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The New Guard of
European Cuisine

Chefs embrace Eastern European-inspired menus

By Jody Eddy

Although American diners will always harbor a soft spot for Spanish, Italian and French cuisines; a new vanguard of restaurants featuring Eastern European-inspired menus are seizing a spotlight once reserved exclusively for Mediterranean-influenced fare. These establishments are tranforming traditionally heavy dishes into lighter interpretations, adding a contemporary spin and emphasizing local ingredients. Customers are taking notice, rewarding chefs who embrace today’s trend and taste-worthy changes within the American landscape of European fare, quickly filling communal tables festive with the spirit of “gemütlichkeit.”

Nicolaus Balla, Executive Chef of San Francisco’s Bar Tartine who says his menu includes “odd interpretations of Hungarian food,” feels his restaurant and those like it are taking the next step in the evolution of the culinary world: “This new trend stemming from Northern [and Eastern] Europe focuses on whole foods and the use of natural techniques for manipulating ingredients. This is a departure from the molecular gastronomy reign of the past 15 years.”

Matt Shapiro, Executive Chef of the German restaurant Schmidt’s in San Francisco, attributes some of the new interest to the past: “I think part of it has to do with the fact that it really is the basis of American cooking. Such a high percentage of immigrants to the states in the 19th century were from Central and Eastern Europe and that’s the food that so many of us have grown up with, especially on the East Coast and the Midwest. That aspect of it is comforting and on the other hand people are always into exotic things when they go out and now this cuisine has become exotic because there aren’t a lot of German restaurants left.”

Shapiro says that “Eastern German cuisine [which is the foundaiton of Schmidt’s sister restaurant Walzwerk] is utilitarian first and foremost. It’s about utilizing what’s available.”

Fabrizio Wiest, owner of San Francisco’s German restaurant, Suppenküche, agrees: “Most of the people who created this type of cuisine worked incredibly hard. They ate simple, hearty things to get them through their demanding day.”

Lighten up

The cuisine’s heaviness is one of the primary reasons many chefs attribute to it falling out of favor. Albert Rainer, owner of the Alpine-inspired restaurant Leopold’s in San Francisco explains, “The German restaurants are all gone and for the longest time I thought it was because people didn’t like them. German and Austrian cuisine is considered to be very bland and heavy. But we don’t use any cream sauces at Leopold’s. We don’t use flour in our sauces. We use modern techniques to lighten the food up but remain true to the original intent.”

Wiest adds, “In the ‘50s and ‘60s everything was drowning in cream sauce. You made them as rich and fattening as possible. But each thing can be cooked heavily like that or not so heavy depending upon how you choose to interpret it. I think German food had a bad reputation from years of cooking it so heavily.”

Creativity is key

Not only are chefs lightening up traditionally heavy recipes, but they are also infusing their modern interpretations with creativity once reserved almost exclusively for Southern European cuisine. Joseph Pitruzzelli, co-owner of Los Angeles based Wurstküche, a beer hall-inspired restaurant specializing in German beers and exotic sausages, says of a crowd favorite: “Suprisingly people gravitate towards the rattlesnake and rabbit sausages and also the duck and bacon sausage which is probably the most highly revered menu item. People will come in for the first time, and they’ll start with a more traditional bratwurst and then you’ll see them working their way through the entire menu on return visits. It’s exciting to watch.”

Charles Bell of Wurst in Healdsburg offers nine varieties of sausages daily and says, “One of my most popular sausages is the “harissa hottie,” a pork blend made with Tunisian spices.”

Balla says his customers can’t get enough of “langos [which is a] potato flatbread. They also enjoy gulyas (the soup that is often badly misrepresented in Midwest picnic fare) and also paprikas of chicken.”

For Rainer an interpretation of a classic macaroni and cheese is a crowd favorite: “The kaesespaetzle is very popular. It’s an Austrian version of the simplified mac and cheese made with spaetzle which is a tear-shaped pasta made of flour eggs, a little bit of milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. It’s mixed with three different Alpine cheeses that are all melted together. Its surface is caramelized, then topped with fried onions and served with a white cabbage salad which is another staple in Alpine cuisine.”

Shapiro says one of his most popular menu items is a “pea pancake appetizer served with house-cured salmon and sour cream.” The chef explains that many of the dishes on his menu that customers might assume include untraditional German ingredients are actually mainstays of the cuisine: “I try to use Germany as a springboard and there are frequently menu items that people would never expect to see in a German restaurant: Like a kohlrabi and endive gratin. Kohlrabi is actually a very popular ingredient in German cooking, and it’s not really prevalent in the States at all. Another example is a raw shaved kohlrabi salad with capers, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil which seems much more Mediterranean, but capers are also very prevalent in German cooking.”

Locally sourced with a little help from the Motherland

Another trend that’s prevalent on the menus of this new restaurant breed are local ingredients. Bell, who features seven rotating varieties of artisan-made local sausage at Wurst, says, “I source almost everything locally except for bringing in some of the Midwest when necessary. I use Sheboygan brats from Wisconsin and a Polish sausage from Detroit. I also make a milk chocolate caramel sauce that I bring in from Detroit. It’s Sanders milk chocolate sauce from a 150-year-old company. I make a rice cream puff with it that includes a fresh profiterole stuffed with ice cream and drizzled with the chocolate sauce and sprinkled with roasted peanuts.”

Balla turns to the spices and herbs of Hungary for inspiration: “Dill caraway and horseradish make appearances. Good Hungarian paprika is something most of our guests have never tasted – we are trying to recreate the flavor of good paprika by processing the best local peppers ourselves to incorporate into the menu.”

Rainer agrees that although he uses as many local
ingredients as possible, sometimes only
the genuine article will do. “There are some things we don’t compromise on. You can’t really improve upon Hungarian paprika [which he uses in the restaurant’s popular goulash recipe], and I don’t think you can find better Speck than in Austria and southern Tyrol. My philosophy is that if I can get the best possible local ingredient here and it’s not better from Europe, I will use it, but I won’t compromise on certain fundamental ingredients. Pumpkin seed oil from Austria or from Hungary is another example.”

A few disappointments

In spite of the tremendous strides this type of cuisine is making, chefs still encounter the occasional dish they just can’t convince their clientele to embrace. Kenny Seliger, who was raised in Germany, from the German restaurant Wirtshaus in Los Angeles, says, “I used to serve a lot of rabbit because I grew up eating it. I did a rabbit stew and a rabbit tart appetizer and they were semi-successful but not to the level I wanted them to be. I learned that rabbit is a stand-offish thing around here.”

Rainer remembers, “A dish that didn’t take off was a recipe we made with sautéed blood potatoes, onions, garlic and marjoram. Blood doesn’t sell in America for some reason. One thing I would love to serve more is a boiled beef dish called Tafelspitz but customers haven’t embraced it. It’s a wonderful dish made with boiled beef vegetables, fresh horseradish and a rich broth. It’s fantastic. The beef is very lean, but I think boiled beef has a bad reputation in America.”

Shapiro adds, “A recipe that didn’t pan out for me was a wild boar jaegerschnitzel which was a cutlet from the loin, pounded, pan-fried, not breaded and served with a wild mushroom cream sauce. I was also trying to do something with a chestnut crust for a loin of venison that didn’t work very well.”

Communing with each other

While there might be a few recipes struggling for acceptance, overall this new guard of European cooking is being universally embraced by diners looking for an alternative to the usual Spanish, French and Italian suspects. Balla notes, “I feel that peasant and ethnic food is at the forefront in the Bay Area, and this is the perfect place to test a Bavarian-influenced concept.” It has to do not only with the cuisine itself, but also with the spirit of the restaurants that serve it, many of which offer communal style seating.

Wiest explains, “People like simple food and they like to sit together at communal tables and get to know one another. That was unique when I opened the restaurant [in 1993]. The new thing now is the beer garden concept. To make a place for community to meet and hang out. It’s similar to the beer gardens in Germany.”

Seliger agrees, “There’s been a new focus on this type of food. I think what people love about our restaurant is the atmosphere. Our tables are communal and everyone sits next to each other and it’s more of a group environment versus coming in and sitting by yourself or with a date. We have a big beer garden and everyone hangs out and enjoys each other’s company. It’s what people are looking for now. It’s comfort food, and you’re not going to get rushed out the door.”

The ready embrace of this style of communal dining inspired by the great beer halls and gasthauses of Europe was a surprise to Rainer. “We have one table that seats 20 people, and it’s so great to see that people are actually asking for this table. People make friends there; they start drinking together. When people go to one of the traditional beer halls in Europe, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s a meeting point. People see familiar faces, they make new friends. That’s what a gasthaus is all about. It was where you could come to get your news and see what’s going on. I think that’s one aspect of what people like here. I think it’s what they’re looking for.”

Rainer adds, “I thought at first that young people would not embrace this restaurant, but I was surprised because our main guests are between 25 to 35 years old. The only reason I can attribute this to is because there’s a yearning for notstalgic things. Their parents or grandparents prepared this food and young people are starting to appreciate their culinary heritage and even though we are a modern interpretation of it, we remind them of that.”

Balla, who says some of his menu items “were memories of when I lived in Budapest,” is so committed to the culinary traditions shaping this new guard of European cuisine he never neglects the requests of those who know it best: “We get a number of guests from all over Northern and Eastern  Europe that ask us if we would consider making a version of a favorite food from their memories. The answer is
always ‘yes.’”

Whether saying cheers or proust, diners have officially welcomed Europe’s new culinary stars to West Coast’s constellation of worldly fare.

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