In August, The Wife and I returned to the Empire Brewing Company for the first time in years. We were delightfully surprised and relieved to see that the food, at least at brunch, had returned to an acceptable quality.
One of my favorite meals in Syracuse was the Big Mamou Platter, a sampler of Empire’s New Orleans/creole-inspired menu. Three hunks of blue cornbread divide generous portions of jambalaya, gumbo and shrimp NOLA — rotini pasta and shrimp tossed in a creamy tomato sauce with a hint of heat. It was a little bit of everything that you liked about Empire on one plate.
Before Friday evening, the last time I ordered it was after the restaurant had reopened a few years ago. And, it was a mess. Everything tasted like it came directly from a hot-hold: watered down, limp and flavorless. On top of it, the beer was wretched. I ended up spending some quality time in the bathroom as a result.
Our return was brought on by a gift card from my sister, who has done a pretty good job of finding places for me to eat. With the in-laws in place to watch The Kid, we ventured out.
The restaurant and bar were fairly empty when we arrived, so we made our way to the bar and figured that we would get a table when things began to fill in. The Wife got her hands on a glass of Harvest Moon raspberry cider, which we discovered last weekend at Critz Farms. I opted for an Empire cream ale, which is their take on Boddington’s.
After a couple of those, the crowd picked up and we grabbed a table in the main dining room. The menu is basically the same, but with more focus on locally-grown produce and locally-raised meats, noted by a list of 61 farms and business within a two- to three-hour drive. There are some subtle differences, as evidenced by the North African-influenced Morroccan chili and Mediterranean flatbread sandwiches. Otherwise, it’s burgers, salads and the creole stuff.
The Wife and I started with nacho fondue, a seven-layer dip gone horizontal. Corn salsa, a meat-based chili, cheese, pico de gallo and lettuce are topped with sour cream and guacamole. The dip had good flavor without a lot of heat (the hothouse fondue promises more spice). For The Wife, it was the housemade tortilla chips that were the standout. The corn chip resisted sogginess and breakage when scooping up the contents of the serving dish. She squirreled a few away to have with dinner.
Both of us went for the Big Mamou as a reintroduction to the restaurant. It was a standout. Truth be told, I think that The Wife and I would go back and order jambalaya and shrimp NOLA to split. The jambalaya had the right amount of flavor; not too much spice and not too much smoke from the ham and sausage. The rice was the perfect balance to the shrimp pasta with its tomato-cream sauce. Three large pieces of blue cornbread carried a hint of sweetness and took the edge of any spice on the plate. If there was a disappointment, we would both point to the gumbo. While the vegetables and meat had good texture, the flavor was limp. The steamed rice zapped any sort of spice, replacing it with the flavor of hot water.
The overwhelming portions, combined with the extra beers we had ordered, kept us away from the dessert menu. Though, if room existed, I think I would have gone for the Black Magic Sundae:
The Empire Brewing Company is located at 120 Walton Street in Syracuse’s Armory Square. Reservations are accepted for groups of eight or more. Brunch for two with one beer was $54 before tip.