“Can't you write about anything but California cuisine?” the reader wailed. I hated her for being right. I do write too much about it. But I have a defense: I'm drowning in extra-virgin olive oil, suffocating under slabs of seared ahi tuna, perishing in a field of frisŽe. Its very ubiquitousness makes California cuisine such a large part of our culinary landscape that it's impossible to ignore.
Every time a new place opens, I eagerly scan the menu, hoping to find something different. And nine times out of 10, I'm face to face with yet another warm marinated goat cheese served on a bed of wild greens, herb roasted chicken breast with wild mushrooms, and angel hair pasta served 2,000 ways.
That's why I'm so enthused about SuppenkYche. Something new. Something exciting. Something … German? That's right, one of the best post-earthquake-freeway-demolition places to open in newly gentrified Hayes Valley serves sauerbraten and Wiener schnitzel. And offers a beer list that makes you want to yodel.
My friend David, who lives a couple of blocks from SuppenkYche, is a regular. He confidently orders a bock beer, without asking all the touristy questions (“Now, what's the difference between a fest beer and a Pilsner?”) the extensive beer menu provokes. He knows you can get the world's best potato pancakes on the side. And he's dressed in loose, baggy pants, I notice halfway through our meal, as my waistband digs ever deeper into me. Smart guy.
It's not that you feel you've eaten too much because SuppenkYche's food is heavy. To the contrary. They've taken the gloppiness out of German food, refined it, and made it taste like some New World Order kind of food. You eat too much because the flavors are so clean and distinct you don't want to stop.
The distinctive style starts with the breadbasket. A dense chewy rye and thin-sliced pumpernickel, both made by Pure Grain of Vacaville (What? No Acme sourdough?), with herb butter make excellent companions to your beer of choice. I had the Aktien Oktoberfest, a reddish, heady, alelike beer that was full-bodied without being overwhelming.
The soups, $3.50 each, only confirm the feeling that there's something quite special going on here. Fresh pea soup carries the essence of just-shelled peas blended with cream. Apple/red cabbage cream soup has a wonderful sweet-and-sour taste, a hint of vinegar creeping through its mellowness.
A mixed German salad (small $4.50, large $7.50) is a composed plate of just-cobbed corn, red cabbage, yellow beans, shredded carrot, tart white cabbage, and butter lettuce. Each ingredient is so fresh and flavorful, it makes you want to stand up and cheer. There's not a pine nut or wild green in sight.
Sauerbraten (marinated, braised beef), $13, is a wonder, the heady marinade rising up through the tender beef. Chef Andrew Beutmueller later tells me the list of ingredients in the marinade includes red wine, balsamic vinegar, celery root, onion, carrot, juniper berries, cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, and thyme. The accompanying spätzle, tiny pan-fried noodle dumplings, are exemplary, paired with cooked red cabbage. Sauteed pork loin with mushroom cream sauce is fork-cuttable and, miraculously, not heavy. “I love these mushrooms,” David announces, “because they're not some weird gourmet thing, just button mushrooms cooked right.”
I was so focused on all these taste sensations that I almost didn't hear David slide in the potato pancake order. “I used to order the roast chicken [in red wine sauce, $13.50] just to get these before I found out you could get them on the side,” he says, digging into the crisp latkes. I love a man who knows his way around a menu.
There are seven categories of draft beer (bock, fest, lager, wheat, Pilsner, dark lager, and alt), all of which cost $3.75 with the exception of Pilsner ($3). A number of bottled beers from Germany and Belgium ($4-7.50) are also available.
Did we have room for dessert? No. Did we order it? Of course. And what a dessert. Quark/poppy-seed cream with fruit compote is heavenly. Quark is a cross between cottage cheese and sour cream. Here, it's studded with poppy seeds and served in a compote that tastes of wild blackberries. Upon eating it, I felt I'd be happy never to see another tiramise or creme brelee.
SuppenkYche's dining room is Spartan: plain long pine tables, a vaulted ceiling, and wooden church doors. When it gets crowded, you may be asked to share a table. There's a small bar for those who want to spend the evening sampling the excellent beer. I learn to my dismay that chef Beutmueller, who opened the place, is leaving at the end of the month. He'll be a tough act to follow.
I'm so excited following our dinner, I come back for lunch two days later, only to find SuppenkYche no longer serves lunch, just brunch on Saturday and Sunday. I head down Hayes Street with Bill, my lunch date, worrying about whether we can get into the Hayes Street Grill. And walk right smack into Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room & Cafe. What a scene. A smell of — could it be? — patchouli wafts through the air; a drag queen in a low-cut black halter drapes over a chair, waving a cigarette. Onion dome sculpture (“Like St. Basil's on acid,” owner David Nemoyten later tells me) jumps out of the wall; the brightly colored wooden floor is a riot of mystical scenes. A palm reader who, we later learn, alternates with tarot and tea leaf readers, sits at the front table.
We order a cup of potato/lentil soup ($1.75), Chekhov chicken salad ($5.50), and Kruschev ham and Swiss (whole $5.25, half $2.75 — sandwiches are named, says Nemoyten, “so you can eat your favorite dictator”) from the comedy team behind the counter, who inform us wryly (you hadda be there) that they're out of ham. Bill chooses a Stalin (smoked turkey with sharp cheddar, same prices as the ham and Swiss), and we head for the back patio. They tell us they'll call us when it's ready.
What a delightful little flowery garden, protected from the wind and occupied only by a lone young man who dreamily combs his long hair and introduces us to his dog, Abigail.
During the afternoon, the six garden tables are filled with an assortment of very now-looking, tattooed, pierced Hayes Valleyites, drinking fresh mint lemonade ($1.50) and black currant iced tea ($1.25) and eating sandwiches. Someone pulls out a PowerBook. I feel like a fossil. “A quiet Haight” is how Bill describes the new Hayes Valley.
“Should we check on the food?” he asks after our initial flood of gossip has subsided. We head in to see our lunch sitting on the counter. “Didn't you hear us call?” the counterman asks. “No? Well, it must be a psychic garden. You came as soon as it was ready.”
Soup is chunky and delicious. Chicken salad is also first-rate, white chunks of chicken, lightly mayonnaised, with celery but way too many circles of red onion. It's served on a bed of fresh greens with a small pitcher of sprightly vinaigrette. Bill's sandwich tastes like turkey roll, the potato salad that accompanies it undersalted. (Why is everyone so afraid of salt these days? A bit of salt helps bring out the flavor is so many foods.)
Mad Magda's serves blintzes on the weekend, little pizzas late-night Wednesday through Saturday. Otherwise, it's morning pastries, salads, and sandwiches. If you're looking for an offbeat place with a great sense of humor, this is it.
SuppenkYche, 601 Hayes, S.F., 252-9289. Open daily, 5-10 p.m.; Sat & Sun brunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room & Cafe, 575 Hayes, S.F., 864-7654. Mon & Tues, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Wed-Sat, 7 a.m.-midnight; Sun, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.