For more than 200 years, New York City has been blending people, and the food they’ve lovingly brought with them, into a neighborhood patchwork of cultures and flavors you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world.
More recently, one husband-and-wife team is trying to capture that spirit — and just a little bit of that neighborhood flavor — at their sequel eatery in Jacksonville.
Korey and Lovice Konopasek, who opened Epik Burger four years ago on Atlantic Boulevard, are at it again in Intracoastal West. This time they’ve upscaled from the counter-service Epik to a full-service, sit-down place, Empire City Gastropub, which they opened a year ago in the Stein Mart-anchored Harbour Village at San Pablo near Queen’s Harbour.
As a gastropub — defined by Google as a pub that serves high-quality food — it’s hard to nail down which takes center stage here. Both Empire’s kitchen and cocktail bar produce globally inspired fare seven days a week for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Ingredients are intricately detailed on each menu, from traditional chicken wings to more complex arrangements. Many entrees offer exotic protein add-ons such as braised waygu beef, a high-praised Japanese delicacy.
Décor-wise, the space is decidedly sleek and modern with a blend of wood and tile floors and lots of brick and wood paneling bordering a mix of booths, tables and high-top bar rounds. It’s more industrial-chic than sumptuous, but quite comfortable for the casual gathering or date night.
Several friends and I converged at Empire City one recent Thursday night for the former and got down to business with two starters. The Jacksonville Poutine ($9) is a spinoff from the popular Canadian french-fries-and-gravy dish, minus the cheese curds while adding American cheese, scallions and a salsa-like hot sauce with a mild kick. Our hungry crew demolished this plate of crispy fries and its accoutrements without delay. The Lumpia ($8.50) offers four crisp-yet-melty jumbo Filipino eggrolls with a tasty pork-and-beef filling and your choice of a standard-issue sweet chili sauce or a mild curry dipper. We paid a dollar upcharge to enjoy both, with special praise around the table for the light curry flavor.
For our main course, we sampled four entrees and a burger. At our visit, Empire offered seven entrée burgers, with more promised on a new menu that should be out by the time you read this.
The Gastropub Burger ($13.50) is a vertical-stacked darling with its centerpiece a half-pound slab of shortrib-brisket-chuck Angus blend, dressed deliciously with house-fried potato chips and beer cheese sauce on a brioche bun. It was as much a sight as a taste delight, with the sharp beer cheese sauce the standout on this stack. The standard side of fries gives you a hearty portion of crisp, light, thin-cut satisfactorily salted slices.
For a traditional plate, check out the Tomahawk Pork Chop ($23), a Cheshire Farms center-cut, bone-in grilled chop presiding over vanilla bean mashed potatoes with a tasteful decoration of roasted veggies. While the pork itself wasn’t quite as tender as I wanted it to be, the sweet surprise of the mash was a pleasant plus that elevated the plate overall.
The Chicken and Dumplings ($21) gives you a roasted half-chicken with a another sweet surprise, Czech plum stuffed dumplings, which punctuated a fairly standard rendition of the classic dish finished with roasted veggies and a mustard gravy that didn’t add much oomph to the final product.
For comfort food seekers, look no further than the Drunken Mac N Cheese ($14). This creamy-beyond-compare dish of cavatappi pasta came with a golden dome with beer cheese and sharp cheddar flavors, topped with bread crumbs and slices of braised waygu beef (a $10 upcharge).
My dish, Bi Bim Bap ($16), is a Korean compilation of jasmine rice, kimchi, sunny-side-up egg and pickled veggies in a hot stone pot, which I was instructed to stir vigorously before eating. Garnish your bowl with a touch of gochujang paste or Korean barbecue sauce to enjoy this confluence of flavors responsibly. And once again, don’t forget the waygu beef add-on for a meaty high note.
Empire City offers three desserts, and we tried them all. The Flourless Chocolate Cake ($10) is a thin slab of rich ebony cake over a thick peanut butter and Frangelico whipped cream, studded with crushed, candied walnuts. While barely enough for two to share, you won’t want to.
The “Milk” &Cookies ($8) is a plate of soft-baked treats — we got a half-dozen jumbo peanut butter rounds but none of the advertised s’mores variety — with a whiskey crème anglaise for dunking. The New York-style Cheesecake ($8) is pretty standard-issue with a nice topping of dark cherry brandy sauce.
Happy hour is a robust one at Empire City, weekdays from 2-6:30 p.m., with $2.50 domestic bottles, $4 craft drafts, $3 wells, $4 house wines and $2 off any of its 12 signature cocktails.
You can even get a special tableside mixology lesson as a bartender will show you the proper pours for the whiskey-based Ryevolver cocktail (try it – we loved it).
Each day offers a different theme, with food and drink specials headlining on weekends. Fridays bring live music (usually jazz) performances at 7 p.m., with karaoke Saturdays at 9. Sunday brunch delivers a dozen specialty entrees and seven “hangover buster” tonics.
From the traditionalist to the adventurer, there are plenty of tastes to please local palates and ones oceans away at Empire City Gastropub.
For more of Jay’s dining experiences, visit his blog at www.jaymagee.com.