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Sweet Sauerkraut 


Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
"Knocking your bindings loose, kicking the skis free and leaning them up against the wooden wall of the inn, the lamplight coming from the window, where inside, in the smoky, new-wine smelling warmth, they were playing the accordion." SOMA in springtime isn't exactly a ski run in the Austrian Alps, but Hemingway's Tirolean reverie nevertheless captures the cozy Alpine gemütlichkeit of Schnitzelhaus, a 5-year-old eatery a stone's throw from Brain Wash and other hipster enclaves endemic to the neighborhood. Rather than schussing down some Austrian mountaintop toward Bludenz, here you maneuver your way through the encompassing loft-and-warehouse urban renewal toward the address in question, drawn by the aforementioned lamplight and wheeze of accordion. Out front you'll see flower boxes, an honest-to-God tavern sign decorated with heraldic snarling lions, and steamy windows framing an inner tableau of feasting, quaffing, and merrymaking. Willkommen!

The mountaintop-tavern ambience is sustained within via antlers at the crest of the door, a peaked roof, a wide array of elaborate beer steins, and walls paneled in knotty pine. Wreaths of dried flowers and boughs of evergreen share the tiny space with an antler chandelier, eight tables of planked wood, and a back bar dispensing drafts of every shade. In one exuberant corner a trio of quasi-Bavarians squeezes out the oompah, and the friendly mix of neighborhood types tap their feet and drink their Schneiderweisse and chatter over platters of wurst and sauerkraut.

Hanging from the ceiling are the flags of Austria and Germany, the neighboring inspirations for the restaurant's cuisine and attitude. Much of Schnitzelhaus' food provides the warming comfort and simple, cholesterol-rich pleasures of the region, starting with the potato pancakes: They're the best in town. Huge, like matching golden sunbursts, their outer crunch encloses a buttery interior of piping-hot spudliness; a saucer of puréed apple comes on the side. One of the four sausage platters (knockwurst, frankfurters, or two kinds of bratwurst) makes an equally marvelous starter. The Nürnberger bratwurst comes in three string-connected links of sweet, smoky pleasure accompanied by a pot of spicy brown mustard, buttery chunks of roasted potato, and the creamiest, mellowest sauerkraut I've ever tasted -- a messy bouquet of threaded cabbage with barely a bite but plenty of citrusy character.

The eight varieties of schnitzel that give the establishment its name kick off the Austrian part of the menu. Like all great national dishes -- cassoulet, paella, gumbo -- schnitzel is infinitely evolving and open to interpretation. To prepare the dish, the chef pounds the cutlets thin, dips them in flour and egg and bread crumbs, and fries them -- in butter or lard or a combination of the two -- until they're crisp and golden, with the properly puffy nimbus of a good beignet. Although schnitzel is made from beef and pork on occasion, veal is the traditional meat of choice (as in the iconic Wiener schnitzel). But there's also a health-nut version prepared without egg or bread crumbs (the naturschnitzel); an Emmentaler-and-ham-stuffed variety that betrays the influence of Austria's Alpine neighbor, Switzerland (the cordon bleu schnitzel); one that's dressed up with paprika and sour cream (the paprikaschnitzel) and another that's served with a lemon sauce (the Kaiserschnitzel); not to mention the Hosteinschnitzel (served with two eggs sunny side up), the Zigeunerschnitzel (dressed in a red and green pepper sauce), and the rahmschnitzel (Wiener schnitzel with a nice cream sauce to go with the eggs, butter, and lard). Amid a menu of hearty mountain dishes untainted by California's queasy sensibilities, the adipose nature of der schnitzel stands out, and the folks at 294 Ninth St. don't stint on the artery blockers. Their interpretation of the classic dish (they offer each of the aforementioned varieties) is up-and-down buttery with a crunchy coating and richly textured interior you can cut with a fork. The sardellenschnitzel, which dabs the whole with an anchovy-infused butter sauce, also offers a hint of briny oomph to cut the encompassing succulence. The dish comes with those tasty potatoes and a bed of slightly sweet, not too sour, pleasantly vinegary red cabbage.

The other entrees are mostly Germanic in origin. Meat predominates: In a menu of two dozen items there are three vegetarian dishes, a batter-fried fish of the day, and a roasted chicken. You'll find rindsroulade, sauerbraten, and Hungarian goulash as well as kleine leckereien (small plates) of Bavarian meatloaf and noodles with ham and cheese. We went for the intriguingly authentic entrees: rabbit and venison. The rabbit is moderately tender but unremarkable in flavor, with a surfeit of tiny, unexpected bones that make it difficult to eat, while the Black Forest deer ragout is overcooked and only slightly gamy (it would have been more interesting if gamier). Both come draped in an unpleasantly rich, weirdly sweet sauce reminiscent of fried liver that masks the meats' feral flavors. (The accompanying spätzle is as soft and melt-in-the-mouth silky as good gnocchi, however.) Another dish, the weekends-only schweinehaxen (leg of pork), is a better option: A joint of such immensity it inspires barehanded attack à la Henry VIII, its skin is crisp and pungent, and despite somewhat overcooked meat it's still ribboned with porcine flavor. What's more, the dish is accompanied by lots of that marvelous sauerkraut and moist, cushiony bread dumplings studded with herbs and scallions. Each entree comes with your choice of soup or salad; the former is a tasty onion/herb broth with chunks of soft potato, while the latter is your standard cafeteria mélange of head lettuce, pink tomatoes, and gloppy white dressing.

There are seven wines to choose from, each available either by the glass or the bottle, but if any place is a tankard-of-malt kind of establishment, this is it. Fortunately Schnitzelhaus offers an impressive array of beers to choose from, half of them on tap. The gold-hued Oktoberfest has a mellow, baked-apple warmth to it that contrasts pleasantly with the crisper, spicier Franziskaner yeast wheat beer. Another draft, the Krombacher pilsner, is hoppy but bland. Bottled beers include the widely acclaimed but undeniably weird Schlenkerla smoked beer, in which Bamberg beechwood burned at the malting stage creates a frosty beverage with the smoldering character of a campfire. Like martinis and anchovies, it's the sort of thing you have to work up to. No taste bud prep necessary for the Aventinus wheat bock, however: Advertised as "Germany's original wheat bock" (the brewery dates back to the 17th century), it has all the earthy complexity of a southern weizenbock with lingering grace notes of cocoa and spice -- a fine dessert-time brew. Schnitzelhaus offers the seven bottles by the half-liter and the seven drafts in liter, half-liter, and one-third-liter increments; they come served in an aesthetically eclectic selection of beakers, tankards, and mugs.

In a restaurant half-dedicated to the homeland of Sacher torte, Linzertorte, doboschtorte, and other Viennese extravaganzas, the minimal dessert menu is a bit of a disappointment. On the one hand there's the Deutscher schokoladenkuchen, a Safeway-level chocolate cake with Crisco-flavored frosting. On the other there's a satisfying take on that glory of Austro-Hungarian cookery, apple strudel: tart stewed apples wrapped in a mildly sweet shortcrust and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's a triumph of comfy simplicity. After that and the kartoffelpuffer (potato pancake) and the bratwurst and the weizenbock, you'll be more than ready for a day of telemarking the Arlberg -- or at least a little cardboard-sledding down Potrero Hill.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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