Last fall, when I heard Michael Thiemann was back in town and doing pop-up dinners months before he was to open his mysterious new restaurant, I was on it.
I showed up one chilly October night at Old Ironsides. I thought I would slip inside, study the food and get a sense of what this talented and enterprising chef was about to bestow upon Sacramento.
But he was on to me, too. When I stepped up to place my order, the chef’s hand extended out of the pass-through of the tiny kitchen.
“Hi, I’m Mike,” he said.
He had recognized me as The Bee’s restaurant critic, something I always dread but that happens occasionally. It is standard practice in this job to remain anonymous so as to receive the same treatment as any other customer. But this was no gotcha moment. He was simply being earnest and hospitable. However, the message was clear – this dude misses nothing.
The food that evening was astoundingly good and included grits with coffee and molasses, as well as a panko-crusted poached egg whose yolk, once pierced with a fork, meandered and coated everything with luxurious effect. How was it, after more than a decade living in the Deep South and eating my way through Alabama, Georgia and beyond, that the best grits I ever tasted would be at a dimly lit bar in Sacramento?
After several well-attended pop-ups, Thiemann, his wife, Lisa, and new business partner Ryan Donahue opened their restaurant, Mother, on K Street next to the Crest Theatre. I was the fourth customer on its opening day in January. I could sense something special was coming. Here was a casual urban diner with excellent prices serving Michelin-caliber fare. There was so much flavor and such compelling combinations, things comforting and out of the ordinary.
Mother doesn’t serve meat, but its designation as a vegetarian restaurant doesn’t quite suffice. It identifies and celebrates the greatness of an agricultural region whose bounty is unsurpassed anywhere in the United States.
The more I ate, the more convinced I became that this place was excitingly unique. I couldn’t stay away, captivated at one point by the flavors of the collard greens, cooked without a hint of bitterness (and absent the obligatory pork fat). It was another Southern soul-food staple taken to new heights in California’s capital.
But I knew this review, in time, would be challenging. I couldn’t be anonymous and blend in as a regular customer. The approach would have to be different. But how? I decided to continue visiting until an idea revealed itself.
Thiemann, among other things, is encyclopedic about food and cooking. His mind is made for the modern world of fast-paced online scanning, especially photo-centric Instagram, where he follows chefs throughout North America, sees who’s doing what with food and files it away in a readily accessible part of his brain.
The other part of his brain is entirely old school – he connects with farmers he respects, talks to them about what’s possible and asks them to grow things for him. He comes across as confident yet also can seem endearingly insecure. He wants to be great and knows how to get there, but he is rarely satisfied. Best of all, he doesn’t think Sacramento needs to take a back seat to any city.
A former executive chef at highly regarded Ella Dining Room and Bar, Thiemann returned to Sacramento after stints as executive chef at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco and as culinary director of the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group. The kid from Rancho Cordova, the onetime punk rock drummer who started in restaurants as a dishwasher two decades ago, wanted to come home, dig deep and do his thing.
Three weeks after Mother opened, Thiemann and executive chef Matt Masera started featuring a “chef’s choice” option for dinner, suitable for two people. You order 10 dishes for $50, have no idea what’s coming, and it’s all laid out on the table at once – Korean banchan meets New American cooking meets casual yet sophisticated diner.
One night, Thiemann stopped by my table to ask what I thought of the “chef’s choice.”
“It’s really good, but it would be great if the next time I came it was 10 different dishes,” I replied, my tone somewhat in jest.
Thiemann laughed, rolled his eyes and walked back to the kitchen.
The following day, I received a text message. “If you come 10 times in a row we will cook you a hundred different plates,” Thiemann wrote. “Should be a fun challenge.”
“You’re on,” I replied. While I had already visited enough times to write a standard review, I realized this approach could offer something more revealing. If a chef was going to be this bold, I wanted to see where it would go. He had already shown how daring he could be simply with this concept – he’s not a vegetarian, yet he intentionally limited himself to cooking without meat. There was nothing political about it. It was simply a way to underscore the Sacramento region’s potential while testing himself as a chef.
This experience started Feb. 13. The food arrived, one night after the next, as if in a dream. A new grits dish, with molasses and black sesame seeds. Divine. Roasted radishes, sparkling red in a black bowl, that had none of the expected pungent heat or bitterness. They were subtle and lovely and tender, seasoned with tarragon and assertively salted. A mushroom dish with a meaty, toothsome quality to it, complete with a rich and deeply flavored stroganoff-style gravy. It featured a poached egg coated in panko crumbs, deftly fried to a uniformly golden brown. Spaetzle with fried Brussels sprouts and an emulsified mustard.
There were “hot wings” that were actually thick-cut mushrooms, battered and fried, then covered in hot sauce. An array of roasted beets with avocado purée smeared across the plate. Pasta with leeks. A pound cake garnished with leaves of basil. All of this was done in a style – rustic, assertive, finessed and always with intense yet balanced flavor – that began to announce itself. These dishes were so stunning, I decided to commemorate each with a photo (you can check out a curated gallery at sacbee.com/feast).
The next night, Thiemann grated an ample amount of black perigord truffle over simple butter pasta, giving the dish an intoxicating earthiness. There were cedar-roasted hearts of palm sprinkled with Parmesan, garnished with lavender and served on the wood plank. Latkes (potato pancakes) were blanketed with a creamy-white dill dressing, garnished with dill and the zest of grated Granny Smith apples. The chefs weren’t taking any shortcuts, as shown by the edamame purée served with shiso leaf, cucumber namasu (thinly sliced Japanese-style salad) with fried agedashi tofu coated in vegetable ash (they intentionally burned vegetables to create this eye-catching ash).
The last dish on the second night (following a sweet potato biscuit with roasted grapes and grape-apricot jam, gently salted sweet potato chips and a large dollop of sweet agave and marigold butter) arrived at the table in a jar with a lid. There was a piece of tape with “#20” scribbled on it. It was a ginger cake parfait with beets, Greek yogurt and granola. When I removed the lid, smoke wafted upward. Masera had smoked the entire dessert.
Sometimes, customers at nearby tables couldn’t help but see what was going on. One man asked me where these dishes were on the menu. They were experimental, I told him. However, many of these developmental items are expected to find their way onto future menus.
I would come to learn, as the dinners piled up, that Masera and Thiemann would brainstorm about the next 10 dishes, take notes and then embark on shopping trips specifically for that night’s dinner. They did this while manning the chaos that is a new and busy restaurant.
We hit dishes 30, and 40 and 50. An elegantly arranged plate of roasted winter root vegetables – carrots, parsnips, turnips (roasted and finished in the fryer), fennel atop a carrot purée. Sometimes there was a theme to the dishes, or a style. Asian-inspired one time, French twists the next, all grounded in a New American, very Sacramento ethos. As we raced toward 100, there were the occasional dishes, of course, that didn’t quite measure up. The French onion soup, as nicely seasoned as it was, had onions that weren’t tender enough. The smoked vegetables on skewers were too smoky. Still, the batting average night after night was stellar.
Masera, still in his 20s, is a major talent. Though his background is in pastries, Thiemann hired him as executive chef, hoping to tap into his gift for savory dishes. Yet, the pastries were often cutting-edge, if not stunning, occasionally straddling the line between a plate of vegetables and a sweet dessert. He did a beet cake that was his very-Mother version of a classic red velvet cake; a lovely, technique-intensive lemon pain perdu (think French toast) with hibiscus poached pear (to dye it red), cashew butter and whipped cream. He deconstructed a carrot cake. More often than not, he would garnish his desserts with micro-greens and edible flowers. He put salt on many things that made flavors pop and mingle in new ways.
By the end of this unusual journey, I came to appreciate these two chefs and Mother as the special place I imagined it would be. Now I had 100 dishes to confirm it (without Thiemann and Masera, the kitchen crew created 10 more dishes, including a carrot and fennel soup, butterscotch crème brûlée, portabello mushroom burger and, most memorably, a spicy avocado chocolate mousse).
The final dish – No. 100 – was tongue in cheek: Masera’s brown-butter sugar cookies, which had quickly become a signature treat at Mother. It’s simple appearance belies how scrumptious it is. I took one last photo and ate the cookie. I recommend this restaurant.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.