The Empress, near Victoria Park, is a sprawling pub just to the north of the park itself. The chef when I last reviewed it, Elliott Lidstone, is now cooking in a shipping container in Bristol. The chef who succeeded him, Harry Milbourne, was still listed on the website as head chef, but he too has moved on. Now behind the stoves in Paul Croasdale, who has worked at some serious restaurants including Alyn Williams, Ynyshir Hall, The Latymer and recently as head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Heddon Street Kitchen. The menu was simple but quite appealing, with some snacks, five starters and half a dozen main courses on offer. Tables were packed in tight and the hard surfaces meant very high noise levels that made conversation difficult on this busy service.
The wine list was simple, with less than twenty labels on offer, ranging in price from £18 to £55 and having a median price of £28 with an average mark-up a fraction over three times the retail price. Example labels were Picpoul de Pinet Chateau de la Mirande 2017at £22.50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £11, the excellent Chateau Musar 2013 at £35 compared to its retail price of £22, and Pierre Gerbais NV Brut champagne at £55 for a bottle that will set you back £34 in a shop.
Bread was supplied by the E5 Bakehouse but the plate delivered to us was distinctly stale, which is hard to excuse, particularly as it was charged for rather than being included in the meal price. English asparagus was served with mayonnaise and hazelnuts. The asparagus itself was decent but was undercooked, the toasted hazelnuts a good flavour pairing and giving an extra texture. The quality of the asparagus did not compare well to the versions I had eaten that week at Roganic or The Ritz, which was hardly surprising, but it was a pity that it was not cooked quite right here (11/20). Seared mackerel fillet came with creme fraiche that was flavoured with horseradish, as well as pickled radish. The accompaniments were fine but the fish itself was very disappointing, flabby and sorry for itself, though not as sorry as I was when I tasted it (10/20).
Herb spaetzle with St Georges mushrooms and wild garlic was the dish of the night. The pasta had good texture, the garlic flavour distinct, the mushrooms properly cooked (13/20). I sampled grilled lemon sole, Jersey Royal potatoes and white asparagus, which looked pretty and had good vegetables but suffered from tasteless fish. Triple cooked chips on the side were good though, crisp on the outside and cooked through properly (13/20).
Treacle tart with raspberry ripple ice cream had decent and quite thin pastry but had a rather grainy texture; for example it compared very poorly to the version I had eaten recently at The Wigmore. The raspberry ripple ice cream had a peculiar flavour and didn’t really work at all (10/20). Blood orange sorbet with vodka sounded interesting but had mostly melted by the time it was served, so was more a cocktail than a dessert (9/20).
Service was, to be frank, inept. Waiters arrived with no clue as to who had ordered what dish, extra bread failed to materialise, an extra bottle of water had to be dragged reluctantly from the bar staff, after several requests. I know this is just a pub on a busy Satirday night, but nonetheless service should be better than this; somewhere like The Brilliant in Southall runs a watertight service operation, so it is not an issue of budget. The bill came to £38 per person including service, which was inexpensive and yet still did not represent good value for money due to the succession of problem dishes. This is a real shame as I really enjoyed my previous visit here when Elliott Lidstone was cooking.
Further reviews: 14th Apr 2012