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Before it was a fine dining cliché, skate was trash around here. In fact, until Gilbert Le Coze put the fillets on the menu at Le Bernardin, the ugly, unwanted fish was often thrown back into the water.
At Empire Diner, newly reopened in Chelsea, skate is deeply, perversely trashy again. And we dig it. Bright orange, stained with hot sauce, and glistening with butter, three Buffalo skate wings ($11) are crammed onto a pile of raw carrot and celery, wet with more crème fraîche than is really necessary. Like most diner pleasures, this one tastes better if you make your way to it late at night, ideally when you've already had a bit to drink.
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Tonight, this old chrome bullet on the corner of 10th Avenue is packed. There are little old ladies squashed into a booth, handsome couples, and locals concentrating on their hamburgers and milkshakes. Squint and maybe you can imagine the place as it once was: the kind of piano bar where patrons tipped in illicit substances, the city's unofficial art scene headquarters, a tourist attraction. But, like so many scrappy landmark New York restaurants, it's now an expensive piece of real estate and only a chef with heavyweight backing can afford to run the show.
We might lament the change of hands, but Amanda Freitag is in the kitchen. Along with her oddball skate, she serves a fine, butter-soaked patty melt stuck to slices of rye with fast-congealing Swiss cheese ($14). And, the doughnut holes ($7), served piping hot with a good caramel sauce, are far better than they need to be — tiny reminders that Freitag is no short-order cook.