Bliss And Vinegar
The authentic flavors of homemade German cuisine fill the menu at Stammtisch.
Thursday, January 17, 2002
If you call the Vinegar Connoisseurs International, they will send you a list of recipes using their favorite foodstuff (which, they point out, has been used as a spice for 10,000 years!). They will send you recipes for vinegar cheese, vinegar cookies and vinegar pie. But they do not offer a recipe for pickled red cabbage, nor sauerkraut, nor sauerbraten. Go figure.
Not long ago, I had a nice sauce of balsamic vinegar and molasses, served, along with a tomato-herb sauce, on a marinated portabella mushroom topped with goat cheese and roasted nuts. Also not long ago, in an excellent Carmel restaurant I reviewed in these pages, I had a great vinegar-based French sauce on a rare steak.
In gourmet shops and in grocery aisles, vinegar now takes up two shelves. I have watched people sip vinegar as though tasting a fine wine.
A vinegar connoisseur would love Seaside''s Stammtisch Restaurant, even though there is no vinegar pie and no raspberry vinegar or even Balsamic. Stammtisch is an authentic German restaurant and serves classic German fare. The flavor-or flavors-of vinegar dominate the meal.
I visited Stammtisch with Buck, a friend and colleague from work, after a grueling Friday recently. Buck is far from a trendy foodie, but he loves good food. (I have heard from various sources that he makes great chili and jambalaya and award-winning ribs-he''s one of those guys.) And I know that he likes beer and meat. I didn''t know whether or not he had a strong opinion about vinegar.
My experience with German food is limited, so I was thinking Stammtisch was going to be all about beer and sausages. I was only half right.
We each started with a huge, heavy stein filled with 20 ounces of creamy Spaten Lager. Stammtisch offers several varieties of German beer in bottles, but only three on tap: Spaten Pils, Spaten Lager, and Spaten Optimator (a doppelbock Octoberfest). That is clearly not a wide variety of beer, but it is nevertheless the best selection that I''ve seen in a restaurant recently.
The beer came with a plate of semi-dark German bread. It was followed shortly by our appetizer: a covered ceramic bowl filled with marinated herring, accompanied by a side-dish of home-fried potatoes and a small plate of sauerkraut, pickled red-cabbage and grated carrots.
The herring was astonishing: tender and flavorful, coated in a creamy, pickly-sweet marinade. The bread was chewy and almost sour. The red cabbage had a nice sharp vinegary taste, and the sauerkraut, spiked with caraway seeds, tasted almost sweet by comparison. The potatoes, which were lightly herbed, also tasted sweet. The beer tasted very sweet, cold and delicious. Beer tastes best on Fridays, I think.
This was a lucky Friday, as it turned out, because it was one of the two days per month (the first and third Friday) that Stammtisch serves sauerbraten. I ordered it on the strong recommendation of Erwin Moritz, our waiter, who is also the restaurant''s owner and head chef. Buck ordered the wurstplatte, which is the sausage plate. I felt a twinge of envy. I do love sausage.
Sauerbraten, in case you don''t know, is tenderloin of beef that has been soaked for five days in vinegar and spices. (I didn''t know that either.) A few weeks ago, I would not have thought, "Mmmm," when hearing that description. I do now.
Here''s what happens when you pickle a steak and then slow-roast it: it becomes more tender than any beef you''ve eaten. More tender than the beef in a stew. It is tender enough to cut with a fork. On the tongue, it first tastes of vinegar, but with each bite the flavor of the stewed meat asserts itself until it takes over.
The sauerbraten came with potato dumplings-which had a nice, chewy texture, and a plainness that was welcome on the plate (good for soaking up the pleasantly salty-sour gravy). It also came with red cabbage-but this red cabbage had apparently been cooked longer than the stuff that came with our appetizer; it had a finer texture; it may also have been marinated in a different vinegar.
Buck''s wurstplatte, consisted of three sausages-none of them what I expected, but all of them very tasty. One, a pork-and-beef sausage, tasted a bit like a big Jimmy Dean, but a little bit more chewy. Another was a knockwurst-like a big spicy frankfurter-nothing wrong with that. The third, my favorite, was a mild, tender and juicy veal sausage. Again, Buck''s plate was garnished with piles of red cabbage and sauerkraut.
Yes, it was a meat-fest. (And yes, there was beer involved: somewhere during the meal we had ordered a couple more Spatens. And truth be told, we''d stopped in a friendly Seaside bar for a bourbon-and-beer while waiting for our reservation.) But to say Stammtisch is about meat is like saying your favorite Mexican restaurant is about beans. German cuisine, as practiced at Stammtisch, is about the varieties of flavor that are produced by the art and science of double-fermentation. No fancy new gourmet tricks-just one of the oldest tricks in the cookbook.