The brand-new Empire Baking Company makes a persuasive argument for Dallas, that city Houstonians love to hate. Stupendous loaves, eventful sandwiches, punchy salads, tony people-watching, smart little wine list, industrial good looks: if there's anything not to like about this bakery-cafe import -- which has no relation to our homegrown Empire Cafe in Montrose -- I haven't figured out what it is yet.
Yes, the prices are sobering. But the quality's there in spades, and anyone broken in by the dizzying bread tariffs at the late Quilted Toque probably won't blanch at forking over $5.50 for a loaf or six bucks for a sandwich. The payoff is bread to remember: a moist, dense oval of roasted-garlic-and-pine-nut bread that's a controlled explosion of flavor; a wonderfully spongy, air-pocketed dome of rustic pane paisano that combines lightness with gravitas and looks, in its outsize puffiness, like a visitor from another planet.
You can dive into a simple bread basket here and forget to come up for air, particularly when you order the pungent, wine-dark olive spread called tapenade, which is nothing less than the Mediterranean distilled into a small, white crock. Does it taste better with Empire's basic, faintly sour farm bread or with the earthier cracked-wheat version? Better have another couple of pieces to make sure. And maybe twin rosettes of baked garlic to squoosh on just for the purposes of comparison, along with some of that golden olive oil and a couple of toasted pine nuts.
Consorting with the irresistible bread basket and spreads is a good way to ruin your appetite for lunch. Solution: order one of a changing roster of salads. A stunning toss of field greens laced with fat little tat soi leaves, perhaps, its lively balsamic vinaigrette worth chasing around the plate with a piece of bread, its interesting cargo of crisp, fresh pear, goat cheese and sweet red-onion confit banishing qualms about the $8 price tag. Even the dried, tart cherries that sound like a Dallas-y stretch work well in this salad; they are more provocative than precious.
Not by dried cherries alone does Empire bespeak its city of origin: its high-style austerity is pure Big-D. Tech-y coils of electrical tubing snake down from the high ceilings; chrome-clad industrial shelving and sculptural wire Bertoia chairs shine in a flood of natural light; black-granite tables and earth-colored cement flooring brood with a dull luster. Outside, the city-of-tomorrow vista furnished by architect Cesar Pelli's Interfin buildings thuds to earth in a grim concrete parking lot and a snippet of James Coney Island that says, "remember you're in Houston." To be specific, you're at the epicenter of the real-estate quake now shaking up the intersection of Post Oak and San Felipe -- the sleek new Birraporetti's is next door, the thronged California Pizza Kitchen a catty-cornered hop away, and the hotsy-totsy Q Club health spa just yards up the street.
The natives arrive in their Range Rovers and upper-end Japanese imports, clad in Post Oaky business garb or serious exercise gear or the Official Empire Baking Company Uniform, distaff division (namely blue jeans and a good -- make that very good -- tweed jacket). They breakfast on caffe latte and gorgeous, crumbly currant scones, tender and richly buttery. They lunch on toasted calamata-olive bread layered with roasted red peppers, wafer-thin grilled yellow squash and an extravagance of semi-molten goat cheese, a sandwich that actually seems worth its steep $8 price in tandem with a green salad sparkling with lemon vinaigrette, its intensity doubled by soft shavings of lemon peel. They linger in front of the bread still life at the seductive front counter, trying to decide between a short-crusted apple tart with the look of a hand-crafted dumpling and a user-friendly hazelnut biscotti of far more depth and subtlety than the usual tooth-breaking slabs.
Mere weeks into the Empire's young life, there's already a short wait for lunch by half-past noon. While soups, hot sandwiches and salads revolve weekly, the staples are well-considered cold sandwiches matched to the bakery's kaleidoscope of breads. The effect of exemplary chicken salad spiked with toasted almonds and rosemary leaps exponentially in the presence of opulent walnut bread strewn with fresh, green-tasting scallions. Pimento cheese with fresh dill and chives achieves pure classicism when it meets Empire's sturdy farm bread with its strong, chewy crust. And wonder of wonders, instead of mucking up their sandwiches with dreary winter tomatoes, Empire dispenses with these sog-inducing irrelevancies, sticking sensibly to a chaste layer of romaine.
There are few misses among this generally excellent fare. One is a distinctly unthrilling tuna salad that wants something -- a fresh herb? an interesting crunch factor? more of those good bread-and-butter sweet pickles? -- to lift it from the realm of who-cares boredom and justify its cost. Another is the flattish takeout salads that also go into Empire's ten-buck box lunches: fresh cilantro and red onion and a vanishing citrus vinaigrette don't save the rice salad from blandness (a kitchen that makes a great lemon vinaigrette should be able to fix this); and roasted potatoes tossed with olive oil, thyme and rosemary could use a hit of kosher salt or vinegar to brighten them up.
Empire's breads, however, require no improvement at all. Their full, rounded flavors grow from a lengthy slow-rise process that employs naturally fermented starters instead of quick-acting yeast; and unlike a number of the city's new crop of boutique bakeries, Empire doesn't routinely mask the breads' grain flavors with sweeteners. The exceptions are a lightly honeyed nine-grain, three-seed loaf and a baroque round of semi-sweet chocolate and sour-cherry bread that two gastronomes of my acquaintance toasted and served with ice cream.
At their best, these breads can stand alone without so much as a speck of butter to enable them. Well-toasted pine nuts amplify the mellow, almost woodsy taste of that roasted-garlic farm bread, giving it a lingering finish not unlike that of fine wine. The crusts, fortified by a steam-oven technique that makes them superbly chewy, add a complex baseline -- crackly little cornmeal grains, for instance, lend a pleasantly gritty quality to the pane paisano's exterior; toasted, this exceptional loaf belongs in the Textural Hall of Fame.
Small wonder, then, that breakfast here can be a joy. There is perfect French toast -- now available, unfortunately, only at weekend brunch -- made with substantial rafts of the house cinnamon-raisin bread and good coffee du jour that may be thin-bodied, but is surprisingly long on flavor. Poached-egg extravaganzas -- also, alas, now limited to weekends -- change weekly: one, housed on sturdy jalapeno-cheese bread, wore a boisterously tart tomatillo sauce that quarreled with a layer of salty Parma ham; minus the ham, though, the dish was swell, the poached eggs right on the mark. So were the thinly sliced potatoes au gratin that came with them -- lightly creamy, glazed brown and thrown into focus by gutsy gorgonzola cheese. Great idea.
Those bent on carbo-loading can breakfast -- daily, thank goodness -- on theatrically crested croissants that murmur of real butter and crackle when you bite into them, which is as it should be. The Danish pastries sing of butter, too, and bear such urbane toppings as whispery, un-sweet cream cheese and real sour cherries.
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Presiding morning, noon and night -- as of January 28, when a simple dinner menu goes into effect -- is banker-turned-baker Robert Ozarow, the New York state native who's the brains behind Empire. (He also has a heavyweight investor in the person of Black-Eyed Pea originator and current Good Eats restaurateur Gene Street.) With a reassuring splash of coffee on his white shirt, Ozarow patrolled his fledgling enterprise last week with an eagle eye, a barrage of inquiries and a sharp line of patter.
"Any questions?" he asked one table. "Not yet," came the answer. "Later, huh?" he cracked. "Like, 'What's this shoelace doing in my salad?'" Ozarow's is the kind of hands-on ownership that's heartening to see; he's obviously serious about getting his first venture outside his Dallas flagship off to a good start. Colonist or not, anyone who superintends loaves like these while joking about his (nonexistent) hand-tooled leather yarmulke is welcome to take my Houston money.
Empire Baking Company, 1616 Post Oak Boulevard, 871-9779.
Empire Baking Company: tapenade, $2; chicken salad on walnut-scallion bread, $6; green salad with pears, onion confit, dried cherries and goat cheese, $8; French toast, $5.50.