Michael Thiemann and company are within days of opening Mother, the vegetarian restaurant on K Street that has already whetted appetites and wowed devotees during a series of pop-up dinners in recent weeks.
Thiemann, the well-traveled former chef at the 4-star Ella Dining Room and Bar in Sacramento and the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group in the Bay Area, can definitely cook. It actually seems misleading, if not unfair, to refer to this soon-to-open restaurant at 1023 K St. as “vegetarian,” what with all the connotations that brings up. A better description would be a restaurant that celebrates vegetables without featuring meat, for this is not about food politics. It’s about how a kitchen seeks to do great food that reflects and defines the local culinary and agricultural landscapes.
“One of the things I kept on saying early on is let’s not put ‘vegetarian’ on anything we say because it does have a stigma to it, even though I’m proud to serve entirely vegetarian. The whole restaurant here, we’re all meat eaters,” Thiemann told me recently by phone.
If I’m halfway right about Mother, it could soon be the kind of restaurant that not only delights and entertains customers but does so in a very special, very Sacramento way — and without apology. This is a new era on the food scene, one when talented chefs return to a place called home and have the chutzpah to make a go of it without any sense they are inferior to what’s kicking in San Francisco or the Napa Valley. Thiemann is one of those chefs — confident, ambitious, sincere, proud of his hometown and, best of all, he really appreciates the bounty of the Sacramento region.
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There’s already plenty of buzz about this place. I asked about it on Twitter this morning.
@Blarob - have heard of it... EXTREMELY excited for its opening!— Jared Pane (@jaredisbadical) January 6, 2014
Despite the nickname that won’t go away, Sacramento is not a cowtown. It’s a vegetable town. It’s tomatoes and peppers and asparagus. It’s leafy greens and microgreens. It’s squash and carrots and potatoes and rice in common and heritage varieties.
It’s about growers collaborating with purveyors like Jim Mills of Produce Express to take, say, corn and mill it into organic polenta and grits. It’s about boutique growers like Suzanne Ashworth and Heidi Watanabe working with chefs.
And it’s about all the best chefs demanding more produce — and more interesting, more dynamic and unusual kinds of produce — to create flavors that excite our palates and soothe our souls.
Based on Thiemann’s track record and his vision for Mother, the food is going to feature combinations that are both startlingly new and refreshingly simple to create dishes that express the best of what the ingredients are supposed to be. Some will be robust. Some will emphasize finesse. And some will be all about restraint.
@Blarob sole vegetarian restaurants are very slim here in sac. I'd love to see their take on vegetarian foods. Most are vegan in nature.— Jared Pane (@jaredisbadical) January 6, 2014
@Blarob (Chinese/Cajun/Medit) without flailing. A good veg spot with a good bar is going to be my new go-to. (2/2)— Matt Read (@_mattread) January 6, 2014
his will be a new and different vegetarian restaurant. If you associate vegetarian with sacrifice or a political viewpoint or tofu shaped like chicken wings or salmon steaks — or a just a mindnumbing absence of creativity — Mother is not that place.
Based on the many dishes I tried during the round of pop-up dinners at Old Ironsides — and based on the enthusiam Thiemann’s food appears to inspire — the only problem Mother is going to face once it opens is crowd control and chaos.
So, when will it open? Restaurants never open on time, but Thiemann insists Mother will be cooking and serving by Jan. 20 and possibly sooner.
The restaurant right now is awash in activity —the wood floors are down, the custom seating is in place, the eye-catching butcher block countertops were just installed. The massive hood, the serious range and an industrial-sized stand mixer are all on site and ready to fire.
A mixer with that kind of muscle suggests pastries and breads, and it turns out, Mother is going to showcase those. Thiemann has hired Matt Masera, 27, and given him the title co-exeutive chef. Masera’s background is largely in pastry, but Thiemann says he is an all-around talent who will do exciting things with the savory side of menu, too. Masera grew up in El Dorado Hills and cut his teeth at the former Masque Ristorante. Among other things, Masera will oversee the ambitious line-up of fresh-baked breads, flatbreads and pastries.
“He’s a young kid. He’s super creative,” said Thiemann, who has worked with Masera at four restaurants. “He and I will be tied at the hip. He’ll make me better. He’ll make Mother more interesting.”
We will be covering this opening closely and will have more to share soon. Thiemann, his wife, Lisa, and business partners (including Crest Theatre owner Robert Emerick and photographer Ryan Donahue) are also opening Empress, a 160-seat tavern in a space directly below Mother.
Of Mother, Thiemann says, “We’re inherently going to be meatless and there will be a debate about what that means. We’re going to try and be vegan as much as possible. It’s more challenging. This whole restaurant is about being challenging and doing something that hasn’t been done.”
That’s some serious talk. But this is a chef who knows how to back it up.
As for Empress, Thiemann takes a deep breath and says, “It will be base off a giant rotisserie and whatever I can dream up and cook on this spit.” If you’re wondering: Yes, there will be plenty of meat.
Expect construction to begin on Empress in March or April.
To read my take on the pop-up dinners, click here.