Empire Brewing Company, Syracuse, N.Y.

“Want to give it one last try?”

The Wife presented her query when we found The Blue Tusk closed for lunch today. We were looking for a quick, non-fast food lunch and the sandwiches there would have done the trick. That meant that the only open restaurant in Armory Square was our last resort.

(Let’s rewind. We loved the Empire Brewing Company and would regularly go for dinner during the summer when we were home from college, and while I was in grad school. It expanded, opening locations in Rochester and Buffalo, enjoyed popularity as a great brewery with a solid creole/cajun menu before closing all of its storefronts during the mid-2000s. It was the perfect place to take out-of-town guests: good house-brewed beer, an eclectic menu, and reasonable prices.

It reopened four or so years ago in Syracuse at its old spot. The Wife and I, excited for its return, rushed down the stairs at the Walton Street location only to be disappointed. The signature blue corn bread appetizer was frozen. The jambalaya, my favorite dish from the old days, was mushy, flavorless pasta. And the beer. I’m not sure the taps had been cleaned since the day they closed. I ended up with a two-day case of the sh… uh, digestive distress. Yeah, digestive distress.

I walked away angry that one of the standby dining choices had returned with an inferior product. It was like they took the chassis from a Yugo and dropped the shell of a Subaru on top. Suddenly the old reliable was a broken heap.)

We reluctantly ventured down the stairs for Sunday’s Blues Brunch, featuring a live blues band and a supplementary breakfast menu. We were seated immediately in a noisy dining room that was more conducive to facial expressions than conversations. The band had yet to start, but the intimate dining room was at an overpowering volume due to brick walls that ricocheted the sounds, cackles and elevated voices of the semi-drunk diners that had been imbibing mimosas and bloody marys for the past hour. Our waiter was nearly unintelligible through the noise. We simply guessed that he was taking our drink order when I asked for a shandy made with their Skinny Atlas Ale, a kolsch-style pilsener that is a perfect summer beer.

We skipped appetizers, hoping to keep any potential disappointment to a minimum and easing ourselves back into the menu. The Wife’s malted waffles were a contradiction. The dense batter formed waffles that were extremely light. The waffles were more than just Bisquick and eggs. The malt complemented the creamy flavor and were cooked to a perfect golden hue. The waffle was split into quarters and served with scrambled eggs and turkey sausage.

If the Empire Brewing Company really was back, it was going to happen with its cajun menu, so I went for the brunch fajitas. Andouille sausage is marinated in molasses and brown sugar and grilled with onions, peppers, eggs and cheese. The flavor of the sausage was dominant, but not in a bad way. The sweetness undercut the punch from the spices, preventing it from being too hot. The eggs absorbed the flavor from everything around them, like a frittata, but tempered the heat and sharpness of the domineering tastes. Served on a sizzling platter, the fajitas came with soft tortillas, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole.

When we left, the line for a table was out the door with multiple parties holding pagers from the hostess stand.

The Blues Brunch was a nice reintroduction to a long lost friend. We’ve kissed and made up, worked out our differences and will get reacquainted over dinner some time soon.

The Empire Brewing Company is located at 120 Walton Street in Syracuse’s Armory Square. Reservations are accepted for groups of eight or more. The Sunday Blues Brunch happens weekly from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with the band taking the stage at 12:30 p.m. Brunch for two with one beer was $28 before tip.


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