German food isn't sexy, unless the thought of liver dumplings and pig knuckles gets you all in a bother to go for a hot polka. So I guess it's little wonder that Bavaria hasn't yet inspired contemporary American chefs quite in the same way France, Italy, Spain, and Asia have.
This is a tradition built for belly-filling schnitzel comfort, not foamy molecular fusion. But while the slow fade of German flavors on the national stage is no surprise as we go light, seasonal, and trendy, the near disappearance of it from Philadelphia is hard to grasp. After all, German culture has been hardwired into our DNA, from Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge to cookie man Godfrey Keebler, the numerous spätzle halls, and the great German brewers that thrived here for 150-plus years before abruptly fizzling off the landscape when Schmidt's shut down its kettles in 1987.
It is Philly's latest beer revolution, ironically, that seems to have reopened the taps for a satisfying German revival at Brauhaus Schmitz. And you can bet your Nürnberger brats (which are homemade here into meter-long coils vivid with caraway, marjoram, and mace) that owners Kelly Schmitz and Doug Hager have done it right.
In a town that's been happily swimming in exotically spiced Belgian tripels and hop-it-all craft IPAs for the last decade, this boisterous new South Street bier hall offers a welcome novel focus: 20 taps flowing with a rotating roster of Germany's best brews.
From five varieties of malty märzenbiers during Oktoberfest to crisp black Köstritzer schwarzbier, a tart goblet of Leipziger gose (sweetened with an optional shot of traditionally herbal woodruff syrup), and a powerfully dark, rich, and raisiny Aventinus eisbock from Schneider, Schmitz provides a glimpse of the remarkable variety that German brewers can produce. This despite the three-ingredient constraints (water, hops, and barley) dictated by the nearly 500-year-old German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, which glows like gospel from a large canvas mounted on Brauhaus Schmitz's brick wall.
The bier hall mission comes naturally to Hager, who, though raised in Upper Darby, was born in Germany to a German mother. It was only after a stint at Ludwig's Garten, however, that he was truly bitten by the brauhaus bug. After nearly two years abroad as newlyweds near his mother in Cologne, Hager and Schmitz knew they were destined to bring a taste of Germany back home.
I have to admit to being a bit leery about the waitresses' costuming in the kitschy billows of brocaded dirndls. (At Pittsburgh's gargantuan new Hofbräuhaus, they only added to the Disneyfied oompah schmaltz.) But Schmitz's women (voted into costume in an online poll posted by the owners before opening) were so well-versed in German culture, pronunciations, and beer lore that I was ultimately smitten by the notion that I would discover the pleasures of "schweinshaxe" from a pigtailed, lager-toting muse dressed like Heidi.
Ah, schweinshaxe (roasted pig knuckles to you). Is there a purer paean to pork in the city? Nein! Chef Jeremy Nolen rubs the shanks in mustard before spinning them on a rotisserie for four hours, transforming them into a vision of porcine beauty: clusters of tender meat on the bone ringed by a downy layer of creamy fat and an outer band of skin so crisp, it puts the crack in cracklins'.
It was certainly one of the highlights turned out by Nolen, 32, a Reading native who learned his schnitzel chops from the elder kitchen women at Liederkranz, the venerable Berks County German club where he was chef. But there were numerous others.
There was goulash as deep and dark as gumbo, so intense with beefy essence that I was pleasantly surprised when a peppery sparkle rose up on the finish with spice. There were those rustic Nürnberger brats, coarsely ground and vibrant with aromatic spice, that were a homey contrast to the more industrial wursts prepared for the restaurant by Rieker's in the Northeast. (The käse was my favorite, oozing chunks of Emmentaler cheese.) And Nolen's wife, pastry chef Jessica Nolen, twists salt-speckled Bavarian pretzels into freshly baked knots that, with little crocks of mustard and pickled white-radish ribbons on the side, will make you forget Auntie Anne.
My biggest complaint here is the deafening roar in this bi-level balconied space, which on weekends can drum your ears off. This was especially true after the group behind us began pounding the table in a barbarian frenzy as a two-liter, boot-shaped glass of Spaten beer got passed from chugger to chugger.
On nights like that, Brauhaus Schmitz won't dispel many cliches of unbridled beer-hall indulgence. The kitchen, likewise, won't win any prizes for lightening up German fare. Nolen's kartoffelknödeln (potato dumplings) were about as tender as slow-stewed racquetballs. The special soup of liver dumplings in beef consommé (leberknödelsuppe) had the most delicate fragrance of nutmeg and allspice, but the texture of matzo balls weighed down with lead. The dark gravies, meanwhile, take on the unappealing look of plastic when they sit too long.
But where it counts most - in genuine flavor - Nolen delivers splendidly. The slow-braised sauerbraten (a rump roast tenderized by a weeklong marinade in red wine and vinegar infused with star anise, juniper, and clove) is tucked beneath a blanket of gravy thickened with gingersnaps. The earthiness of real wild mushrooms lends a dusky intensity to the sauce for the jägerschnitzel pork cutlet, while spicy paprika, vinegar, peppers, and wine lend the zigeunerschnitzel a "gypsy style" snap.
The Wiener schnitzel, meanwhile, had little but lemon and parsley to adorn its delicately breaded top round of veal. Unfortunately, that made it all too apparent that it was oversalted. When we mentioned this to our server, however, the offending schnitzel was whisked away and replaced within minutes by a perfect cutlet.
By this time, after sides of butter-crisped spätzle noodles, tangy red shreds of wine-stewed cabbage, crisply fried potatoes, and stock-simmered asparagus, there was little room left to finish.
But Jessica Nolen's desserts are worth saving space for. There was the decadent chocolate of Sacher torte, and the unusual bienenstich ("bee sting cake"), a praline-laced confection so buzzed with honey and densely chewy textures that I was like a bear in hive heaven.
It was the apfelstrudel, though, that stopped the show. After so many years of forking though soggy strudels microwaved to oblivion at a diner (our supposed last bastions of traditional comforts), this arching slice of pastry and fruit was startlingly good. Was it the butter-crisped flakiness and crumble of the pastry? The perfume of orchard fruit lovingly roasted into a whisper of ginger, cinnamon, and clove? Wafting up, indeed, was something sweeter yet - the satisfaction of Philly's German tradition come alive again.