Review: The Empress – Hackney

Elliott Lidstone, former head chef of the Michelin starred L’ortolan in Berkshire, has recently made himself a new home heading up the kitchen at the Empress in the heart of Victoria Park, Hackney – and boy is he making an excellent impact. A proud resident of Hackney, Elliott saw in the Empress an opportunity to make his mark on the vibrant East London food scene. Lucky Hackney. They’ve set a new standard in gastro pubs. The royal standard.

 Eating out in Pubs GuideCheck out this review from Zoe Williams at The Telegraph.

In November 2012 Empress was highly recommended in the top 500 Michelin ‘Eating Out In Pubs’ 2013.

After 12 years of working in Michelin starred kitchens (six years at L’ortolan, six years at Chewton Glen), Elliott has developed a more pared-down style of cooking to fit his new informal setting.

“The Empress, Hackney”

“The Empress, Hackney”

Independent owner-operator, the hard-working Michael Buurman, recently bought the site from the ETM group and has transformed the restaurant/gastro pub into a more laid-back bar/eatery to suit its Hackney surroundings. It used to be a florist and then an Indian but has only now it’s got its groove back. Michael admits he didn’t have much money to spend on doing up the place, so he just stripped it back revealing its magnificent black and white mosaic floor. Just a fresh coat of paint, dove grey outside, some murals of frisbee-loving dogs, a few coat hooks and tiny pots of daffodils to brighten it up a bit. Hunks of meat red were on the walls and reflected in the leather. Bare tables dressed with starched white linen napkins. There are tables outside for the summer. We sat in school chairs and on odd height stools at the bar and reached for dodgy handles on the doors – but we guessed they were loose from the pulling of the punters trying to get in here.

There is a huge mirror in the Mediterranean restaurant next door and how it must hurt for them to look in through those big windows and see this buzzy, vibrant place. It’s an oasis in the day and a heaven at night. There’s a spirited atmosphere, a creative and professional crowd – those who’d appreciate all the American typewriter ampersands that link the beautiful ingredients together. The prices are extremely reasonable, especially given the quality, number of ingredients and care with which each dish was served.

The seasonal, regularly changing menu allows quality ingredients to shine and features the likes of bone marrow with snails; Pollock with curried cauliflower and lime; and purple sprouting, sesame and goat’s curd salad.

The Empress makes the most of a fantastic array of local suppliers. Meat is picked up over the road at the Ginger Pig, fish comes from Jonathan Norris and sourdough, to supplement Elliott’s own bread on the menu, is brought by bike each morning from the E5 Bake house. Coming out of the bar is a quirky, keenly priced wine list where you are more likely to find a Hungarian Olaszrizling than Chablis. Michael lived in Budapest so knows his way around a Hungarian harvest. Similarly, the more original choices of Brewdog, Redemption and Camden brews take pride of place on the draught taps. You can even (with special permission) pop over the Bottle Apostle and bring one of their wines back with you. It’s that laid back.

The food was outstanding. We’d eat here everyday, too. Hose or no hose.

A starter of Pig’s Ear & Apple Sauce (£3.50) was finger licking, with chewy, fresh white crackling. A touch of nutmeg in the home-made sauce added to Percy’s perk. Wrapped in a rolled up newspaper we were snuffling for the last bits at the bottom of the cone.

Pig's ear

Pig’s ear

The Pearl Barley & Cauliflower Risotto with Hazlenuts (£6/£11) and sprinkled with crispy onion was a little runny but it’s hearty in the right place. Comfort food.

“Pearl Barley & Cauliflower Risotto at The Empress, Hackney”

“Pearl Barley & Cauliflower Risotto at The Empress, Hackney”

The Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Goat’s Curd & Sesame (£6) was fresh and creamy. Once we’d worked out it was curd we also discovered crisps to drip it on. There were radichio leaves (the new parsley) and chopped green beans. So much to discover and so much to love.

Broccoli, Goat's Curd and Sesame

Broccoli, Goat’s Curd and Sesame

So now the snails – rescued from their life in a boring French bistro to an earthy, warm and succulent place inside a canoe-sized bone marrow. The Snails, Bone Marrow & Wild Garlic (£6.25) were dressed on the plate with a garlicky, glutinous sweetness of a snail trail worth following.

“Bone marrow and snails at The Empress, Hackney”

“Bone Marrow & Snails at The Empress, Hackney”

There are lots of hints at the pub – pork scratching pig ears, crispy onion rings and crushed nuts. But the highlight of the evening should be the global gastro pub staple. A rich Beef Cheek & Turnips (£12.50) was so moist that you wanted to kiss the cow itself (what’s left anyway). You are not going to find anything this good anywhere else.

“Beef Cheeks and Turnip at The Empress, Hackney”

Beef Cheeks and Turnip at The Empress, Hackney”

Here’s a bit of genius – the upgrade. For 50p per person you can have unlimited organic sour dough bread (a bit tough) & Vivreau (you know those taps) or still water.

We ended the meal on a Hungarian Royal Tokaji (£4.80 a glass) – like a nectared Danube wending its way down our tongue. Budapest’s loss is Hackney’s gain.

Three Cheers for the Empress.

The Empress is open for lunch and dinner from Monday evening through to Sunday. Brunch is also available on the weekends and bar snacks are served throughout the day. On Sundays roasts are also served.

Free parking is available outside. The nearest stations are Cambridge Heath and London Fields on the Overground or Bethnal Green and Mile End on the Underground. Buses 425, 277, 388 and 26 all stop nearby.

The Victoria Park is nearby and would make a terrific stroll after lunch on a perfect Easter Weekend.

Elliott regularly tweets from the kitchen @elliottlidstone.

The Empress |130 Lauriston Road, Victoria Park, London E9 7LH T | 0208 533 5123


  1. […] of ours Empress in Hackney and Crooked Well in Camberwell were also Inspectors’ […]

Speak Your Mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.