Appetizers

Matt Masera, who rose to prominence at Mother, will take the reins at new Saddle Rock

Chefs Michael Thiemann, left, owner of Mother, and Matt Masera, the restaurant’s former executive chef, stand behind jars of pickled fruit and vegetables at Mother, on March 20, 2014, in Sacramento. Masera will serve as top chef at the new Saddle Rock restaurant scheduled to open in June 2016.
Chefs Michael Thiemann, left, owner of Mother, and Matt Masera, the restaurant’s former executive chef, stand behind jars of pickled fruit and vegetables at Mother, on March 20, 2014, in Sacramento. Masera will serve as top chef at the new Saddle Rock restaurant scheduled to open in June 2016. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

After a false start that set its opening back for weeks, Saddle Rock restaurant appears headed for an early June launch after hiring chef Matt Masera, best known for his highly regarded cooking at Mother and Empress Tavern.

The midtown restaurant is the latest from Broderick owner Chris Jarosz, who sought to draw on Sacramento’s Gold Country restaurant lore by creating a modern re-imagining of the city’s first restaurant.

A sudden turn of events, not unusual in the ever-changing restaurant game, saw Kevin O’Connor, the original 26-year-old chef, bail out on the project at the last minute a month ago. Around the same time, Masera was looking to branch out on his own and turned in his notice at Mother/Empress, where he had been executive chef, working with owner and longtime friend Michael Thiemann.

Jarosz said he got a phone call from Shannin Stein, general manager at Empress, that set the wheels in motion.

“‘I just heard about Kevin and I have an amazing chef who is going to be departing,”’ Jarosz remembered Stein telling him. “He came down and talked and he was ready to rock and roll.”

In Masera, Saddle Rock will be getting a more seasoned chef than O’Connor, whose claim to fame was based largely on his private pop-up dinners called Tree House, as well as a year-long stint at Blackbird.

O’Connor left the Saddle Rock project and departed for Australia to work with an olive oil company. He had been on Jarosz’s payroll for six months, working to get Saddle Rock going. He gave an interview to The Bee and showed menu samples. Then he pulled the plug days later. He could not be reached for comment Monday. Calls to his cell phone were met with an automated recording saying the line was unable to accept calls.

O’Connor’s change of heart left Jarosz reeling. Time was counting down, the concept had been set in place, and suddenly he was searching for a new chef who could handle the ambitious casual/fine dining blueprint of the new restaurant.

Masera stepped in, assessed the idea behind Saddle Rock and promptly drew up a menu that wowed Jarosz.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Jarosz said. “He’s taking dishes that were popular during that period and he’s giving them a modern translation.”

While Masera is best known for his time at Mother, a vegetarian restaurant, Jarosz noted that his new chef grew up hunting and will “definitely have some cool meat, protein-based dishes on the menu,” along with dishes for the meatless set.

While Masera received plenty of attention for his work at Mother and Empress, now is his chance to step into the limelight, Jarosz said.

“This is an opportunity for him to break out, career-wise,” he said.

Asked about the sudden departure of O’Connor, Jarosz said, “I did have a relationship with Kevin for almost a year while we were getting ready to bring this concept to fruition. I don’t want to speak negatively. With that chapter closing, a new chapter is starting. It tells me that this happened for a reason.”

Saddle Rock will be at 1801 L St., directly across from Broderick midtown, the second location of the popular casual eatery that first opened in West Sacramento.

In other news, Allyson Harvie, the chef at LowBrau/Block Butcher Bar in midtown, is also joining the fold. Jarosz said she has been named executive chef at The Partriot at the new food-focused Milagro Centre in Carmichael. Expect The Patriot to open in July, Jarosz said.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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