The Empress in Hackney has been converted from an old Victorian pub into a restaurant, with a new team in the kitchen coming on board in January 2012. The head chef is Elliot Lidstone, who for the last six years worked as head chef at l’Ortolan, and prior to that as sous chef at Chewton Glen. Sourcing is taken seriously, with meat from the excellent Ginger Pig, fish from the nearby Jonathon Norris.
The dining room has a pretty mosaic tiled floor and red leather banquette seating. Bar snacks were priced at £3 - £4.50, starters at £4.75 to £8, main courses mostly £11 - £15.50 with steaks costlier (T bone steak was £29) and desserts £5.50. The wine list was short at less than 50 bottles, ranging in price from £16 to £65, with an average price of £25.50. Mark-ups were 2.9 times retail price on average, so normal for London. Examples were Rioja Montesc 2008 at £19.80 for a wine you can find in the high street for around £7, Mendel Malbec 2007 at £39.80 for a wine that retails at £17, and the excellent Fanny Sabre Aloxe Corton 2008 at £65 for a wine that will set you back £38 if you can find it in the UK. We drank the excellent value Chateau Musar Hochar 2005, priced at £27.70 for a wine that you can find in a shop for £11. Bread was from the E5 Bakehouse, and was excellent for bought-in bread, with nice crust and texture (15/20).
My ham-hock terrine was very pleasant, perhaps a little on the dense side, served with very good home-made piccalilli, and an unusually good quality radish as garnish (13/20). Soup is often treated cynically in restaurants, an excuse to do something with the vegetable peelings, so it was great to see something much more interesting here. Pea, wild garlic and goat’s curd soup had a lovely rich stock, tender peas, a pleasing hint of wild garlic and accurate seasoning. This was a strikingly good soup (easily 15/20).
Mackerel was served with pink fir potatoes and rhubarb. The fish was properly cooked, though the quality of the fish itself was merely good rather than anything more, but the potatoes were nicely cooked and the rhubarb worked rather well in terms of balance; I am not sure about the wisdom of mixing hot and cold elements on a plate, in this case the hot fish with the cold potatoes, but the dish was pleasant enough (13/20). I enjoyed my T bone steak, a nicely cooked steak of vast proportions and good flavour; in this case the beef was from Longhorn cattle aged for 30 days, served with a lively shallot and caper dressing (14/20). Chips on the side were well-made double cooked chips, but in my view triple cooking would get an even better result, allowing a crisper outside (14/20).
Desserts maintained the high standard. Cheesecake with mandarin sorbet had a good base and filling, and particularly well made sorbet with lovely flavour balance (14/20 but more for the sorbet). Ginger panna cotta was even better, with light texture and a proper taste of ginger (15/20). Coffee was acceptable, though here the sourcing could be improved (editor's note, they have since changed supplier). Our waitress was excellent, the service friendly and efficient. This was a really good meal. It shows what can happen when you take a chef with a background in serious restaurants and give him the task of cooking a simpler level of menu: the skill still shines through. It would be easily possible to eat a three course meal here, with a nice bottle of wine between two, for around £40 a head. This seems to me a genuine bargain.