encasing the pork and shrimp. These dots had a searing bite, adding the stiffening scorch these stickers didn't get from the pot (they were mostly soft and flaccid without any browning on the won ton). Still, they were good, with a juicy, meaty core and al dente wrapper. But the ginger ponzu sauce was a little thin and weak and could have stood a bit more concentrated zing.

Tortilla soup floated a flotilla of crisp tortilla strips as well as chunks of fresh tomato and avocado. The rich brown pottage was strapping but not necessarily deft. Prominent drawback: dry chicken chunks.

Crispy calamari was a hedonistic heap of golden crisp curls that came with a thimbleful of a thin smoked tomato aioli. The sauce didn't possess even a hint of sooty fume, although the dirty Thousand Island hue of the stuff hinted it might actually be in there somewhere. This is among the better fried calamari renditions offered in Dallas (most of them are dismal). Murray likes to dazzle the batter with salt and cayenne pepper, and the fried results are boisterously dusted with salt and black pepper. Grease isn't a problem, and the mix includes lots of tentacles (very important). What more could you ask for? Maybe a bigger thimble of dipping sauce. Maybe the size of a small bucket.

Empire is owned and operated by businessman Shawn Morrison, who also owns a catering company in Grapevine. To draft Empire's menu, Morrison enlisted chef Dylan Murray, a much fussed-over chef de cuisine from Saba Blue Water Café in Houston. Dylan comes with a résumé that easily sparks interest, spending time in San Francisco, where he attended the California Culinary Academy and did stints at restaurants such as Stars, Acquerello and Aqua.

Murray says he's partial to the illusive flavors of flesh found in water. He likes to take these subtle flavors and gently coach them until they scream, or at least moan a little.

And he does this successfully. Herb-crusted halibut, a thick, narrow strip of white fish, was covered with a blanket of herbs including thyme and parsley. This meat was propped up on a berm of shiitake mushrooms, crispy potato cubes and buttered leeks wading in purplish red wine shallot sauce. The bed mixture was savory and delicate, if a little oily. But the halibut was decadent, which may be fighting words for a fish of such mild demeanor. Yet it was firm and it flaked in opulent glistening sections that were fresh and supple, and they absorbed the essence of that savory herb quilt with fettered abandon, meaning the fish flavors peeked through without much difficulty.

The funny thing about the pork chop with spinach, bacon and goat cheese is that the spinach tango, which topped it like a dripping headdress, looked like it was sown with spinach from a can. Murray recoils at the suggestion. He says that drab shade of green erupts when the spinach is sautéed with the bacon. And anyway, it doesn't taste a thing like the canned variety, which seems to have a flavor only Popeye could love. The pork was thick, pink and moist--a clear success.

Empire quesadillas proved the only serious crack. The tortilla envelope was delicate and crisp, but the innards had the culinary resonance of spackle. The chicken was bland, dry and a little old-tasting (giving these chicken bits a savage seasoning treatment could have jacked this dish up a couple of notches). With melted cheese (jalapeño jack, but where's the bite?), slivers of roasted red bell pepper and onions, these little pie slices of goo and submerged toppings were (literally) cold with marooned flavor.

This is in stark contrast to that other culinary pie-slice exploit: pizza. Empire pizza is a gorgeous disc of carnivore gore holding perfect slices of Canadian bacon, delicious Italian sausage (the kind that doesn't look like braised Ken-L Ration), pepperoni, mushroom and pinches of onion. The crust is crisp where it needs to be and moist and bouffant where dough nurturing is demanded. The pie is modestly washed in a tangy (not too sweet) sauce and blanketed with an ample carpet of cheese that doesn't knot in your teeth and make gum streamers back to the plate after you take a bite.

Conclusions slipped a bit, but sometimes dessert is an unnecessary add-on. (Cognacs and sauternes seem the best way to end a meal.) Pineapple bread pudding seemed more promise than anything else: tropical fruit embedded in this gooey concoction of Anglo mud. A scoop of superb housemade vanilla ice cream is nuzzled up against the cake, but caramel sauce is nothing but a zigzag of beads across the plate. This recipe could have used a drenching of sauce thinned with whiskey or some other brown spirit, because the bread part itself was a bit dry, with a listlessness the tropical dazzle of pineapple couldn't thwart.

But that's OK. There's probably lots of time to tinker with sauces here. The fundamentals are sound. The ambition isn't preoccupied with national glossies. Instead, it's centered on dishing out good food with just enough culinary glitter to get the foodies twisting a little in their seats. Instead of a noisy kingfish, Empire is a quiet domain.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz