14 July 2014

The Empress, Victoria Park

Trying to find somewhere that will cater for an estimated 10-12 people, all with different budgets, tastes and appetites on a Saturday night for a birthday was never going to be easy. I wanted somewhere that served a mixture of small plates and large, didn't take a credit card reservation and wouldn't squeeze us into a tiny room somewhere. I ran through some of my East London favourites such as Bistrotheque, 8 Hoxton Square, Dead Doll's Club, Raw Duck... but none of them quite worked. Suddenly I was struck with inspiration and booked in at The Empress in Victoria Park Village.

This place first stole my heart a couple of years back when I went to catch up with my friend Harry who was sous-chef under Rosette-winning Head Chef Elliot. A bright and airy restaurant, deep leather sofas, wooden board games, exposed brickwork and an open kitchen make this place somewhere that you instantly feel at home in. The first time I went I sat at the bar and chatted to the friendly barmaid while plate after plate of food was put in front of me - on the house. I gorged on the worth-writing-home-about crispy pigs ears and apple sauce, savoured a tangy mackerel fillet with bulgar wheat and pickled beetroot main course and lost myself in a fruity panna cotta. It was somewhere I vowed to go again.

Fast forward a couple of years and, despite Harry no longer working there, I couldn't resist popping in to celebrate turning 25 in with six of my pals. After a couple of much-needed Bloody Marys at The Crown on the way, we jumped straight on to our table and began the hugely arduous task of deciding what to eat.

The Empress' menu is perfect for those who like to try a bit of everything. They offer generous helpings of bar snacks as well as usual starters and mains and there's nothing wrong with jumping around a bit. Whilst we were deciding we ordered a couple of baskets of freshly baked bread from the E5 bakehouse that we then proceeded to smother with unsalted butter, topped with fresh salt flakes. Choices made, we asked for our food to be brought out all together so that we could all chow down at the same time. This we were promised, but in reality it definitely didn't happen.

I chose two dishes: the first, raw beef with avocado, lime and chilli. The citrus zing complemented the meat perfectly, adding a cool bite to the tender bit of steak. Presented prettily with pea shoots and other microherbs, this was a dish that I could eat over and over again without any semblance of guilt. And for my second, other guilt-free dish? I went for a perennial old favourite of whole baked camembert with homemade chutney and thin slices of sourdough toast. Coming long after everyone else had finished their onglets, polenta and courgette, whitebait and ham croquettes, it was a typically countrified affair presented on a beautiful wooden board with the crisp slivers for dunking. Warm, gooey and oozing I definitely polished off the entire lot but had to ask for another round of toast that only came just as I was scooping out the last of the cheese with a fork. Hmm, disappointing.

We decided to forgo dessert (although my friends did buy me a shot of tequila instead and proceeded to sing Happy Birthday whilst I buried my face in my hands) and finish off the second (or was it third) bottle of red we'd ordered. The food in The Empress is definitely something to write home about (told you those pigs ears were good) but the service let it down this time. But I'll definitely be going back and this favourite gets a four out of five, nonetheless.

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