One can measure the quality of a food establishment by the number of times it startles.
This became apparent three visits in at Empress Tavern, the best new restaurant in Sacramento. At Empress, one is so frequently taken aback – by the tenderness of meats, bright flavors of side dishes and starters, and the beautifully designed, subterranean environs – that being taken aback emerges as a new standard.
Before Empress, moments of marveling occurred three times, max, at any one restaurant. At Empress, the majority of dishes I tasted had this effect.
Most were not fancy, either, at least not in presentation. The aesthetic of Empress, a meat-centric restaurant in the underground space of the Crest Theatre that once held two movie auditoriums, is comfort food. Think hofbrau. Then think about how there’s not often someone as talented as Michael Thiemann at the helm of a hofbrau.
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Empress executive chef and co-owner Thiemann, 40, grew up in Rancho Cordova and opened restaurants in New Zealand and Hawaii with his wife and Empress co-owner, Lisa, a front-of-the-house specialist. He was executive chef of Ella Dining Room & Bar and corporate chef for Tyler Florence’s Bay Area restaurants before returning home a few years ago to open the popular vegetarian restaurant Mother, which sits a few doors down from Empress on K Street.
Here’s the part where I sound as if I work for the Convention & Visitors Bureau: Sacramento is lucky Thiemann is from here.
Few chefs with pedigrees as impressive as Thiemann’s commit to Sacramento the way he has, as not a chef for hire, but one with a real stake in two potentially risky concept restaurants.
The thoughts of home and hearth that Empress’ prime rib and Parker House rolls inspire start at the top, with a native son at home in Sacramento. As Thiemann, who mixes culinary talent and boyish enthusiasm in a most disarming way, puts it, he and Lisa wanted to “increase the coolness factor of Sacramento.”
They have. With Mother, a funky, compact space that serves high-end, innovative food, and now the 7,000-square-foot Empress, an elegant, brick-lined space focused on traditional, hearty food. The restaurant carries the original name of the Crest Theatre from 1913 and enough softening touches, in its vaulted ceiling, flowered wallpaper and bouquet lighting fixtures, to be a basement tavern free of man-cave undertones. (A lack of televisions helps).
Empress and Mother together present the best evidence yet of K Street’s potential for true sophistication – as a distinctive cultural neighborhood, not just an arena-adjacent one.
One indicator of such sophistication is an ability to make things look easy. Dishes that sound simple, like the pimento-cheese crudité off Empress’ $5 “snacks” menu, are not.
Crunchy, fresh celery and carrots find a satisfyingly cheesy home in a dip true to its Southern roots but not its processed-food reputation. The cream-cheese and sharp-cheddar snack comes with a beet and pistachio “soil” that adds texture and a hint of sweetness.
Wedge potatoes, also on the $5 menu, are fluffy inside and crispy out. The cheddar aioli accompanying them offers a dollop of fat/salt/smoke heaven. A silky smoked-salmon snack completes a memorable troika of dips – a topic about which I consider myself erudite, having made dip for dinner more than once.
Though prices for mostly a la carte dinner items can add up, there’s always the option of sitting at the bar and ordering a snack or two along with a draft Berryessa Brewing Co. IPA ($6) or craft cocktail ($11). The best cocktail is the “No. 4,” which combines Laird’s Apple Brandy, Bigallet China-China Amer liqueur and alternates fruit-forwardness with alcohol zing.
We’re in the midst of dip season, and also turkey and prime rib season. This makes Thiemann’s ability to wow with his own takes on these staples even more remarkable.
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I ate turkey six times in the weeks just before ordering Empress’ free-range turkey – a choice about which my similarly poultry-logged companions were not excited. Thiemann’s version reignited our enthusiasm.
Equally tender white and dark meat seems to soak up the reduced poultry stock – which Thiemann thickens with a bit of gravy – covering it. Cranberry sauce offsets the gravy’s slight saltiness, with green onion adding snap.
One anticipates, when eating any type of meat at a restaurant, to hit at least one dry and/or tough patch – an expectation born not from pessimism but experience. Such patches did not exist at Empress, where the “honey hot” fried chicken was as consistently tender as the walnut-crusted rack of lamb and smoked prime rib.
The fried chicken is available only in a “family dinner” priced for four people. For $80, we received 16 pieces of chicken, two sides and a big butter-lettuce salad with a wonderfully tangy Green Goddess dressing.
Though honey makes the chicken sweeter than how I prefer fried chicken, this taste, combined with a resonant, consistent crunch, won me over. The heat that’s part of the dish’s name takes time getting past all that honey, but makes an impact once it arrives.
Chopped, toasted walnuts add a welcome crunch to the excellent rack of lamb, which was served a touch rarer than the medium-rare we designated yet retained a buttery consistency and mild taste. A butternut squash purée acted as freshening agent for the fatty meat.
The prime rib, which for $32 comes in a portion that easily serves two, is as homey as it gets, served with a thick-handled steak knife that’s impressive but probably not necessary, given the meat’s tenderness.
Rich, salty bordelaise sauce jockeys with horseradish, pulling one in and out of that full-at-the-holiday-table feeling that’s composed equally of over-indulgence and familial affection. That a guy who isn’t related to me summoned this feeling speaks to Thiemann’s thoughtfulness.
There is more delicacy to Empress’ menu than its “carvery” and “tavern” designations imply. Some of the best dishes are either vegetarian or vegetable-based – not surprising since Thiemann co-founded Mother. But as much as I like Mother, it can get a bit heavy-handed with its fried items.
Empress’ vegetarian ricotta dumplings, by contrast, offer a breading-free array of fresh flavors, from roasted beet to Swiss chard to slightly sweet ricotta to the orange zest in the dumplings – all within a soothing vegetable/butter broth.
The steamed and grilled cabbage, topped by a delicious, tangy bacon-mustard dressing, is slightly less healthy and, unlike the nuanced ricotta dish, as subtle as a brick. For that, I love it.
Full disclosure: Thiemann is the spirit guide for my specific palate, which favors bright/vinegar and acidic/citrus elements. Thiemann never met a lemon he would not squeeze or a carrot he would not consider pickling.
Empress is so accomplished that it’s easy to forget it’s only 3 months old. But reminders cropped up in the creamed spinach side and the smoked-trout Caesar salad, both of which were far too salty.
There also were a few service missteps – like a forgotten cocktail – that seem inevitable for a young restaurant. Service otherwise was on the ball. Staff members are knowledgeable about ingredients, quick to replace utensils and always upbeat while also letting the patron set the tone of every exchange. They’re pros.
People who once saw movies here also might appreciate the bits of theater Empress includes in its service. A “bread boy” visits tables, serving buttery, airy, house-made Parker House rolls out of a basket. If one orders pie, a “pie girl” arrives tableside to serve it.
We ordered the stellar German chocolate pie (brainchild of Matt Masera, Mother’s executive chef). Our helper cut us a piece of pie, composed of a layer of coconut cream plus layers of chocolate cake and cream, then added freshly whipped cream and Amarena cherries in syrup.
She explained what she was doing as she did it, though it was hard to hear. When I talked about Empress’ startling elements earlier, I left one out: The place is loud. Acoustically unforgiving concrete floors compound the effect of a brick ceiling and walls.
But although I noticed the high noise every time I visited, I did not mind it. The vibe of the place is so great, and the food so exceptional, that I could overlook this aspect.
Empress Tavern gives Sacramentans a lot of reasons to shout. Only one of them is a desire to be heard by the person across the table.
1013 K St. (lower level), Sacramento, www.empresstavern.com, 916-662-7694
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Beverage options: Compact wine list; beers on tap include offerings from local breweries. Cocktail list includes “tea service” for two, out of pots.
Vegetarian friendly: Sort of. Although there are vegetarian dishes, this is a meat-centric restaurant. Sister vegetarian restaurant Mother is a few doors down.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Loud
Ambiance: With its brick walls and archways, this subterranean restaurant throws back to medieval days and to hofbraus and European beer halls while also being stylish and modern (especially its open, beautifully equipped kitchen). The vibe is warm and friendly, but the place gets really loud.
Michael Thiemann’s food is truly exceptional and the place highly distinctive as well as beautiful.
All the meats we tried, from prime rib to lamb and fried chicken, were cooked perfectly – which is what you want in a carvery. Snacks and sides are inventive while still hitting that homey spot.
Servers are knowledgeable and efficient, and Empress offers a bonus bit of theater – appropriate for a location that has presented some form of entertainment for more than a century – with table-side bread and pie service.
You can choose your own degree of value. A stop at the bar for a delicious, $5 side such as pimento cheese crudité or grilled chicken hearts and a beer or house cocktail won’t cost a lot. But most dinner items come a la carte, and although most meat dishes (from $17 for half a chicken to $70 for a rack of lamb) serve more than one person, costs can add up.