Innocence Well-Fed

The S.F. Symphony's summer festival of German music sends us in search of sausage, schnitzel, and sauerbraten

When I read that the San Francisco Symphony was mounting a short festival, provocatively titled "Innocence Undone: Wagner, Weill, and the Weimar Years," devoted to German music composed between the wars, I had two thoughts in quick succession: I wanted to go to all three concerts. And I wanted to eat German food in combination with them.

In reasonably close proximity, in concert (pun unintended!) with the throngs of well-fed people who can be seen streaming out from the small but choice clot of restaurants that dot Hayes Valley (Jardinière, Citizen Cake, Hayes Street Grill, Absinthe, Vicolo, Caffe Delle Stelle) in the minutes before performances start at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall or the Opera House. The obvious choice, even to the man in the box office who patiently helped me choose decent tickets somewhere between the financial stratosphere of $97 and the corporal stratosphere of the second tier, was Suppenküche, which just celebrated its 10th birthday at the corner of Hayes and Laguna on May 15; it opened in 1993 in merry defiance of the utter unfashionability of German fare.

With its fresh, clean setting (communal pine tables, whitewashed walls) and tasty, affordable food, Suppenküche was immediately popular, and it remains so. When I tell my dinner companion that we are going to eat German food, he gulps and says, "I'm a vegetarian," but when I mention that we're going to Suppenküche, he's relieved: "Oh, I've eaten there. I like it."

Beer Hall Bounty: Schnitzelhaus looks like it could be found at any time in the last century in any German locale.
Anthony Pidgeon
Beer Hall Bounty: Schnitzelhaus looks like it could be found at any time in the last century in any German locale.

The place even has a short list of vegetarian offerings, including cheese spätzle in onion butter sauce and an untraditional but enticing-sounding dish of a portobello mushroom stuffed with spinach and feta cheese over pepper sauce (fetchingly titled "Champignon gefüllt mit Spinat und Schafskäse auf Paprikasoße"). Tim, who has immediately chosen potato pancakes for his first course, decides on herbed quark (a fresh, unripened cheese something like a smooth cottage cheese) with what are called bouillon potatoes for his entree.

Because I'm dining with a vegetarian, I wistfully pass up my favorite starter, the vesperplatte (an assortment of cured meats including ham, blood sausage, and salami, with cheese and pickles), which goes perfectly with the sturdy, seed-sprinkled wheat and rye breads served here but is much too much for a single diner, in favor of the crisp pickled herring (itself rather daunting, served as it is with sour cream, onions, pickles, and boiled potatoes). But when I order schnitzel for my main course, the waitress asks, "Which one? Wiener schnitzel, Jägerschnitzel, or chicken schnitzel?" "I didn't know you had a chicken schnitzel," I say, and that's how I learn that my menu is missing the additional lengthy page of daily specials.

After perusing it, I stick with my original choice of Wiener schnitzel, but switch from the herring, which I've enjoyed here before, to the fresh pea soup, and I'm glad I did: It's superb, a thin, brilliantly green, silky purée dotted with minuscule snips of chives -- the essence of spring in a soup plate. Tim is enjoying his three big pancakes, still white and soft under their golden crunchy crusts; I would ask for a little sour cream to go with them, but he's content with the bowl of applesauce.

Though Tim's eating potatoes followed by potatoes, the cooking techniques and resulting differences in texture are so pronounced that the choice seems inspired rather than repetitive. His plate of tender potatoes boiled in bouillon with a bowl of creamy herbed quark is colorfully and happily eked out with generous mountains of cubed beet salad and shredded carrot salad, on a bed of cabbage. The schnitzel is made from thickish cuts of pork rather than thinly pounded veal, two big collops sided with lots of unevenly cut, light- and dark-browned chunks of roasted potatoes enhanced with caramelized onions, and knowingly served with a delicate salad of nothing but beautiful pale-green leaves of butter lettuce in a sharp vinaigrette. The deceptively simple salad is exquisite. It serves as an ethereal intermission between forkfuls of the satisfying meat, and enables one to return to the pig refreshed.

I wish that a place that offers several dozen beers could come up with more than just two desserts, but then it's a beer hall, not a dessert hall. It helps that the apple strudel is hot and flaky-crusted, with good, freshly whipped cream, and that the Black Forest cake is a respectable rendition of the classic, with plump preserved cherries hiding in the cream between the airy chocolate layers.

Not as breathtakingly convenient to Louise M. Davies but perhaps a mite more appropriate before an evening of Kurt Weill's cabaret songs due to its transporting gemütlichsetting (which could be found at any time in the last century in any German urban locale, whether a medieval village or Berlin) is Schnitzelhaus, a few minutes' drive away, in SOMA. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with beer signs and photographs of German landscapes; there are paper place mats on the otherwise bare wooden tables. There are a couple of dozen beers on offer, most in your choice of a third, half, or full liter: I go for the light Erdinger wheat beer and Suzanne chooses a dark Spaten Optimator.

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