Sacramento has a new Empress

In what must be the most anticipated restaurant opening in a decade, Empress Tavern is finally ready to open. After months and months of delays and waiting, we finally get to see what took so long. And boy is it worth it. 

Chef's Table
It may be named Empress Tavern, after the old Empress vaudeville theater it sits under (now the Crest), but pretty much everyone in town drops the "Tavern" and just calls it Empress. And it is a regal restaurant. You will see every dollar spent and every day spent waiting when you go down those stairs.

Prime rib bites
On Saturday I was one of the lucky ones to attend the VIP soft opening event. This is obviously not a review, but just my first impressions.

The exit to street level was where the emergency exits were, cut into the little inset to the right of the Crest box office and alongside the Mediterranean Cafe's patio. Now the glass doors are replaced with curved wooden doors akin to those that often open into wine caverns in Napa or France. They set the mood for what you will find inside.

I often went to movies in the downstairs Crest theaters, so I remember the configuration well. Two smaller theaters sat side by side and the floors were considerably sloped for seating that afforded good views over others' heads. Now you will find the host stand at the top of the stairs, descend the stairs to the landing where you can make a grand entrance - see everyone and be seen by everyone. You will take in a transformation that is almost unbelievable. Arched brickwork to look like wine caverns and underground cellars. It's pretty amazing.

When I saw Michael Thiemann later in the evening I had to ask about the bricks. I could not believe they would basically build a building underneath another. I thought it might have just been thin slice brick veneers, but Thiemann assured me that they had a team of brick masons in here and every brick in there is real. Anyone who remembers Greek history and the importance of the arch will be in awe.

Inside the bar occupies the center with 360 degree access. I liked that many of the tables have leaves on them to make them either square or circle in shape. The benches are similar to Mother in that they also act as storage bins. On the far wall are the most impressive tables. There are several arched alcoves with longer tables for parties of 6-8. Someone joked that they should place bar doors on them so it would look like prison cells.  At the farthest corner is the Chef's Table, long and beautiful.

Matt Masera at work
The open kitchen is in full view with the star being the large rotisserie. When I arrived it had two racks of chickens and a rack of porchetta. Yum!

The food will be familiar carvery selections. I'm glad they will be going truly nose-to-tail based on some of the offerings at the event. Offal selections that night included chicken hearts with chimichurri and lamb sweetbreads. But most folks will probably stick with the steaks, porchetta, chickens, and burgers. We asked to see a menu, but there were none to be found at the event. 

Thiemann passing bites
Some of the other bites that night included prime rib bites, cubes of super tender brisket, club sandwich sliders, the fabulous porchetta, chicken liver mousse with the rotisserie chicken on top, and crudit├ęs so as not to forget the veggies. A standout for novelty was the turducken, a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey. Matt Masera's dessert creativity shone through with watermelon cotton candy covered in powdered chicharrones.  Yep, pork skin on cotton candy for a salty sweet delight. It was great!

When you consider their success with vegetables at Mother, can there be any doubt about what they can do with meat?

You could definitely see how happy the team is to get the place open. Both Thiemann and Masera were seen passing out bites through the crowd themselves, even after just having flown back from the Los Angeles Food & Wine Show. They and Bill Ngo, Oliver Ridgeway, and Kelly McCown had just done Quest Love's After After Party the night before. That means they were up til at least 3 a.m. the night before.

Empress is definitely going to be the hot reservation in town for a while. I look forward to going again, but I'll probably wait til things settle down a bit. I'm thankful I got to go to the preview and can't wait to see what happens over the next few months.

Note to the social media addicted: There is no cell service down in the caverns. No word yet on whether they'll be offering free wifi or not, but I was carrying my own wifi and trying to Periscope and as soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs I lost signal.