Toying With Tradition
How the Empanada Parlour Changed While Staying the Same
By Rebecca Chastenet dé Gery, Fri., June 16, 2000
The Empanada Parlour707-709 E. Sixth, 480-8902
Mon-Wed, 11am-10pm; Thu-Fri, 11am-10:30pm; Sat, noon-10:30pm, Sun brunch, noon-2:30pm
Bar hours, Mon-Fri, noon-2am, Sat, 5pm-2am
It has taken me half a decade to figure out the Empanada Parlour, and if it weren't for the veteran downtown restaurant's new digs and expanded menu, I would still be working on the embarrassingly inaccurate assumption that the Empanada Parlour was a family business overseen by a spirited Latin American matriarch. Empanadas, for me, meant Brazilian or Venezuelan street food -- little pockets of stuffed pastry dough made to eat casually as you wandered the cacophonous streets of Rio or Caracas. But the Empanada Parlour's owner, Ash Corea, is not Latin American. She's English. So why empanadas? "Pasties [meat pies]," she informed me emphatically one recent evening, her braid-covered head nodding in affirmation. "You see, in England we have this great tradition of meat pies, and I really missed them."
With all due respect to Ash, I can't characterize England's steaming steak and kidney pies or its leaden Cornish pasties as a "great tradition." A culinary tradition, maybe. Great? Absolutely not!
I lived in England for a little over a year. Not long, but long enough to conclude that the country's penchant for stuffing meats under pastry crusts and topping these savory pies with such dubious things as "mushy peas" is, quite frankly, a food tradition I'd rather forget. In my opinion, Ash's English compatriots would be well-served by imitating her South American-inspired take on their native "pie." Lots has changed of late at the Empanada Parlour, but the restaurant's festive little pockets stuffed with spirited meat, vegetable, and fruit blends (Argentinean chicken; turkey and curry; spinach, Feta, and chipotle; roasted eggplant; leeks, mushrooms, and goat cheese; apricots and plums; pumpkin with pecans and cajeta) are as delicious as ever, and continue to enjoy a dedicated local following.
That said, the Empanada Parlour does have a new look, a fully licensed basement bar featuring live music, and a dinner menu cram-packed with original main dishes and sides. My initiation into the new menu began with a weekday lunch. Inside the historic Sixth Street building, whitewashed brick walls were hung with bright art. The crowd, while relatively sparse, grew in number as we waited for our food, and continued to file in as we paid our tab.
We began with a plate of golden roasted quail legs served with a slightly spicy dipping sauce, a great little beginning that is no longer on the menu. The quail were part of a briefly featured tapas menu the restaurant experimented with, and we've found on subsequent visits that they are sometimes available upon request. Downtown lunchers will be comforted to learn that Ash's little pockets of pleasure, both savory and sweet, remain the lunch menu's shining stars, and the empanadas are now available in combination with homemade soups, leafy salads, or generous sandwiches ($5.50 to $6.50, depending on the combo).
Served alone, the sandwiches, which exit the kitchen on great slices of chargrilled bread, come with a mound of fat fries, and run $5.50. The baked ham is fabulous. Juicy and dense, the meat's bone-padding juices soak delectably into the crisp bread, flavoring the slices with a fat far more flavorful than mere butter. Another great lunch entry is the Greek salad ($4.50). In it, organic greens come smattered with dark, purple-y Greek Kalamata olives, tomato and cucumber chunks, cubes of salty Feta, and biting bits of onion. The salad is a simple composition that allows the quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves.
At dinner, the Empanada Parlour goes upscale, although still serves rustic, comfortable foods without too much fuss. Side dishes, in particular, are commendable for their simplicity and originality. There are roasted parsnips served with little embellishment, steamed asparagus spears glistening with a nearly imperceptible sheen of butter, and thick, unforgiving Roquefort mashed potatoes that are an absolute must when ordering a steak. Entrées tend toward the earthy, with rarely seen items such as a whole roasted Cornish game hen wrapped in bacon and stuffed with rice ($18.50) setting the menu apart. My entrée of choice, a pair of soft, sweet, red bell peppers stuffed with shredded duck, onions, squash, herbs, and spices sitting in a pool of slightly piquant "Hungarian" sauce, sold me on the restaurant's dinner service. The dish was an ingenious way to combine meat and fresh vegetables, and it satisfied by being at once retro (I remember dinners of stuffed green bell peppers) and contemporary, with its duck component and interesting plate sauce. My husband dug into his 10-ounce Black Angus ribeye like a man in dire need of protein, which he is not. Cooked a perfect medium rare to rare, he carved off bite after bite, dragging each one through Ash's signature sherry mustard cream sauce, raving all the time. Our service that night was exemplary, down to a tableside visit from Ash herself, who entertained us with a conversation on the ups and downs of cooking for a crowd and running a growing restaurant, catering operation, bar, and live music venue.
Unfortunately, our most recent visit to the Empanada Parlour was less-than-perfect. Several of us had slipped in to give the restaurant's separate Sunday brunch menu a whirl, and although the food didn't waver in quality, and the spicy bloody marys ($3.75 brunch special, mimosas and tequila sunrises also $3.75) served as great consolation, we experienced long waits for service, and the general atmosphere in the dining room was one of chaos. After having raved so about the changes at the Parlour, I was a little disappointed. Fortunately, though, our waitress was willing to admit that the restaurant was short-staffed and surprised by the Sunday crowd and repeated her apologies on several occasions.
At brunch, the Empanada Parlour features four egg variations, pancakes, a BLT, and a fruit and cottage cheese plate. For the kids, there are silver dollar pancakes ($4.95) and eggs in a basket with bacon, grilled cheese, and fries ($6.95). Of the three offerings sampled by our group, the hands-down favorite was the Parlour's version of eggs Benedict -- poached eggs served over spinach empanada halves, topped with hollandaise sauce, and dressed up with smoked salmon ($9.95; $7.95 without salmon). The pancakes and bacon were good, as was the three-ingredient omelette (we chose ham, mushrooms, and cheese), and the kids seemed to enjoy their little pancakes despite the fact that the order arrived sans bacon.
Although brunch at Empanada Parlour needs a little work, my other meals there were right-on in terms of both food and service. For wine lovers, the restaurant's selection is limited, but there are local ales and the hard stuff readily available for pairing with your food, the latter of which is sure to be solid, reasonable fare -- food you can sink your teeth into with confidence.