It’s been just a year since the vegetable-centric Mother restaurant shook up the Sacramento culinary scene. Its trendy décor and informal atmosphere was a welcome addition to the K Street corridor, just a block from the state Capitol. After its January 20 opening, lines soon formed out the door during lunch.
While most patrons are likely aware of Mother’s vegetarian focus, on my first visit it was amusing to hear a gentleman in line behind me scan the menu board and blurt out: “There’s no meat?”
Mother was a different sort of restaurant right out of the gate, say co-owners and chefs Mike Thiemann and Matt Masera, who envisioned a menu that “just so happens to be meatless.”
“A lot of people call Sacramento a cow town,” says Masera. “It is really a vegetable town.”
Peruse the chalkboard menu and you’ll always see the chefs’ ingenious spin on whatever local produce they find from local growers. With Sacramento situated smack dab in the center of one of the most prolific farming areas in the country, the options never fail to intrigue and satisfy.
One day it might be stinging nettle gnocchi, the next a pasta featuring morels or fava beans. Or trumpet mushrooms with creamy grits, roasted shishito peppers, squash latkes, a mean carrot nut burger, charred Brussels sprouts or whatever seasonal veggie Mother is roasting up that day.
“The idea was,” says Masera, “we would provide a store front for the local farms that we work with, a casual environment for people to dine in and feel comfortable, and to cook the food at a high level of execution.”
The ambiance is indeed casual, with most tables facing the kitchen and prep station. A rotation of local art decorates the wall. A chalkboard painted wall — at least at the beginning — invited comments from diners. They’ve since added outside seating to augment about 32 inside seats.
classic + creative + farmer
Thanks to Thiemann and Masera’s experience as executive chefs — including stints with Tyler Florence restaurants in the Bay Area — there’s a happy coexistence among vegans, vegetarians and omnivores at Mother.
Mind you, the menu is not necessarily what you’d call health food. So you should ask what’s fried or contains dairy or eggs, if that’s important to you.
“We just like to make yummy food,” says Masera.
Masera describes their approach to vegetarian food as classic + creative + farmer.
“Classic training and execution to allow for bright, robust and bold flavors,“ he explains. “The creativity of the chefs to combine flavors and pairings. The biggest variable is the farmer and Mother Nature, who brings us different stuff every day, week and season for us to play with.”
A popular option from the start was a 10-course sampler of dishes chosen by the chefs. Usually served to two diners all at once, the Chefs 10 was a good way to sample a range of salads, sides, entrees and desserts for $50.
Evidently the novelty of the samplers wore off, and the last Chefs 10 was served to a full house on New Year’s Eve. But the impact of Mother on Sacramento diners was unmistakable, judging from a poll of the house that night.
“We took a vote, and only 11 of the 60 were actually vegetarian,” says Masera. “We couldn’t be happier. Not that we don’t like vegetarians and vegans. But that we had finally broken down the wall of just being a vegetarian restaurant to just being a good restaurant.”
What’s to come
It’s now the chefs’ challenge to stay ahead of the curve of the Sacramento food scene, they say. They’re contemplating what dinner special might replace the Chefs 10; perhaps another type of sampler plate paired with beer or wine.
“I think this will be great for the customers and us,” says Masera. “It will push us to continue to flex our creative muscles while allowing the diners to order what they want, in addition to something new and exciting that isn’t on the menu.”
Salads and sandwiches are about $10, entrée plates about $12 to $15. Vegan and gluten-free items are clearly marked, and just ask if a dish can be adapted for your needs.
Order lunch at the counter from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (2:30 p.m. on Monday); and dinner table service begins at 5 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sundays. They don’t take reservations, but check Mother’s live “line cam” online if you’re wondering about the wait.
It’s not surprising that, with Mother now a year old, Thiemann and Masera are just about to launch a new project. Their larger, full service restaurant will soon open next door, downstairs in the former basement screening rooms of the Crest Theater. The Empress Tavern will feature rotisserie meats, but something tells me vegetarians might still be able to dine there with friends.
The apple just doesn’t fall that far from the tree.