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Great Outdoors: The courtyard at Empire Grill & Tap Room offers an outside chance to see and be seen.

Imperial Style

Shooting the curl of Emerson Street's restaurant boom, Empire Grill continues to specialize in big-shouldered dining and drinking

By Christina Waters

ESPECIALLY WHEN the evenings grow warm--like last week--and the wisteria drips down over brick walls and stonework, the place to be is the courtyard at Empire Grill & Tap Room. Candice and I worked our way through the sleek crowd of singles clustering around the front bar and took a table in the very middle of the alfresco action. See and be seen, we always say.

The ambiance sets the tone for the evening. Waiters with charm to spare, an energetic clientele and a menu packed with grilled, roasted and smoked intensity. No wonder the Peninsula is dialed in to this place.

A glass of Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 ($11) instantly took my mind off the color of the tablecloth. We won't even mention the very Vegas fountain that lights up and splashes noisily as darkness falls. Candice's Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 1997 ($6) went beautifully with her salad of mixed greens, topped with sliced pears, walnuts and blue cheese ($8.25). A grill with this much action and excitement could easily get away with offering an ordinary salad. Not Empire. This ultra-fresh starter was excellent. The vinaigrette, very slightly sweet, was superb playing against the bite of the cheese and the noticeably fresh walnuts. The pears were perfect. Not overproduced, it was made with obvious expertise. The stellar baguette and unsalted butter continued the theme of serious food/playful attitude.

We also shared an appetizer of filet mignon carpaccio ($9.75), again impeccably presented. On the wide round plate, crimson slices of tender filet--slightly thicker than paper thin--were generously arranged. A calligraphic flourish of mustard had been drizzled over the beef, and a cluster of fresh young arugula topped with caper buds sprouted from the center of the creation. A haze of fine olive oil glistened on the surface of the carpaccio. We took our time--some things are better enjoyed at leisure.

Our main dishes met with mixed reviews. My platter of grilled Cornish game hen ($16.50) was the star. Split into halves, the moist, bronzed poultry shared the stage with roasted red potatoes, baby carrots steamed just to the al dente stage and crisp snow peas. No false moves--this was a classic grill dish that would have been at home in any fine cafe anywhere in the world. Empire has the grill thing down.

Candice's order of white-bean chile with chicken ($8.50) sounded a whole lot better than it tasted. Lackluster and lethargic--even the large strips of chicken breast in the center failed to show pizzazz--it suffered from lack of concept and lack of spice. A few well-placed habañeros, or some prosciutto and basil, might have given the dish definition. How about some spicy sausage in the center instead of the bland chicken?

Desserts, however, are well worth saving room for at the Empire Tap Room (as everybody seems to call it). The awesome listing of single malts almost tempted us, but thinking of the drive home we opted for espressos instead ($1.75). And they were right on target--faintly bitter, good and strong.

My order of lemon mascarpone tart ($5) tasted exactly the way I wanted it to. A wonderful, crisp pastry crust was layered first with mascarpone cheese--the queen of cream cheeses--and then another layer of barely sweet lemon curd. Sublime, especially after what Candice was calling "that bean thing." She loved her warm apple pie ($5.50), which arrived with a drizzle of warm caramel sauce and a side scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was great, but I'll take a well-made lemon dessert over almost anything. How thoughtful of this fashionable bar and grill to offer serious desserts, I thought, admiring the lightly sweetened whipped cream and the sprig of fresh mint accompanying my tart.

More than simply a smart place to sip that cosmopolitan while waiting for the Nasdaq to rebound, Empire Grill & Tap Room easily earns its place at the head of the Emerson Street class.

Empire Grill & Tap Room
Address: 651 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.321.3030
Cuisine: California grill
Hours: Open daily at 11:30am; dinner served from 4pm until closing (between 9:30 and 10:30pm)
Reservations: Recommended

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From the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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