“Mother” could be the matriarch of Sacramento’s emerging culinary identity

I had an amazing dining experience, a glimpse into the future and maybe an epiphany or two Tuesday night. It was a pop-up dinner featuring one of this town’s most talented and sincere chefs. It was also absent any sign of meat.

The setting was Old Ironsides (1901 10th St., Sacramento), holder of the city’s longest-running liquor license, and the featured chef was Michael Thiemann, formerly of Ella, who returned after a six-month stint in the Bay Area because he loves Sacramento and believes in its potential greatness.

I’m becoming a believer, and fast, in the potential greatness of Mother, a vegetarian restaurant still a 2-3 months from opening on K Street downtown. Thiemann, his wife, Lisa, and photographer Ryan Donahue, formerly of the magazine Edible Sacramento, are partners in this very exciting venture. While some may see an 1,100-square-foot vegetarian restaurant as a sacrifice on things like creativity and flavor, Mother promises to be very different.

In fact, during my pop-up experience – a soup, a sandwich, some moderately spicy blistered peppers and a grits dish that one day will be famous – I soon came around to the idea that Thiemann could be on the verge of taking Sacramento’s culinary identity to new heights and showcasing what we’re all about in new ways. The food is that good, the concept that inviting and the wealth of products at his disposal suggest a sky’s-the-limit approach to flavors, combinations, techniques, textures and seasonality. I mean, who would have thought that a grits/egg/coffee/mushroom dish was going to be one of the 10 best things I’ve eaten in 2013? (Thiemann and company are also opening a tavern-style restaurant called Empress in the bottom of the Crest Theatre, complete with 20 taps of craft beer and 70 bottled beers).

Going without meat and placing limitations on yourself can lead to new discoveries because having this kind of tension compels you to think differently, see differently and express your talents in new ways.

After eating his food – marveling at the flavor of the soup and its silky/creamy mouthfeel, and experiencing the rustic complexity of a grits dish that includes notes of coffee, the caramel sweetness of molasses and, at the center of it all, a poached egg battered with panko and crisped golden brown – I caught up with Thiemann by phone to learn more.

“I’m excited by Sacramento in general,” Thiemann said. “When I left for the six months, I was in a different creative space. I had time to reflect and open myself up to a lot of new ideas. I immediately missed Sacramento.”

I see Thiemann’s cooking, once Mother is open and in full flight, both inspiring and challenging other chefs to think differently, create more and cook without a safety net the way this chef does. When you don’t have a big, bad pork chop or a thick filet of sturgeon to be the focal point of the plate, you have to think, and think hard, about what you’re going to do to make vegetables have the gravitas to be just as compelling.

“I’m excited by what we’re doing. The approach is more specific. I eat meat, but I’m cooking with a different sensibility. The whole idea is I want people to be surprised. It’s not a political statement (about being vegetarian),” the chef said,

Without a hint of arrogance, Thiemann added, “I could make Sacramento a showcase in a lot of different ways. I care about Sacramento. I’m all about it. I want to make an impact and show it off in a good light.”

There is plenty to show off, as the recent Farm-To-Fork Festival has only begun to suggest. To be sure, we haven’t quite grown into that claim yet, but there is so much bounty here that all we need are more chefs creating dishes that define us as a a place and a force all our own.

I was so impressed by Thiemann and Mother in this little pop-up dinner at Old I that I rode away on my bike still thinking about those flavors, the creative energy and skill that went into the cooking and the potential this has to take our specific location and make a specific and distinct cuisine. Thiemann isn’t doing a fusion. His food isn’t derivative. He’s not doing Italian-inspired this or Asian-influenced that.

He’s a Sacramento chef. He’s back. And from the looks of things, he’s about to take the food scene on one very inviting and meaningful ride.

“I hope I can live up to that potential,” he said. “We’re confident and extremely excited.”

If you want to partake in one of these pop-up dinners – and, really, part of me wishes I didn’t tell you any of this so I could go back and slip right in without a long line – check back here or visit the page for Mother on Facebook. The chef is thinking the first Tuesday in November back at Old I. At the pop-ups, Thiemann is testing out recipes and inventing new things. But really, he’s inspiring us to look into the future and come along for the ride.