In New York's continuing saga of one-dish restaurants (see meatballs, mac and cheese, cupcakes, chicken nuggets, and taquitos for starters), we have a new player: Empire Biscuit, an 24-hour spot on Avenue A that opened to much fanfare and lines out the door.
It was a rough opening, and things didn't go as planned: the restaurant was so slammed from the moment they opened that they sold out on several occasions, forcing them to close and regroup. As of now they're firmly open around the clock. Here's our take on the menu.
The good news is that the Empire Biscuit gets its namesake right. Biscuits are of course a very personal matter, and those looking for overly fluffy biscuits or those imbued with a pronounced buttermilk tang will be disappointed. Empire serves a rather compact and dense but still flaky biscuit made with lots of fat. They're available for $2.50 apiece.
There are two varieties: the Country, made with butter and lard, and the All Butter. The biscuits have similar structures with deeply burnished tops, but the All Butter's flavor comes through best when eaten plain. If you're going for a biscuit sandwich, opt for the Country instead.
Biscuits and Gravy
If you're looking for a steaming plate of biscuits topped with steaming ladlefuls of gravy, this isn't the place. The "gravy" that is smeared into the biscuits is quite thick, more like a spread than a sauce, which makes the biscuits easier to eat by hand in the mostly counter-service shop.
A white Sausage gravy ($6.50) with smoky pork sausage spiked and sage had a familiar diner flavor that hit the right notes. But the flavor was too intense, as if the gravy had been reduced more than it should.
The Redeye ($6.75) made from tasso (a highly seasoned Louisiana-style ham, smoked in-house) and coffee nailed the essential characteristics of the dish, but as with the sausage gravy, the smear of sauce overpowered the biscuit's flavor entirely—too little of too much, and not an improvement over the greasy spoon original.
This is by far the strongest part of the menu: there is nothing I sampled here that I wouldn't recommend, and despite the relatively high prices, everything felt worth the money. Speaking of prices, it's worth noting that Empire is only using heritage breed pork and that they make and cure almost everything in house. (The exception, Benton's excellent Tennessee bacon, is hard to argue with.)
The Benton's Bacon, Egg, and Cheddar ($6) I've eaten in recent memory. The thick rashers of bacon imbued the dish with a wonderful smokiness, the egg was riotously runny, and the cheese contributed some tang and zest while the lard-y biscuit pulled it all together.
Another winner is the Spiced Fried Chicken with Pickled Carrots and Sauce a L'Orange ($8.50), so good it's a possible rival to Pies 'n Thighs for best chicken biscuit in the city. The chicken had a supremely crispy crust and was pleasantly juicy within. Pickled carrot and orange sauce helped cut the biscuit's richness.
For what is ostensibly a simple concept—you know, biscuits—Empire Biscuit has built a tyranny of choice. The "custom biscuit" section of the menu (all $4.50) is broken down into two sections: "butters and spreads" and "jams, jellies, and marmalades." You order a biscuit type and then one item from each section. With two biscuit types (Country with lard or All Butter) and twelve offerings in each section, it's easy to get overwhelmed. And given that a lot of the toppings are somewhat unorthodox—preserved lemon, cabbage jam, and oxtail and brown sugar jelly for example—you might, as I did, just retreat to the back of the menu, which has a section entitled "Meant for Each Other" that features some "composed" biscuits.
I had high hopes for the Fancy Pants with foie gras butter, preserved lemon, and cabbage jam, but there's little by way of foie gras flavor, enough to make me wonder if they even remembered to add it on the biscuit. The Kiki, chocolate and caraway butter with coffee jelly, will please those who love Nutella, though it's way more complex. That said, I didn't pick up much in the way of coffee flavor.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the housemade Empire Cola ($3.50) which has an herbal, sarsaparilla-like flavor and is blessedly not too sweet.
Empire Biscuit's concept seems simple on the face of things, and for a quick plain biscuit or a sandwich, that remains the case. But once you start customizing, things get a little bewildering. The custom menu's options encourage baroque toppings that are ultimately superfluous: the plain butter biscuit needs nothing but itself.