Carla Meyer

Dining review: Mother has generated plenty of buzz among foodies as it readies to open

Michael Thiemann and company are within days of opening Mother, the vegetarian restaurant on K Street that already has whetted appetites and wowed devotees during a series of recent pop-up dinners.

Barring any last-minute issues, the restaurant at 1023 K St. will have a soft opening for lunch Monday. They expect to serve only lunch at first, but may start doing dinners a week or so later.

Thiemann, the well-traveled former chef at the four-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,” Thiemann said recently. “The whole restaurant here, we’re all meat-eaters.”

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. This is a new era for our 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’re 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.

After attending two pop-up dinners at Old Ironsides in the fall, I became convinced that Mother would become a meaningful part of Sacramento’s already thriving restaurant scene, thanks to Thiemann’s appreciation for local ingredients, his quest for new and exciting ways to express flavors, and his commitment to raising the bar.

On Oct. 25 in Appetizers, The Bee’s food and beverage blog, I wrote about the dinners: “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?”

Those grits, as I recall, were extraordinary, and that egg was poached, covered in panko and gently fried to a beautiful golden hue.

Despite the nickname that won’t go away, Sacramento is not a cow town. 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.

Thiemann has hired Matt Masera, 27, and given him the title co-executive 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 lineup 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.”

The physical space, narrow and deep, has been completely transformed from the former Blimpie sandwich spot. There are custom wood benches, chairs in multiple colors, an eye-catching butcher block countertop, an open kitchen and a multicolored mural that resembles paint dripping down the wall. Patrons will order at the counter.

Based on the early buzz, you will want to plan carefully if you’re thinking of going for lunch in the first few days – or first few weeks. Downtown has already shown that when Daniel Pont reigned over La Bonne Soupe (before selling and opening Chez Daniel in Folsom), that folks were willing to wait in line an hour or more for stellar food. I’m thinking you may need the luxury of a two-hour lunch window if you hope to enjoy the early iterations of Thiemann’s cooking.

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