Friday, September 23, 2011

THE HIGHLINER (The Empire Diner)

It  would've been hard to improve upon The Empire Diner for it's sheer diner-ness.  Luckily, when the old queen lost her reign and a new hierarchy took the helm, its landmarked status preserved the shiny, chrome dining car and all its trimmings, so that all the energies on renovation and improvement went straight to the menu.  And its a good thing, too; now you can eat at The Empire and actually enjoy more than just the nostalgia.

Two chefs have come and gone, and the third appears to have settled in and brought a little pizzazz to some old diner standards.  The brunch menu holds all day, and dinner adds a few more options starting at 5pm.  I went for an early brunch, and noticed vast improvement from its prior incarnation.  Granted, the Empire would never have offered an $18.00 omelette, but then again it wouldn't have ever proffered creme fraiche and paddlefish roe, either.  It's a big omelette, fluffy, and generously sided with home fries and toast with raspberry jam.   Other omelette options include such fillings as goat cheese, bone marrow croutons and clothbound cheddar, although you could go simpler with eggs any style, biscuits and gravy or a Benedict with your choice of salmon, bacon or pork loin.  There's a lot to choose from here, even some ethnic options like Chilaquiles, which were good but could've been a tad saucier, although the wispy-cloudlike poached eggs atop were expertly done and lubed things up as they released their silky yolks.

The appetizer we ordered could easily have stood in as a light main course, as well. A raft of
buttery poached spears of asparagus braced another one of those whimsical poached eggs, the plate (although slightly oily) littered with crunchy little nuggets of minced bacon and flecked with chives.
I love a joint that offers veggies at breakfast as well, so we sampled both some sauteed greens (which turned out to be collards, more stewed than sauteed) and wild mushrooms (WAY sauteed, almost desiccated but still pretty delicious, in a greasy, salty, hang-over busting way). I didn't have a hangover, though, so I would've preferred them a little less frizzled.

All in all, I was pretty happy with The Highliner. The food is by no means destination-worthy alone, but along with the historic address, completely sufficient. I would not at all be opposed to returning for dinner, too, to sample some of their evening fare. (The steelhead and the fried chicken look appealing, as well as some of the desserts: a rootbeer float with sarsaparilla ice cream- and to find out just what in the heck is "whey meringue" on the lemon pie.) No guarantees, of course, but then again there never is. Except for that The Highliner will ALWAYS be The Empire, as long as that chrome facade gleams.

THE HIGHLINER    210 10th Ave.     (between 22nd St & 23rd St) 

                                                               (212) 206-6206

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Ellabess opened in the Nolitan hotel a few months ago, situated amongst a notoriously tumultuous thoroughfare that seems to chronically house restaurants which suffer chef upheaval, dismal reviews, or the worst:  fruition of Eater's Death Watch.  Kenmare turned club, The Village Tart tanked, and Pulino's lost its celebrity chef (although I heard, perhaps, to its advantage).  So Ellabess has her work cut out for her, although when I visited, she showed glimmers of hope.

The room itself doesn't exactly glimmer.  Floor to (high) ceiling windows form the north and east wall looking out on to Kenmare and beyond, where a steady stream of footwear can be analyzed from your dining table, since eye level is ground level to the street.  On the night I visited, humongous grey storm clouds proved their potential by unleashing a torrential downpour: which made for great viewing from the tranquil dining room.  Big, glowy orbs struggle to illuminate, but there remains a bit of a dank, cement feel throughout the room.  Our server was incongruously bright and chipper, though, which softened the vibe substantially.

And I have to stay, things started off strong.  A creamy corn soup studded with enormous discs of summer truffle would prove to make everything else pale in comparison.  It was light in texture but rich in pure corn flavor.  And a market vegetable salad was leaps and bounds better than it should have, given its generic description.  If I hadn't have seen another table order it, I would've written it off as a tumble of standard mixed greens with a little cheese; instead arrived a gorgeous cornucopia of  leaves, flowers, and vegetables both dainty and hearty,  daubed with unctuous knobs of creamy ricotta.  Sauteed sea scallops toed that same line of excellence, three hulking specimens crusted golden atop a pile of Sicilian-style agrodolce of roasted little cauliflorettes and raisins.

Entrees demarcated a slide downhill, however.  Although this could have been poor ordering: one entree we selected was literally just disgusting.  The salmon cooked sous-vide with blueberries, shiitakes and juniper lamb jus sounded so novel I had to try it.  And be glad I did so you can stay as far away from it as possible.  It was so bad it may have unfairly polluted the rest of my experience, but its weird, gelatinous consistency and revolting appearance were at unfortunate harbingers of the insipid globule that lie on the plate, flecked with the incongruous pairing of tasteless blueberries and miniscule shiitakes.  The shrimp may, then, have been better than I recall, but the salmon disaster really tainted the whole evening.  Trying to rally, though, I plowed through it, and the shrimp were fine and the grits okay, fingers of okra killed with breading and not much to else to really salvage things at this point.  There were four other entree options available, though, and had we bypassed that salmon for the strip/pork/chicken or bass, the entire evening may have panned out differently.  So I wouldn't write off Ellabess entirely  just for that salmon catastrophe.  Hopefully it is even off the menu by now.

Desserts took a more positive turn, as sugar/fat/flour so often does.   The best was the waffle souffle: a sweet little pot of fluffy mapley goodness, studded with candied pecans for crunch and a scoop of maple ice cream aside.  This is the ultimate breakfast-for-dessert concoction, and for sweet tooths could even serve vice-versa, paired maybe with a nice fruit compote instead of ice cream.  The peach cobbler sundae was disappointingly not at a cobbler at all, but ginger roasted fruit in a cookie tuile.  And the tuile was a little too pliant, and its peaches  a bit starchy, but with a crumble of cornmeal streusel and served a la mode, it was still mostly tasty.  The dessert  that jumped out at me most from the menu, though, was the clafouti, strictly because of my rhubarb obsession.  And that compote of pie fruit stewed just long enough for the chunks to remain intact and a bit of signature pucker,  along with the sweet corn ice cream, was flawless.  The clafouti itself?  Eh.  I kind of picked out the chunks of rhubarb from the cakey crust, but much of  my pickiness had to do with having long past reached a decidedly sufficient level of fullness.

All in all, Ellabess shows a little more promise than have her cohorts nearby.  Only time will tell if she can supersede the jinx.  The name comes from an infantilized pronunciation of the street upon which she resides, but unless hotel guests provide a steady enough patronage, she's going to have to pull up her big girl pants to strengthen her virtues and out-grow the weaknesses.

153 Elizabeth Street (at Kenmare) 212.925.5559