In reasonably close proximity, in concert (pun unintended!) with the throngs of well-fed people who can be seen streaming out from the small but choice clot of restaurants that dot Hayes Valley (Jardinière, Citizen Cake, Hayes Street Grill, Absinthe, Vicolo, Caffe Delle Stelle) in the minutes before performances start at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall or the Opera House. The obvious choice, even to the man in the box office who patiently helped me choose decent tickets somewhere between the financial stratosphere of $97 and the corporal stratosphere of the second tier, was Suppenküche, which just celebrated its 10th birthday at the corner of Hayes and Laguna on May 15; it opened in 1993 in merry defiance of the utter unfashionability of German fare.
With its fresh, clean setting (communal pine tables, whitewashed walls) and tasty, affordable food, Suppenküche was immediately popular, and it remains so. When I tell my dinner companion that we are going to eat German food, he gulps and says, "I'm a vegetarian," but when I mention that we're going to Suppenküche, he's relieved: "Oh, I've eaten there. I like it."
The place even has a short list of vegetarian offerings, including cheese spätzle in onion butter sauce and an untraditional but enticing-sounding dish of a portobello mushroom stuffed with spinach and feta cheese over pepper sauce (fetchingly titled "Champignon gefüllt mit Spinat und Schafskäse auf Paprikasoße"). Tim, who has immediately chosen potato pancakes for his first course, decides on herbed quark (a fresh, unripened cheese something like a smooth cottage cheese) with what are called bouillon potatoes for his entree.
Because I'm dining with a vegetarian, I wistfully pass up my favorite starter, the vesperplatte (an assortment of cured meats including ham, blood sausage, and salami, with cheese and pickles), which goes perfectly with the sturdy, seed-sprinkled wheat and rye breads served here but is much too much for a single diner, in favor of the crisp pickled herring (itself rather daunting, served as it is with sour cream, onions, pickles, and boiled potatoes). But when I order schnitzel for my main course, the waitress asks, "Which one? Wiener schnitzel, Jägerschnitzel, or chicken schnitzel?" "I didn't know you had a chicken schnitzel," I say, and that's how I learn that my menu is missing the additional lengthy page of daily specials.
After perusing it, I stick with my original choice of Wiener schnitzel, but switch from the herring, which I've enjoyed here before, to the fresh pea soup, and I'm glad I did: It's superb, a thin, brilliantly green, silky purée dotted with minuscule snips of chives -- the essence of spring in a soup plate. Tim is enjoying his three big pancakes, still white and soft under their golden crunchy crusts; I would ask for a little sour cream to go with them, but he's content with the bowl of applesauce.
Though Tim's eating potatoes followed by potatoes, the cooking techniques and resulting differences in texture are so pronounced that the choice seems inspired rather than repetitive. His plate of tender potatoes boiled in bouillon with a bowl of creamy herbed quark is colorfully and happily eked out with generous mountains of cubed beet salad and shredded carrot salad, on a bed of cabbage. The schnitzel is made from thickish cuts of pork rather than thinly pounded veal, two big collops sided with lots of unevenly cut, light- and dark-browned chunks of roasted potatoes enhanced with caramelized onions, and knowingly served with a delicate salad of nothing but beautiful pale-green leaves of butter lettuce in a sharp vinaigrette. The deceptively simple salad is exquisite. It serves as an ethereal intermission between forkfuls of the satisfying meat, and enables one to return to the pig refreshed.
I wish that a place that offers several dozen beers could come up with more than just two desserts, but then it's a beer hall, not a dessert hall. It helps that the apple strudel is hot and flaky-crusted, with good, freshly whipped cream, and that the Black Forest cake is a respectable rendition of the classic, with plump preserved cherries hiding in the cream between the airy chocolate layers.
Not as breathtakingly convenient to Louise M. Davies but perhaps a mite more appropriate before an evening of Kurt Weill's cabaret songs due to its transporting gemütlich setting (which could be found at any time in the last century in any German urban locale, whether a medieval village or Berlin) is Schnitzelhaus, a few minutes' drive away, in SOMA. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with beer signs and photographs of German landscapes; there are paper place mats on the otherwise bare wooden tables. There are a couple of dozen beers on offer, most in your choice of a third, half, or full liter: I go for the light Erdinger wheat beer and Suzanne chooses a dark Spaten Optimator.
Perversely, in a place named for the dish and featuring an entire page devoted to eight varieties of schnitzel, neither of us chooses one (though I am quite tempted by both the Sardellen-Schnitzel, served with anchovy sauce, and my favorite, Holstein-Schnitzel, topped with two sunny-side-up eggs). Instead we are drawn to Hase in Rotweinsauce (rabbit in red wine sauce) and sauerbraten (marinated beef). With them, we are offered potato soup or green salad: The thin soup, speckled with parsley, is more interesting than the small salad of iceberg lettuce with a slice of tomato, which I dress with dribbles from the cruets of oil and vinegar on the table instead of trying the house ranch dressing. (I don't think ranch dressing was popular, actually, in the Weimar Republic.)
When the main courses arrive, they look beautiful, the rabbit in its pale, purplish, winy sauce and the mahogany sauerbraten set off by bright orange carrots and dark red braised cabbage. The well-cooked beef, in its mildly vinegary sweet-and-sour sauce, is only slightly resistant to my fork, and the dense, bland, perfectly spherical potato dumplings served alongside are excellent vehicles for sopping up more of the sauce. I love the just-made, fragile spätzle served with Suzanne's dish, but the stew itself suffers from the two problems associated with cooking rabbit: The basically lean meat is a bit dry and dull under its sauce, and the tiny, splintery bones are a trifle disagreeable when encountered. If I was to dine here before hearing Dietrich's heir, Ute Lemper, slink her way through Weill's Seven Deadly Sins (June 20 and 22), I might choose from the four different sausages on offer, or just a simple plate of the restaurant's freshly made, delicate little spätzle, with cheese.
But when I note that all three of the festival programs start with pre-concert lectures an hour earlier than the concerts themselves, I realize I might have to sup after rather than before. Suppenküche and Schnitzelhaus will be closed; where to continue that old Teutonic feeling after seeing Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (remaining performances on July 19 and 21)?
I think of Tommy's Joynt, the venerable steam-table Hofbrau with its tiny wooden booths covered in red-checked cloths, communal wooden tables, and, yes, over 100 different beers on offer, conveniently open until 1:45 a.m. I haven't been there in many years. The best surprise at an experimental lunch is that two overflowing trays of food set us back only $14.92, but the meal is otherwise one disappointment after another. The bratwurst and kielbasa sausages in our sandwiches are sliced, depriving us of the pleasure of biting through a snappy casing; the beer-and-bean soup tastes off; the Brussels sprouts salad is pretty under a confetti of peppers, but the sprouts are woefully hard and undercooked, in a dish where overcooking would be better. The only real pleasures are the mayonnaisey, fresh-tasting potato salad and the crisp, tangy pickles fished out from a big keg.
Would I return for a large turkey leg, only $4.95 with beans or salad, or buffalo stew, surely worth $6.50 if only to satisfy a gamy curiosity? Something tastier might be lurking among the dishes listed on the big board behind the counter. My innocence might be lost, but hope springs eternal.