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On the Menu: Pesto Chicken at Empire Café

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I have long adored the relaxing sanctuary that is the patio at Empire Café. I have been there more times than I can count, and I always get a latte and an omelet or sandwich. Since I am leaving Houston in just two months, I recently decided to get out of this rut.

Early Sunday evening I arrived at Empire to finally check a true dinner experience at this much-loved Montrose eatery off my list. I went straight for the entrée section of the menu and decided on the special - grilled chicken with basil pesto, spinach and red bell peppers and a side of asparagus ($11.95).

One thing I will never understand about Empire is why they have a sample plate of their current specials sitting out on the counter all night. For one, it confuses people. I once saw an elderly foreign man grab one of these plates thinking it was his order. Luckily, amid the awkward bystanders, someone stopped him before he took a bite. Second, food that has been sitting out for hours does not look at all appetizing. To my surprise, the plate that was delivered to my table was an aesthetically pleasing and hunger pain-inducing masterpiece.

After devouring the pretty mix of bright colors with my eyes, I dug in for the true test. The chicken was nicely pounded out, facilitating an even grill and, much to my relief, it wasn't the least bit dry. However, it was a bit too salty to be a complete homerun. The basil pesto was nice, and with the addition of the slightly bitter sautéed spinach and sweet red bell pepper, outstanding. I was also surprised by the asparagus, which was blanched to a perfect tenderness and served with lightly dressed tomatoes and cooked shallots. I will definitely be recreating this asparagus salad at home.

The weakness in the dish came from the inexplicable side of penne with marinara. It did nothing to add to the overall flavor profile of the dish, though the splash of red did look lovely against all the green. The penne was overcooked and chewy, while the marinara reminded me of Spaghetti-O's, though not entirely in a bad way. A nice herbed couscous or some sort of rice would have been a much better match.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by my entrée experience at Empire Café, and I doubt this will be my last visit here before I leave.

If you had only two months left in Houston, where would you eat?

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