Bar food, with tunes

At Empire Dine and Dance
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 16, 2008

The contemporary fixation upon the local in restaurants tends to focus upon the menus of upscale eateries. People want to know if the $25 of pig they are eating was nearby when it bled to death. But localism should not be the exclusive purview of the culinary elite. While high-end restaurants list the Maine pedigree of as many ingredients as possible, the casual dining experience has increasingly been surrendered to international corporations. At the chain restaurants surrounding the mall, it is not just the food, but also the décor, the music, the recipes, the menu art, the clutter on the walls — the whole “concept” that comes from afar. And while I can never keep track of whether chain restaurants are allowed in downtown Portland or not, if we are going to hold them off in the long term it will depend upon the success of places like the new Empire Dine and Dance.

Empire seeks to strike a blow against the corporate food empire by treading similar territory in a better way. The affordable menu offers the same constellation of options (quesadillas, burgers, sandwiches, a few classic American entrees) as a spot like Applebee’s at about the same prices. They are not going to tell you which farmer planted the leaves in your salad, but it will be put together by a couple of genuine Portland hipsters in the kitchen without help from a corporate recipe. In place of the contrived eclecticism of so many chain-casual eateries, the space has a pleasant-enough oddness all its own that time may diminish or that we may simply grow used to. The people crowding the bar seem like potential regulars genuinely interested in talking to each other, rather than interchangeable corporate-consultant types staving off loneliness for another night.

Empire Dine and Dance | 575 Congress St, Portland | 4 pm-1 am | Visa/MC/Disc | 207.879.8988
The food is not remarkable but is better than corporate versions of casual fare. We tried a sampler of the appetizers and had a mixed reaction. Smoked trout perched on cream-cheese smeared leaves of endive try to mix the high and low. But it came down too far on the low side, as the cream cheese overwhelmed the taste and texture of the too-small piece of fish. Chicken wings were meaty with an appealing herb crust. The creamy meatballs with marinara were nice if lightly seasoned. The roasted eggplant, cooked long enough to resemble a smoky, spicy baba ganoush, would have been better on smaller, crisper slices of baguette. The mango-brie quesadilla was a bit sweet and goopy for my taste. The very good arugula salad was a big, crisp pile of small and mild leaves. It was kissed with a light, sweet vinaigrette and topped with big, almost chewy shavings of Parmesan.

The best thing we tried was the $5 half-size burger. This is bar food as it should be. While most places would send out a bready, charred, diminutive slider, Empire’s small burger was crafted with care and reasonably filling. The burger was cooked precisely as ordered and, along with fresh greens and tomato, overlapped a good grilled ciabatta roll. This burger, along with the salads, should keep Empire in business. A thick, peppery steak was cooked a bit less than requested but otherwise fine. Entrees, including the burger, came with mashed potatoes one of three ways. They were a good deal better with garlic than with cheese, but better still would have been some sautéed spinach or other vegetable.

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