Though I have more than a few food obsessions, there’s something about authentic food and wine from the Germanic countries that comforts me on a profound level. Maybe it’s my German Miller (or Mueller) family heritage on my Dad’s side or the satisfying straightforwardness of dishes like dumplings or sauerkraut. Either way, there’s not enough food around from that region as far as I’m concerned. So it is with great delight I witness the opening of two unique restaurants.
Here’s two early “sneak-peeks” on North German Gaumenkitzel, debuting this week in Berkeley, and Leopold’s, an Austrian restaurant just opened Friday in Russian Hill (see additional photos of both spaces in my next issue of The Perfect Spot, coming out Feb. 1).
LEOPOLD’S – With the words Treffen (meet), Trinken (drink), Essen (eat) painted under the name, Leopold’s offers something with no parallel in our city: an Austrian restaurant. It opened quietly this past Friday night in a cheery, bright space on Polk Street housing animal heads, Austrian art, pine wood tables and booths. Here, the relaxed warmth of a neighborhood beer haus (with a number of beers on tap and by the bottle, including Kostritzer Black Lager and St. Bernardus) meets dirndl-clad waitresses, all the while maintaining a refinement that doesn’t cross the line into kitschy.
Brothers Albert and Klaus Rainer, from my favorite Austrian city, Salzberg, run the place with effusive charm. Though they must be working out new-opening kinks, my initial meal was seamless and delicious. Hungarian Goulash (borders of Hungary and Austria changed so often that regional dishes meld) is tender beef in a paprika-rich sauce with buttery, addictive spaetzle and a green salad brightened by lemon zest. Wiener schnitzel is exemplary: prepared traditionally, lightly breaded, pounded flat with a squeeze of lemon, contrasted perfectly with Lingonberry sauce and a warm escarole potato salad. These entrees are quite filling at a mere $12.75 each, while the highest-priced menu item is Choucroute Garni Platter at $17.75.
As in my travels through Austria, Switzerland and Germany, salads are ultra-fresh. Roasted beet salad ($6.75) rests on a light horseradish creme fraiche in a bed of mache and endive, accented by walnuts and radishes. Additional appealing starters include duck crepinettes, vegetable strudel and house-smoked salmon on potato cakes. An off-menu starter of dense German breads made an impression topped with beets on a creamy liptauer cheese spread (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liptauer) or Black Forest ham with fresh-shaved horseradish. Wines are affordable at $20-34 a bottle, with plenty of glasses and carafes available. I delight seeing mostly wines from Austria, Switzerland and Hungary, with an additional few from Slovenia, California and Oregon. Save room for a slice of apfelstrudel (apple strudel – $5.75) in warm vanilla cream sauce.
This heartwarming haven is one I’m already plotting my return to.
2400 Polk Street (at Union)
Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm, until midnight Fri-Sat.
GAUMENKITZEL, meaning ‘delight for the taste buds’, opens later this week (if all goes as planned) in an open, sunny space on San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley. Owner Anja Voth brings restaurant and patisserie experience from Hamburg and Berlin. Her husband Kai Flache constructed and designed the restaurant with his local firm. They operate as a gracious, complimentary team.
A rustic wood ceiling, huge windows and skylight illuminate the yellows, whites, reds and oranges of the clean, modern room. A spare collection of German china and ceramic dolls line the shelves, adding a homey touch. While the main portion of the room is eat-in, one can order take-out or baked goods. A section to the left of the entrance offers stools and countertops for a quick meal.
A pastry chef bakes fresh breads and pastries in-house, including a delicate Linzer torte with red currant jam. Anja operates as chef with assistance from a chef who worked 15 years at Oakland’s now-defunct Citron. I stopped in for a preview lunch, savoring baked goods, beet salad, an addictive caramel custard, and beef roulade with braised red cabbage and creamy mashed potatoes. The beef roulade is Anja’s mother’s recipe, rolled up with pickles and onions, while red cabbage is equal parts apple with a tart, spiced kick.
A breakfast menu lasts all morning with items like German porridge, house-baked rolls, cold cuts, müsli. There’s afternoon tea (2-4:30pm), while lunch and supper entrees cover the gamut from salmon with rhubarb compote to wild mushrooms with spaetzle. They also make their own seasonal jams, like a pleasantly tart/bitter Meyer lemon marmalade I sampled. Menu prices had not yet been finalized on the menus I previewed, but it will be affordable, mid-range.
The joy here is dishes with a predominantly North German focus, a rarity as local offerings are typically of the South German kind. Influences from Anja and Kai’s port city hometown of Hamburg are showcased, like curry (poached fish with curry sauce) and fresh fish (from Monterey Fish Market). Expect authentic German, reliant on local and seasonal ingredients, prepared with care from a couple involved in every aspect of the place.
2121 San Pablo Ave, Berk.
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