Northern European cuisine gets a really bad rap in food circles, and has a reputation as being bland and boring on a par with that of Russia and England. Dreary visions of greasy, overcooked meat, cabbage and potatoes are de rigeur. Then there's the beer hall version propagated by places like Gustav's, which does to a real German beer hall what St. Patrick's Day has done to Irish traditions. Sure, it has its token schnitzel on the menu, but when was the last time you thought of Hansel and Gretel having pasta alfredo and "rotisserie turkey cobb"? ("See, Hansel, I'll just leave a trail of this cream sauce so we can find our way home!")
So when Chris Israel of (need I say?) Zefiro, Saucebox and 23Hoyt fame announced he was opening a downtown restaurant dedicated to "alpine cuisine," what came to mind was a prosaic "What the…?" Though, when it opened with the umlaut-laden name of Grüner, really good things were reported to be coming from the kitchen, with nary a lederhosen or accordion in sight.
Then my friend Mary (yes, of the Waffle Window) suggested meeting there for her birthday dinner, and I was all in. Located on a downtown corner near the Ace Hotel, after finding a rock star parking space right outside, I am embarrassed to admit I was stumped when it came to finding how the heck to get into the place. Turns out the front door is hidden in a darkened niche, and I only found it when my friends saw me wandering up and down and took pity on me by knocking on the window and pointed to it. Oh, well.
Though the rest of the evening went splendidly, I have to say the cocktail menu was less than inspired, though that may be due to newness rather than talent, and once we switched to wine things improved considerably. Our sampling of the appetizer offerings was eye-opening as well, starting with the creamy and rich rabbit terrine and the slices of head cheese with pickled fiddleheads and aioli. We also tried the Alsation onion tart with speck, which came to the table looking like a pallid pizza but had a nice crunch and a wonderfully sweet onion bite.
The two salads we had, one a combination called the "Grüner," will probably change as ingredients come and go, but on the night we were there it was composed of fennel, endive, celeriac, walnuts, chives and strips of roasted beets. Crunchy and with enough different flavors to make each bite a surprise, this was terrific. The shaved radish salad was a gorgeous plate of thin slices fanned out and topped with dressed microgreens, but all I could think of was that I'd sure hate to be the kid who no doubt was in the back laying out those babies.
The generous serving of asparagus and pea soup looked a little gloppy sitting in the bowl, but one spoonful of its intense greenness and I was tasting the promise of spring…it was so good it was hard not to pick up the bowl and lick it clean.
The star of the meal was definitely the spaetzle (top), little rolls of extruded dough that, when properly made, have the same magical pillowy lightness ascribed to great gnocchi. Bathed in a light, creamy sauce with chicken, mushrooms and frizzled shallots, this deeply flavorful version was to die for. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't warm up to the pork schnitzel, a pounded, breaded, deep-fried cutlet that always seems dry and overcooked no matter who makes it. No doubt it's some failing on my part, but it's just too reminiscent of the thin, tasteless pork chops of my youth. Sorry.
So, while not a convert to this cuisine, I have to say I was impressed. Though next time I'll leave the dirndl at home.
Details: Grüner, 527 SW 12th Ave. Phone 503-241-7163.