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THINK BIG <br> FROM BEER VATS TO VENUE, IT'S ALL ABOUT SIZE IN EMPIRE BREWING COMPANY

The menu is big. The beer making equipment is big. The whole darn place is enormous to tell the truth . . . and no one can say it's not conveniently located.

The Empire Brewing Company is sited in the very center of the Theater District and can be accessed from either Main or Washington Street. The Metro stops at the door.

The bar, complete with pool table, is located at the Main Street end, where, moving in an easterly direction, you pass the beer tanks and kettles. Next comes the open kitchen. Finally there are booths and tables tucked into little nooks and alcoves. You'll even find a small dining room complete in itself.

The menu ranges wide here -- there's an enormous variety of food. There're hearty vittles, mostly with all of today's culinary trends represented. A little Caribbean (Jamaican Skewered Chicken served with Banana Guava ketchup is $13.75). A little Cajun (Southern Fried Catfish with Red Beans and Rice is $14.75). And a little Tex Mex, too (Roasted Enchiladas, $11.75). Not to mention Thai, Mediterranean and Brazilian.

And you thought beer cuisine was only a matter of sausages and sauerkraut. Well, things have changed.

We went for the Skinny Atlas Ale, which was tangy and light and accompanied our meal right nicely. Other choices included robust Amber Ale, Black Magic Stout and Hefe Weizen, a German style wheat beer. (There's also a complete selection of soft drinks, wine and the hard stuff.)

Our first course was the soup special dubbed Mock Turtle. It was tomato based with chunks of meat in it. Quite good, too.

Next came an ethnic mishmash. The Creole Egg Roll (yes, you read it right) cost $5.75 and the stuffing consisted of: crawfish, shrimp, chicken, Cajun sausage, cabbage and smoked gouda cheese. Trouble is, there were so many opposing flavors, the Egg Roll was confusing. Not one flavor stood out. And that was especially true when the roll was anointed with a Cajun mustard dipping sauce. Everything was masked. All you could taste was hot.

To the main course: I opted for the (slightly tough) Thai Pork Tenderloin ($15.75), served with Peanut Sauce and some really worthy sesame bean sprouts. The cucumber ginger salad was pretty good, too.

But the operative word for the Black Magic BBQ Ribs ($16.75) was "mild" -- no great distinction though the ribs were surprisingly meaty and set off well with buttermilk slaw and garlic mashed potatoes.

Many of the desserts are not made in house. Ours was. Unfortunately. The Cranberry Bread Pudding was so heavy and leaden it was like Sara Lee on a bad day.

Our hearts were lifted with the Root Beer Floats, however. Made with the house's own root beer that tastes fresh and terrific, and Starbuck's ice cream, our cup literally runneth over.

Call the float what you want. Call it an infantile pleasure. It is, I suppose. But what a way to end our meal.

Second Helpings
Twenty One Club ****(Jan. 21)
In the Casino Niagara, Niagara Falls, Ont. (888-946-3255). A steak house in the grand tradition -- i.e. decadent servings of absolutely top quality food. Log Cabin (Jan. 14)
2090 Bowen Road, Elma (652-5099). A restaurant with a long local history though ownership has changed through the years. Comfortable, informal surroundings and many menu choices.
Audubon Room *** 1/2 (Jan. 7)
2401 N. Forest Road, Getzville (636-7500). In the University Inn & Conference Center, this large rather formal room looks out at a picturesque gazebo. The dinner menu features "New American Cuisine" with the appetizers most interesting part of the menu.
Falletta's *** (Dec. 30)
8255 Clarence Center Road, Clarence (741-7406). Popular Kenmore Italian restaurant moves out to the country.
Campagna Euro Grille *** * (Dec. 23)
166 Franklin St. (856-4849). Right in the heart of downtown Buffalo, this cozy new restaurant is providing interesting upscale Italian food. Salads, pastas and entrees are available. Also note: Escargot of the Day.
The Coda **(Dec. 17)
350 Pennsylvania St. (886-6647). Cute and tiny and right across from Kleinhans Music Hall, the menu features French inspired dishes with contemporary touches.
The Valley Inn ** 1/2 (Dec. 10)
71 E. Buffalo St., Warsaw (786-3820). This wonderful old Civil War era home operates as a bed and breakfast in the center of this village. Its restaurant offers upscale meals in interesting surroundings.
Nero's ***(Dec. 3)
445 Delaware Ave. (849-2726). A very attractively decorated restaurant that specializes in Italian food. Menu features salads, sandwiches, pasta and entrees and served all during the day. Special dinner items on weekends.
Deco ** 1/2 (Nov. 26)
120 Church St. in the Adam's Mark Hotel (845-5100). Big and handsome, this newly constructed dining room is now open in Buffalo's newest hotel. It features a menu of standard favorites.
Hutch's ****(Nov. 19)
1375 Delaware Ave. (885-0074). It's small, it's busy and it can even be noisy but the food makes it all worthwhile. The menu is divided between "small plates" and "large plates" so you can eat exactly as much as you wish. Reservations a necessity.
Fiddle Heads ****(Nov. 12)
62 Allen St. (883-4166). A sophisticated looking restaurant at the corner of Franklin Street that also offers a very sophisticated menu. The menu itself is short but varied, food is prepared carefully. Pre-fixed menu a particularly good value.
Il Fiorentino ****(Nov. 5)
8485 Transit Road, East Amherst (625-4250). This Tuscan restaurant may be near a busy Transit Road intersection but it has the feel of the Italian countryside. The fresh tasting food is authentic and mostly cooked to order.

EMPIRE BREWING COMPANY ** 1/2
WHERE: 623 Main St. (840-2337). Cavernous microbrewery/restaurant in the heart of the Theater District features everything from nachos to marinated beef tenderloin. Beer, too, of course. And microbrewed root beer. (Happiness is a Root Beer Float.) Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard.
FAVORITE DISH: Mock Turtle Soup.
NEEDS WORK: Cranberry Bread Pudding.
PRICE RANGE: Dinners from $11.75 include vegetables. Sandwiches from $6.25. Pizzas from $5.75.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 to 11. Friday, Saturday noon to midnight. Sunday noon to 10.
HEALTH CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Falafel Salad, Catfish Taco, Crawfish Monica.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: On the street or in surrounding lots.
KID APPEAL: Kids will enjoy some items.

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