A few weeks ago, I couldn’t decide where my parents, our friends, and I should go to dinner. We finally decided on Empire Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit, just open a few weeks when we dined. I had seen it on Instagram and read about it online and was excited to check it out.
The restaurant is owned by the same people who own and operate all of the Five Guys restaurants in Michigan and is in a space designed specifically for the restaurant. The space is definitely striking. From the exterior, the welcoming patios look like the perfect hangout and upon entering, the sleek bar with tons of glass and gleaming bottles, many of which are locally made spirits, immediately catches the eye.
Let’s go back to that patio for a moment. I wanted us to sit out there, but the hostess said it had been reserved. There were plenty of empty tables at the time and this is literally the first restaurant I have heard of reserving the patio for one simple reason: the weather. If a restaurant if fully committed inside and outside and there is say a downpour, they are in serious trouble.
But fine, we couldn’t sit on the patio. When I saw our table, my head dropped. Though I had made the reservation a couple weeks in advance (and spoke with a very nice and knowledgeable gentleman), we were seated at a small four top with a fifth chair placed on the side. It was too tight for the five of us and our food, but we were told nothing could be done. Like the too small table, some of the plates were too small for the dishes, notably the burger and sandwich discussed below.
The waiter, along with all the other staff we encountered, was a delight, as were the cocktails. This makes sense since the bar is so delightful. In particular the spirit forward Mum’s the Word and the refreshing and citrusy Paloma were huge hits.
On to the food. The menu is limited and not much stands out as being unique to the restaurant. We skipped appetizers and went ahead and ordered our meal. The bronzino was a hit with the brown butter and spinach on top. Likewise, the spicy chicken sandwich had the right amount of heat that was well balanced by the buttermilk dressing. The fries with both the sandwich and the burger were nothing special, a little soggy instead of the crispy golden brown deliciousness they should have been.
Speaking of the burger, it was excellent. Well cooked with great meaty flavor, the white cheddar and garlic aioli totally took it over the top.
The macaroni and cheese side was gooey and gooey and everything macaroni and cheese should be, and the carrots were a fantastic surprise. We all enjoyed the perfectly cooked carrots with subtle cumin and a yogurt sauce.
Both Dad and I ordered the Prime New York steak. They arrived well cooked and with tender, skinny asparagus and wonderfully crispy baby potatoes. While there was some disagreement about the taste of the steak at the table, to my sensitive palate it tasted like the steak had literally been set on fire. Not like the grill, not like it was burnt (it wasn’t) but like it had been lit on fire and then placed on my plate. I cut off all the outside and was able to eat part of it. If I would have seen the manager again, I would have mentioned this to him, but I had already complained about our table to no avail.
The steak also needed some kind of sauce. It was just meat, potatoes, and vegetables on the plate. While a béarnaise or butter sauce would do, even a pan juice, a chimichurri would really bring the plate together.
Back to the potatoes for a second. They far outshined the fries and could and should be one of the signature dishes of the restaurant. They were wonderfully addictive. The restaurant needs to focus on finding its voice with signature items like these potatoes that set it apart from all the other places out there. Right now, I am not sure what Empire really wants to be or what food it really wants to serve.
It might sound like I am not cheering for Empire to make it, but I am. I hope they work out the kinks, find their footing, refine their food, and make a lasting impact on the Detroit dining scene. As of right now that feels rather far away, but in the restaurant industry things can change overnight. These guys clearly know what they are doing with Five Guys as I haven’t had a bad experience there, but Empire isn’t living up to their other restaurants yet.
We stopped for a quick dessert at For the Love of Sugar. Though their macarons are on the sweet side, it is definitely worth a visit to this stunning, bright bakery with towering layer cakes and great espresso beverages. This warm cinnamon roll totally hit the spot at this Instagram worthy destination.