Seasonal, vegetarian Mother comes to K Street
How noted chef Michael Thiemann and a team of unabashed carnivores launched Sacramento's most buzzed about, foodieworthy vegetarian restaurant
The inspiration for Sacramento's latest vegetarian restaurant arrived, curiously, via a love for meat.
That fact speaks volumes about the aesthetic behind Mother, the new Michael Thiemann-helmed restaurant that recently opened in a tiny space downtown.
Simply put, Mother isn’t some hippie-sprout, everything-tofu kind of place. And defining it strictly as a meat-free spot misses the point.
“The last thing I want to be considered as is a vegetarian restaurant,” Thiemann said. “There’s a lot we can do with this place: Vegetarians coming in here are looking for someone to do something different with veg or grains, and meat eaters … are also looking for something different.”
Or, as Thiemann’s wife, Lisa, in charge of Mother’s front-of-the-house staff, explained it: “We’re just a restaurant that doesn’t serve meat.”
It’s more than that, of course. The 1,100-square-foot space was arguably one of the city’s most hotly anticipated restaurants when it opened for business earlier this month, thanks in part to the buzz generated by a series of introductory pop-up dinners hosted last fall at Old Ironsides and The Golden Bear.
The first days of official business are so far going well. On opening day, a line of hungry diners snaked out the door, and it hasn’t really let up since.
“It’s been a challenge,” Lisa admitted during a break on a recent afternoon. Even at 3:30 p.m., the restaurant was still half full. The service director, who said she’d been logging 10-hour-plus days, couldn’t rest for long.
“But that’s OK,” she said. Actually, it’s great.
“There are no complaints,” said Lisa, who previously worked at Ella Dining Room & Bar and 58 Degrees & Holding Co. “I think we’re all just like, ’Wow.’”
But back to that meat-inspires-veggies tale.
Last summer, Crest Theatre owner Bob Emerick approached the Thiemanns’ pal Ryan Donahue about opening a restaurant in the theater’s lower level. The space, currently occupied by two screening rooms, was set to close. Would Donahue be interested in a partnership?
Donahue, then a managing partner with food magazine Edible Sacramento, was and quickly made a list of possible chefs that included Michael. The former head chef for Ella was working for the Tyler Florence Restaurant Group in Mill Valley, but agreed to return.
Eventually, Donahue and the Thiemanns landed on the idea for Empress Tavern, a 7,000-square-foot subterranean rotisserie they envisioned as a dark catacomb with a focus on meat, meat and more meat.
Plans were made, but then another opportunity presented itself when a location near the Crest became available.
“A light bulb went off and we said, ’We have to do this before anyone else does.’” Thiemann said.
While a vegetarian restaurant may seem odd for a guy who grew up loving Sam’s Hof Brau, it’s really not. Michael’s first restaurant job, after all, was at the now-defunct Greta’s Cafe, a popular Midtown vegetarian-friendly restaurant.
“Working at Greta’s, I understood how important vegetarian food was,” he said. “I fantasized about what would happen if [vegetarian cooking] was handled by chefs with skill and knowledge, who were also meat eaters.”
And so, Donahue and the Thiemanns started making plans, and Michael asked longtime friend Matt Masera, with whom he’d already launched four restaurants including Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco, to come onboard as co-executive chef.
“Having Matt allows me to even think about [opening] two restaurants,” Thiemann said.
As it turns out, Mother, a sunny space outfitted with blond wood and steel, sits directly above the future Empress—creating a sort of yin and yang of meat and vegetables, darkness and light.
The juxtaposition isn’t that strange. Approach each dish, meatless or otherwise, with the same underlying philosophy, and this is not an entirely difficult challenge, he said.
“All of us eat food looking for full satisfaction, warmth and comfort; a lot of our menu items are based off American soul food or comfort food,” he said.
As such, the dishes at Mother aren’t typical vegetarian fare. Sure, there’s a kale salad and even a nut burger, but there’s also the chicken-fried mushroom po’boy: crispy, battered mushrooms dressed in a hot sauce with pickles and shaved lettuce, all smashed between a thick, doughy bun. Or there’s the chile verde, a fragrant mix of pinto beans, hominy, pickled peppers and mozzarella cheese. Side dishes include fried okra, and corn fritters served with a molasses butter.
There is, notably, nary a scrap of seitan, tofu or tempeh.
“As meat-eating chefs, we’re forced to think outside the box,” explained Masera.
“We just strive to make craveable food,” Michael said.
Of course, the restaurant business is one that’s notoriously grueling—physically, mentally and financially. Is “craveable” enough?
The team at Mother believes so.
“Sacramento is a food town,” Donahue said by way of explanation. “This is going to be run like a Michelin-star restaurant, but we’re doing a $7 soup, and that $7 soup is going to be on-point.”
Actually, the soups (which, at last check, included a split-pea served with falafel, and a rich potato leek) are currently priced at only $6 a bowl. Sandwiches range from $8-$10, salads are $8, and the menu tops out at $12 for the portobello poutine and the eggplant gumbo.
“The whole point is to put the effort into the product but not have it be too expensive,” Thiemann said.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the menu isn’t strictly vegan.
“Vegan isn’t our goal, [and] we try to avoid the soapbox because we’ll end up alienating people,” he added.
Still, he said, he’s open to suggestions.
It’s all been a learning experience, Thiemann said. The first week, customer response prompted the staff to tinker with the printed menu, adding notations as to which dishes are vegan or gluten-free.
“It’s been a big education,” he said of the feedback. “I welcome it, and I’d have a hard time staying in business without listening to the customers.”
The young outfit—all the principals are in their 30s—has also leaned on Sacramento’s tight-knit culinary community. The staff at Grange Restaurant & Bar, for example, lent the chefs use of their kitchen to try out dishes.
Thiemann also turned to former colleague Josh Nelson, co-founder of the Selland Group that owns Ella, Selland’s Market Cafe and The Kitchen.
“Every dumb question I had, I could call him up,” Thiemann said.
Nelson, for his part, says he’s excited by the venture.
“Conceptually, what they’re doing—it’s a niche that has never been filled in quite that way before,” he said. “Mike brings a strong creative mind and a lot of drive. And, he’s got the technical know-how.”
For now, there’s still much work to be done. Mother, currently open six days a week for lunch and dinner, will soon expand to include a weekend brunch. Meanwhile, construction on Empress is scheduled to break ground in March with an opening slated for summer.
And, despite the restaurants’ polar-opposite menus, the goal for both remains simple:
“To be impactful,” Thiemann said.
“Coming back to Sacramento again and opening a restaurant and making it a vegetarian one—it seems crazy, but it also seems impactful, like this must mean something,” he said. “And it does: It means a lot to all of us. We expect great things to happen.”