It seemed almost like an omen on K Street as the bells at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament chimed 11 times and this hotly anticipated eatery opened its doors promptly an hour before noon Monday.
This restaurant would be welcoming food lovers of all kinds on its first day of business and, if all went according to plan, taking the city’s dining scene to new and greater heights. Since the series of pop-up dinners at Old Ironsides in the fall, Michael Thiemann has been whetting the appetites of all those who want to be inspired and challenged by food and who realize this chef has the talent and commitment to do it.
Monday could not have gone any better for Thiemann and his small but experienced crew. It was a steady but not overwhelming turnout, busy but never crazy, thanks mostly to the holiday and the absence of state workers downtown. That will change, and possibly immediately, for the food here will inspire passion, devotion and long lines. The madness is coming, and it will be well-earned.
Thiemann, who once ran the kitchen at Ella Dining Room & Bar before leaving for the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group, has come back with a flourish as the chef and visionary behind a restaurant that would attempt what many thought impossible – to create a menu without meat that just might be the most exciting offering in the city.
How did this happen? For one thing, creativity is often misunderstood. It is not about being free and limitless. Creativity and dynamic action are best realized when there are limitations. Thiemann decided early on to make Mother a place for vegetables (and not meat) even though he has cooked with meat throughout his career and continues to eat meat. This immediately shifted his thinking and, it turns out, it is shifting ours. The focal point of the plate is no longer a piece of meat. It is an array of vegetables. It is not a sacrifice for health or politics. But with these boundaries, the thinking has to be more intense, the cooking has to be better, the approach more intuitive, the design more soulful.
If anything, this is a soul food restaurant, and this menu has suddenly become a template for what we are all about as a city – it’s very Sacramento and very Thiemann, this homegrown kid who went off to hone his craft and figure out who he was as a chef, only to return to Sacramento to put down deep roots, celebrate the bounty of our local growers and purveyors, and, frankly, start hurling massive flavor bombs across the bow.
It is not his way to taunt or intimidate, but Thiemann and his staff should be making every chef in town either frightened or inspired. The best restaurants won’t be content to stay the same. They will want to see what Mother is doing, what Thiemann is all about, see how the vegetables are so very tasty and exciting and hearty and refined, and up their games, too. Thiemann has brought in a young chef, Matt Masera, not so he can bark orders and get the kid to obey. He recruited Masera from San Francisco because he wants the guy to push him, challenge him, make him a better chef and make Mother a better restaurant.
Thiemann and company are doing it with panache right out of the blocks. They have a quiet confidence. They know their craft, and they know where they’re headed. Their food is beautiful, edgy, surprising, simple and involved, with textures that contrast and complement, aromas that invite and stir the palate, and flavors that make you rethink everything you’ve known about this thing we’ve come to call farm to fork.
The very first dish I tasted Monday – romanesco and broccoli with harissa, plentiful slices of green olives and topped with toasty marcona almonds – was one of the best dishes I’ve had in memory. On the menu, it is listed for $5 under “snacks & sides.” Like the restaurant, it is a dish that is of a certain time and place. It is Thiemann. It is Sacramento. It is our food. It’s not exaggerating to suggest it is the best $5 any serious foodie will ever encounter.
The lunch went on, one exciting, dynamic wow after another – house-made wide ribbons of pappardelle pasta with braised beet tops and roasted carnival cauliflower littered with yellow raisins; a salad of deep-green kale with paper-thin slices of apple, walnuts mixed with dill yogurt and toasted freekah (a cereal of the Middle East). The split pea soup was an instant classic, taking an old standard, making it better, brighter and beautiful, adding a harissa made with carrot, and then nestling in a centerpiece crouton that is actually falafel.
I was too full for dessert, but I had seen enough to confirm my suspicions: This restaurant has opened at the right time and in the perfect place, led by a chef who believes this city has yet to reach its potential. Mother will help us get there.