Over the past few years, downtown Louisville’s dining options have grown impressively, and the Empire Restaurant and Lounge is one of this burg’s top spots for fine dining in a relaxed setting. While this space can accommodate many diners, it feels smaller and more intimate than it is, enhanced by woods and an earthy color scheme.
The menu highlights classic American comfort food with a few Continental twists. Starters range from guacamole to build-your-own boards of charcuterie, cheese and dips. Salads are anchored by disparate ingredients like lentils and calamari. Grilled cheese and hamburgers are among the dinner choices, but more rarefied entrees include rock shrimp risotto and flatiron steak.
Dinner with friend Sara began with two standbys from the menu’s “snacks” heading. We were able to channel our inner Cool Hand Lukes with a $6 plate of deviled eggs. These were presented in a straightforward manner that would be instantly familiar to anyone who’s bitten into one of these oeufs in the past century or so. The spicing seemed to include the tried and true seasonings of paprika and turmeric, and Sara was particularly smitten with the pleasing give of the whites.
The other starter was a $4 pile of peppery house-made potato chips, sliced nearly paper thin. You’d likely not encounter chips with this slender profile in a store-bought bag, as they’d likely crumble before you’d be able to open them up. Their thickness, or lack thereof, made for a pleasantly addictive experience, and one imagines they would have been even more compelling served warm rather than at room temperature.
The high point of both our meals was the entrees. Off the standard menu, Sara picked a $24 plate of grilled duck breast sided with goat cheese enchiladas. The ancho chile and maple sauce covering the side suggested the finer spicy sweet qualities of Mexican mole. The richness of the enchiladas themselves made them worthy of being presented as an entree on their own. But the most compelling component was the perfectly cooked fowl, rare, ruby red, slightly sweet and possessing a velvety tenderness.
A more humble selection was my $27 special of grilled Colorado lamb T-bones accompanied by sautéed Oxford Farms carrots. The heirloom veggies provided visual interest — one was purple — and the fullness of flavor that separates local small farm produce from mass market carrots. Consistent with our server’s recommendation, I requested the two thick lamb steaks be prepared rare, and these arrived from the kitchen just so. Lamb fans will enjoy these slabs, and even the novice might enjoy this selection, as it wasn’t quite as gamy as meat from a less refined animal.
The meal wrapped up with a brace of $8 desserts, a chocolate budino and Shaker Lemon pie. The cocoa pudding’s flavor and consistency didn’t break much new ground, although the chocolate shell it rested atop wasn’t without some charm. The thick, soft crust of the single-serving pie overwhelmed the filling, which otherwise struck a decent balance between tart and sweet.
I suspect our well-executed main courses would be even more endearing at a slightly lower price. The starters and desserts were fine, although they didn’t quite rise to the level of our entrees, which held their own against just about anything available locally.
Empire Restaurant & Lounge is located at 816 Main St., Louisville. Call 303-665-2521.