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Berlin by the Bay 

Fine German fare sandwiched between two viewings of the fine German photographs of August Sander

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
I just got in under the wire to see the amazing Gerhard Richter show at SFMOMA. It was closing within days, and touring the many rooms was so overwhelming that I feared I'd given short shrift to the August Sander exhibition in the same museum, even though he's one of my favorite photographers and this show gathers together some 200 of his images -- more than I'd ever seen in one place. But, I'll come see it again, I thought, comfortably, since it was -- what? -- still near the beginning of January, and the exhibit had weeks to run.

Within days I got a third hit of German culture when I saw Berlin Symphony, the 2002 homage to the brilliant 1927 documentary Berlin Symphony of a City, in the Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro. By this time my thoughts had also lightly turned to those of German food. (Despite the invariable uneducated, woe-inducing, knee-jerk response of some of my acquaintances when I speak of my affection for German cooking -- "Oh, I hate German food! It's so heavy!" -- I find certain emblematic dishes to be lightness personified. A properly fried schnitzel can be almost evanescent as it crunches delicately between your teeth.)

But time went by, and I neither returned to SFMOMA nor sat down to bratwurst and beer or schnitzel and sekt. Then I read a characteristically thoughtful piece on Sander in the Feb. 10 New Yorker by Anthony Lane, who in his exploration of Sander's lifelong portrait studies of German archetypes titled "People of the 20th Century" cites Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, and Alfred Döblin. I thought of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-hour movie of Döblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which I had so dutifully and pleasurably attended, week after week, as it unspooled serial-fashion at the Vista Theater in Hollywood, and how often we had extended the experience by enjoying a plate of sausages or pork shank at the old Red Lion Tavern nearby. (I turned a couple of pages in the magazine, and there was David Denby on a new touring Fassbinder retrospective, almost eerily.) I knew I had to get back to see the Sander show again, and to eat some German food, soon.

Janice and Adam had just heard of a German place in Alameda (which we fondly refer to as the Land That Time Forgot), so I came by to pick them and their son Chester up for dinner that very night. (Before we left, Chester and I watched an episode of The Simpsons in which Mr. Burns entertained a couple of German industrialists at a rather gemütlichkeit place called the Hungry Hun.) I liked the broad pink façade of Speisekammer, set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence, the long bar with its many beer spigots, the seemingly endless array of rooms filled with plain wooden tables surrounded by happy eaters. (Speisekammer's owners and chef are veterans of Suppenküche, a longtime favorite of mine.)

We ordered a whole lot of food (fortunately, 10-year-old Chester has the appetite of, well, a growing boy): Reibekuchen mit hausegemachtern Apfelmus (potato pancakes with homemade apple sauce); Hering nach Hausfrauenart mit Schmand, Zweibeln, Gurken (pickled herring with sour cream, onion, and pickles); and the intriguing Vesperplatte mit Schinken, Blutwurst, Salami und Käse (an appetizer plate with ham, blood sausage, salami, and cheese) to start, followed by Wiener Schnitzel vom Kalbsfleisch mit Bratkartoffeln (veal wiener schnitzel with roasted potatoes), Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsobe mit Spätzle (sautéed pork loin in mushroom sauce with little dumplings), Kassler vom Grill mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelbrei (grilled smoked pork chop with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes), and Gegrillte Nürnberger Bratwurst mit S 'n' K (grilled pork sausage with the same accompaniments as the pork chop). And glasses of dark beer, Pilsner, and Riesling.

I was impressed that our server could remember all this without writing it down ("Oh," he scoffed, "only for parties of 15, maybe"); somehow I was not totally surprised when an unordered bowl of bread dumplings drenched with mushroom sauce hit the table instead of the potato pancakes we were expecting. He left us the dumplings as a gift. The mixed appetizer plate was a beautifully arrayed assortment of thick-cut ham, chunks of Thuringer sausage, headcheese, blood sausage, two kinds of cheese, and a couple of rollmops (herring rolled around pickles), with the welcome additions of halved hard-boiled egg, cornichons, and radishes. The two German mustards on the table -- one hot, one grainy -- got a workout. The big fat herrings were crisp, sea-salty, and sided by an irresistible salad of chopped apples and sliced onions dressed with sour cream, and perfectly boiled potatoes sprinkled with fresh chopped parsley. The just-made potato pancakes were the lacy, crunchy, Brillo pad-stringy sort; we made quick work of them. We were getting enough to eat.

So we didn't finish any of our main courses, but it wasn't for want of trying. The schnitzel was not the thin-pounded crisp collop of my dreams, but two crusty, thick-cut chunks, still very satisfying indeed and accompanied by some extraordinarily good little square-cut roasted potatoes. My knife slipped right through the silky pink flesh of the hefty smoked pork chop. I was mildly disappointed by the salty yellow sauce on the Jägerschnitzel, the same sauce that had more happily moistened the bread dumplings.

Still, it was a lovely meal, and we lingered over homemade apple strudel, a nice pear tart, and a rather seductive warm chocolate bread pudding, praising what we'd eaten and planning to return for meatloaf with bacon and egg served with onion sauce, perhaps, or pea stew with roasted vegetables and sausage.

A day later, Chester and I stopped by Top Dog on Hearst in Berkeley, on our way to see Shanghai Knights. "I'm going to have two linguiça," Chester said. "No," I said, ever the indulgent godmother, "you're going to have one linguiça and split a German frankfurter, a bockwurst, and a bratwurst with me." Chester, who's into listing things by preference (I get a lot of "What are your three favorite Bond movies, in order? Your favorite Simpsons episodes? Your favorite Star Wars movies?" when we're together), was amenable. We loved all of our sausages, but for the record, Chester still prefers the linguiça, followed that day by the brat; I liked the snappy, garlicky German (three-quarters beef, one-quarter pork) best, followed by the brat (all pork, with marjoram) and the fine, pale, milky bockwurst (half pork, half veal).

On Monday I invited Cathy to lunch at Schroeder's. Though she wasn't totally convinced on the subject of German food, she was willing to join me for a meal. (She did volunteer a memory of a lovely lunch in the astonishing food hall on top of the Ka De We department store in Berlin, where I'd spent some happy hours myself.) Schroeder's bills itself as the Oldest and Largest German Restaurant on the West Coast. It's been on Front Street since 1893; for its first 42 years, it was a men-only lunch establishment. In 1935, Schroeder's began serving dinner, and admitted ladies after lunch that same year. In 1970 (the head spins!) ladies got the run of the place.

I liked the big wood-paneled room lined with murals, the bentwood chairs, the slightly fusty tchotchkes, and the pleasant food we chose from a copious menu: oniony, moist, thin potato pancakes that tasted better than they looked, a huge half-duck roasted until the milk chocolate-colored flesh could be cut with a fork, fine-textured German meatloaf with smooth mashed potatoes and gravy, easy to eat, entirely enjoyable, and washed down with wheat beer. (The two different kinds of goulash might draw me back, maybe on a Friday, which is Polka Night, with all that that implies.)

Perhaps my best meal of a very good eating week is the dinner I have with Peter and Anita at Walzwerk after my return visit to the August Sander exhibit. I get there early, and am shown to a tiny bar behind the dining room, where I sip a glass of sekt (sparkling wine) as I listen to the two adorable owners converse in German. (One reminds me of Rachel Griffiths; Peter says the other reminds him of Annie Lennox, but I don't see it.) It really feels as though I'm in East Germany: the eccentric thrift-shop décor, the signage, the photos of Marx, Engels, and Lenin that decorate the dining room -- everything contributes to the illusion. This time the potato pancakes are plump, lightly crusted, mashed-potato cakes; the sweet matjes herrings are combined with apples, onions, and pickles in a sour-creamed salad; and we all love a buttery soup du jour filled with halved Brussels sprouts. Peter's schnitzel comes the closest so far to my crisp ideal, arrives with frilly purple kale and excellent mashed potatoes, and goes well with his dark East German Köstritzer Schwarzbier. Anita's chicken, despite being stuffed with bacon and apples, gives the lie to the "heavy" misconception, juicy and subtle as it is under its creamy dried-cherry sauce. I'm tempted by the garlic roast pork, having not yet had my fill of the pig in a very piggy week, but succumb to the sauerbraten, wittily sporting raisins in its winy sauce. We like the names of our desserts (kalter hund, or cold dog, is a chocolate-layered-with-cookies icebox cake; rote grütze is puréed red currant pudding with cream) somewhat more than we like the desserts themselves, but this is the most sophisticated cooking I've tasted all week. Even the Wall wouldn't keep me away.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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