Sweet Home Alemannia: Down-Home Southern Cooking, German-Style

by Robert Lauriston

German restaurants, once numerous among the Bay Area's favorites, have fallen seriously out of favor in these parts over the past couple of decades. This was largely the fault of the pioneers of California cuisine, who quite logically (given the state's climate) looked toward the Mediterranean for their models. Though there are still many German, Austrian, and German-Swiss chefs on the scene, they're identified mostly with the old school, defending traditional grand-hotel notions of haute cuisine like ice swans and chafing dishes against the onslaught of garlic-crazed, mesclun-wielding barbarians swarming out of Berkeley's gourmet ghetto.

Truth be told, the restaurateurs were largely responsible for their own downfall. It's a short journey from the simple and hearty to bland and heavy, and in a food-conscious area like this, in the long run mediocrity drives away customers. Small wonder the number of German restaurants in these parts has dwindled, and the cuisine itself has gotten a bad rap.

Having eaten very well in Germany, I knew that there was more to the food than the steam-table roasts and tasteless gravy familiar from local hofbraus. I was reminded of that forgotten fact recently when I picked up a copy of Horst Scharfenberg's The Cuisines of Germany (Poseidon Press/Simon & Schuster, 1989), a book that does for regional German cooking what Marcella Hazan did for Italy. Reading his mouth-watering recipes left me with a craving for the real thing, so I was very happy to get a tip that there was a truly authentic German restaurant hidden in the depths of darkest Alameda.

We caught Bavarian Corner's friendly, informal style as soon as we walked in the front door. The bartender, co-owner Rosie Lurz, was engrossed in an animated discussion in German with several of her customers, but flashed us a big smile and gestured that we should make ourselves at home in the dining room. In marked contrast to other German restaurants we've visited in the past few years, which were uniformly dark and cave-like, this space was bright and airy, with high ceilings and plenty of space between one table and the next. The typically kitschy Bavarian knickknacks on the walls were echoed by the heavy paper placemats decorated with jokes that exemplify the, how shall I put this, distinctive Bavarian sense of humor--a placemarker for a spare liter of beer labeled "nur für Alt-Bayern" (loosely, "only for good old boys"--Bavaria's the German equivalent of our deep south), a spot for Prussians to put their foot-long toothpicks, and a bogus Bavarian dialect-German glossary ("A duttats Weiberl" translated as "Mädchen mit handsamer Oberweite," ahem).

While we were looking over the menu, the waiter brought us a big plate of assorted breads. The dish of foil-wrapped butter cubes that accompanied it seemed like a bad omen, but instead of the sour salty stuff we expected they turned out to hold top-quality unsalted butter. Another pleasant surprise was that the bread was perfectly fresh, which makes sense as it's baked daily on the premises. The restaurant is an offshoot of and shares the premises with the Munchner Kinder Bakery, run by third-generation baker Joseph Lurz and his son. Bread plays as important a part at German tables as it does in France or Italy, so the restaurant's having its own bakery gives it a real edge over the competition. (If you're not used to German bread, you may find it a little dry--that's because it's not supposed to be eaten by itself, but first slathered with butter and other goodies, or soaked with sauce from your plate.) The bakery's selection of traditional Bavarian bread, rolls, and pastries are available from a small shop in the restaurant's lobby.

Naturally, you can't serve Bavarian food without Bavarian beer, and the restaurant offers four Paulaner beers on draft: lager, pilsner, dark Oktoberfest, and wheat. As in Bavaria, you can get your beer in the traditional one-liter mug ($8), but in a concession to puny American thirsts there are also quarter- and half-liter mugs ($2.75 and $4.25). There are also several specialty beers in third- and half-liter bottles, and a full bar if you want to be truly authentic and knock back a few tumblers of schnapps.

We started off our meal with the soup of the day, a delicious potato and leek puree elegantly enriched with a judicious dose of heavy cream. The soup had an appealing aroma of good stock and nutmeg, and perhaps a hint of celery root. It was a bit salty, but before we concluded our discussion of whether it was too salty we'd drained our bowls and wiped them clean with more bread, so the question was moot.

At first glance, the salad seemed as bleak as the foil-wrapped butter--pale lettuce and tomatoes, and what I took to be canned pickled peppers--but luckily appearances were again deceiving. Instead of icky iceberg it was delicate butter lettuce, in an unusual dressing of sweet mustard (the kind delis generally call "Russian") and fresh dill. Far from being canned, the house-pickled red and green peppers and cabbage were the best thing about the salad, crunchy and full of fresh flavor.

The Rindsrouladen (beef rolls, $11.95) were a decidedly superior example of this popular method for making tough cuts of beef into a tender and juicy dish. Thin strips of beef are brushed with mustard and spices, rolled around small pieces of bacon, chopped onion, and a few chunks of gherkin, browned with onions, and then braised gently in stock until done. This is traditionally served with a sort of pan gravy made from the cooking juices, but Bavarian Corner's sauce was so delicate it seems like it must have been made separately. Accompanying the rolls was a large helping of hand-cut noodles, which being made from a soft bread-like dough seemed more like long, thin dumplings than the toothy, dense Italian and Asian noodles we're used to. The noodles were a perfect tool for that archetypally German table pastime, sopping up the sauce.

The Bayerisher Swchweinbraten (Bavarian-style roast pork, $12.95) was yet another dish with a misleading appearance: the gravy looked distressingly like the generic bouillon-flavored brown liquid ladled over meats from cafeteria steam tables. Again, first impressions deceived, and it was the kind of light-bodied, meaty gravy you usually get only from a seriously good home cook. The pork was tasty, but on the dry side. (I got the end cut--the center slices were surely juicier.) The bread dumpling, on the other hand, was the hit of the meal: a golden sphere with a fluffy marbled interior and a subtle, hard-to-place flavor, maybe a touch of caraway and herbs from the various breads it was made from. Having read some dumpling recipes in the Scharfenberg book, I can appreciate the skill required to produce these goodies, and hereby proclaim the cook a true Semmelknüdelmeister (master of the bread dumpling).

Accompanying both dinners was a big helping of stewed red cabbage. It had a startling fruity flavor that tasted a lot like raspberry, but was probably a combination of aromatic juniper berries and the authentic Bavarian touch of a dollop of red currant jelly stirred into the pot. Whatever the explanation, it was a nice twist on a sometimes boring standard. Out of curiosity (or gluttony) we also split a side order of potato pancakes, which were fried to a lovely dark brown. Their peppery flavor was nice, but the hook in this dish was the extreme, almost Japanese contrast in textures: ultra-crunchy outside, melt-in-your-mouth squishy inside. I know the latter sounds gross, but the cakes are so thin that it really works.

Having polished our plates, we were ready for dessert. The only choice the night we visited was apple strudel, which was another dish that put a new twist on a classic. The apples were juicy instead of dry, the raisins were white sultanas, and the pastry was less like the usual strudel dough than a kind of flaky pie crust. The result was more rich than sweet, thanks to a large proportion of walnuts and a dash of fresh cream in the filling. If this is a typical example of the bakery's pastries, we're looking forward to trying some others on our next visit.

Bavarian Corner's entrees range in price from $12 to $16, and another $6 gets you a full meal including soup, salad, and dessert. For those who aren't in the mood for the hearty meat-and-dumplings specialties, there are several light fish dishes, and there's also a children's menu for $7-9. One of these days we'll have to make a special trip to sample the kitchen's version of one of our favorite hard-to-find treats, roast goose (when available, in season, for 3 or more, and only if you order a day in advance). For those for whom this bounty isn't enough, or who are just there for the excellent beer and want a snack, there are a few appetizers for around $6. Our tab came to $56 before the tip.

It was too chilly to enjoy it the night we visited, but Bavarian Corner has an enclosed patio for outdoor dining. What could be a more pleasant way to while away a warm Alameda night than to sit outdoors enjoying a leisurely four-course meal of down-home Bavarian food, secure in the knowledge that your reserve liter of Paulaner is waiting in its appointed spot? Prost, y'all.

Bavarian Corner Restaurant, 745 Buena Vista (two blocks south of Webster, corner of Constitution), Alameda, 769-9154, Mon.-Thurs. 4:30-9, Fri-Sat. 4:30-10, Sun. 4-9. Bakery, open from 8:30am Tues.-Sat only.