Carla Meyer

First Impressions: Empress Tavern evokes meaty past, artful present

Empress Tavern, at 1013 K St., used to be the two downstairs auditoriums of the Crest Theatre.
Empress Tavern, at 1013 K St., used to be the two downstairs auditoriums of the Crest Theatre. Carla Meyer

First Impressions visits dining spots that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? E-mail us at taste@sacbee.com

Empress Tavern, housed in a subterranean space that once served up movie magic, offers transportive effects of its own. The new rotisserie-meat restaurant, from the team behind the popular vegetarian spot Mother, summons European dining halls of the Middle Ages and Middle American home kitchens of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Empress brings together disparate eras through acres of brick, big slabs of meat, rampant pearl-onion use and crystal highball glasses straight out of grandma’s china cabinet. The effect, taken together, is one of artful progress, not pastiche.

One can eat amid relics all across Sacramento, where most wood is reclaimed and brickwork rarely stays covered. But few local restaurants look as thoroughly designed as Empress, with its interconnected brick archways and lack of resemblance to what it used to be: the two downstairs auditoriums of the Crest Theatre. Though Empress remains intimately involved with the Crest – theater owner Robert Emerick is a co-owner of the restaurant, along with Ryan Donahue and co-executive chef Michael Thiemann and his wife, Lisa Thiemann – its earthy feel separates it from the gold-leafed grandeur of the theater upstairs.

And from life outside in general, as we noticed after ascending the stairs back to K Street to encounter the slight shock of the real world. A lack of windows, televisions and cellphone service in the below-ground restaurant contribute to the immersive experience.

Craft, in the kitchen and behind the bar, take it the rest of the way. On the night we visited last week, Empress presented familiar flavors in new ways. When it did stick to the basics, it did so while improving upon them, as in its wonderful Parker House rolls, which were fresher and slightly saltier than the ones served at home holiday tables.

We ate dinner at Empress only once, on its first official night in business, no less. So it’s too early to pronounce it the next big thing. But I can say now that Empress is unlike any other restaurant in the Sacramento region.

Menu: Empress is Michael Thiemann’s meaty counterpoint to Mother, which sits a few doors down on K Street. Dishes range from bigger cuts of the whole – leg of lamb, smoked prime rib – to creative use of parts. Bone marrow, rabbit-and-foie gras terrine, veal sweetbreads, puffed beef tendon and grilled chicken hearts appear on the menu as starters or sides. But there’s a grilled sturgeon entree and fish snacks (smoked sturgeon dip, fried smelt). Empress also offers salads and vegetable sides, but they usually involve meat.

Price point: Fine-dining level, but not outrageous. The prime rib ($32) comes in a generous helping, but without sides. We ordered collard greens, potato dauphinoise and buttered vegetables, at $6 each. Empress also serves “family dinners” for four people, complete with two sides and a family-style salad bowl. Prices range from $80 (for spicy-hot fried chicken) to $160 (cote de boeuf).

Ambiance: Rather than trying to open up the basement space visually with high ceilings or white paint, the Empress team leaned in to the underground concept, lining walls and ceilings with brick. The Euro-Middle American vibe evokes old-school meat places such as Sacramento’s Sam’s Hofbrau and San Francisco’s House of Prime Rib, a feel enhanced by the sight of young staff members, in blue work shirts, assigned to single tasks – one visits tables to hand out rolls, one operates a pie cart. One end of the restaurant holds flowered wallpaper that looks like something Vincent van Gogh might have painted under the influence of too many Wes Anderson movies. Yet separate elements that might read kitschy come together to elegant effect, helped in part by the loose bouquets of soft lights.

Drinks: The cocktail list is gin heavy. The No. 1 (they get numbers, not names, at Empress), made of Ford’s gin and fennel soda, refreshes, but also made me miss tonic’s bitter bite. The No. 4, with Bigallet China-China Amer liqueur and Laird’s apple brandy, is a winner, with Demerara sugar, pink peppercorn and fleur de sel (French sea salt) arranged along the rim to offset the drink’s sweetness. Empress’ “tea service” involves rum and vodka cocktails in teapots. Beers on tap include offerings from Ruhstaller, Bike Dog and Berryessa Brewing. Most wines also are on tap and come in 6-ounce, 550 ml or 1-liter servings.

First impressions: Considering we were there the first night Empress opened to the public, its level of execution impressed. The flavor-packed prime rib gave way easily to a butter knife, even at its rarest sections. The satisfyingly salty bone-marrow bordelaise served with it lent itself well to dipping by moist, dense Parker House rolls. Co-executive chef Matt Masera’s pastry background shows in these rolls, which are topped by a coarse salt that balances out the rolls’ typical sweetness. Empress’ chicken à la king delivers all the comfort-food goodness one associates with the dish, but via chicken stock and herbs rather than heavy cream. Empress’ salad Lyonnaise – the evening’s standout dish – incorporates bacon and crouton into the coating of a Scotch egg.

Try it if: You hanker for meat, creative cooking and a gorgeous, well-designed setting.

Forget it if: You prefer a plant-based diet.

Empress Tavern

Where: 1013 K St., Sacramento

Information: 916-662-7694, www.empresstavern.com

Hours: 5-10 p.m. (kitchen closes at 9) Monday-Thursday. 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (kitchen closes at 10); closed Sunday.

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