Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Only 5th?

Winzer Stube
516 2nd Street
Hudson, Wisconsin

Near my house in San Antonio is a taquería that was once selected, by a supposedly reputable national food magazine, as the Best Taco House in America. Most of us taco aficionados in that part of the world didn't even consider it the best taco house on that street, let alone in the country; so I have some personal experience that leads me to question the value and significance of such titles. Now I come to the pleasant little burg of Hudson, Wisconsin, and find this German restaurant claiming, with almost unbelievable pride, the title of 5th Best German Restaurant in America. My lord, they even print it on the check! They never say who, exactly, awarded them this title, but it doesn't really matter. The point is, they believe it, and they are proud of it.

What's that mean?
Me, I'm not so sure. I think they might be shortchanging themselves. Admittedly, I haven't been to the higher-ranked German restaurants; don't even know where they are. I'm only sure that there ain't one back home, because I've been to all the better German restaurants there (and San Antonio is a city with a strong German heritage that most outsiders are unaware of), and none of them comes close to Winzer Stube for quality food, ambience and authentic German-style service. 

For starters, there's the location in the cellar of a building in the quaintly gentrified center of Hudson, a town with the youthful exuberance of trendy parts of Minneapolis but without the traffic. You open the street door and are faced, unexpectedly, with two staircases, one going up, one down. After a moment's uncertainty, you notice a sign indicating your objective is down. Very much a rathskeller feel. You enter the bar room, a long bar fading off into the distance, a few tables on a raised platform to the right. Posts and bracing emphasize the underground feel. From that vantage point you don't realize there's more to the dining area, and an aura of charm settles around you; a feeling that lasts even when you notice how much larger the space actually is.

We were settled at our table and presented with cards showing the daily specials, a bound drinks list, and menus elegantly printed on scrolls. They list an interesting and mouthwatering collection of foods for every course, making choosing a meal here one of the toughest restaurant decisions I've had to face in quite a while. In the end, I went with a cup of Hungarian goulash, followed by Schlemmertopf "Weiskirchen". My tablemate chose the cream of mushroom soup with his entrée of Koenigsberger Klopse, translated simply as "meatballs." What prodigious pleasure lay behind that mundane word!

But I'm getting ahead of myself (and if I keep this up I will have to put off writing to go heat up the leftovers in the fridge downstairs). First, the soups.

The goulash was delicious. Thick. Meaty. Seasoned, with paprika and caraway. I want more. It was, though, not the best choice as a first course. I probably would have been better off having a lighter soup, just enough to whet the appetite. But I'm glad I tried it nonetheless. My friend's cream of mushroom soup would have been a better choice, for example. Despite being made largely from cream and butter, it was a light broth with excellent, even delicate flavour and remarkable body. Both soups were nicely complemented by a heavy German bread.

I don't know what "schlemmertopf" means, but suspect it means something like "pot" or "saucepan." Tells you nothing about what's in it. Hiding inside (it actually is served in a covered saucepan) are several thick, exquisitely seasoned and grilled chunks of beef tenderloin, a great many thick slices of fresh sautéed mushrooms, and a smattering of spaetzle, those thick German noodles that my Italian relatives would jealously dismiss as mere artless dumplings. All this was lightly coated with a surprisingly light cream sauce. (That surprising lightness seems to be a theme here, doesn't it? Maybe that's because it goes against the reputation of German cuisine.)

The schlemmertopf would have been the highlight of any other meal I've ever had in a German restaurant, in the US or abroad. But in this case it was overshadowed by my friend's meatballs. The dish consists of four large balls of pork and beef in a cream-and-capers sauce, served with parslied potatoes. These things were incomparable. The seasoning of the dish was impeccable, and the sauce was rich and (here's that word again) light. The meatballs were cooked through without the least bit of rubberiness or crusting. All in all, a magnificent accomplishment that, sadly, is not on the regular menu. 

The service here was, as I said earlier, authentically German. That can be a double-edged sword, perhaps, as the Germans are not noted for their cheerful, easy manner.* It may be that the waitstaff here are not of the cheerily bubbly sort that is expected in American restaurants; but it was polite, effective, attentive and prompt, leaving me with nothing to complain about.

Nothing, that is, but the up-charge of $1.50 for the choice of goulash as my soup. My dish came with choice of soup or salad, and the goulash is listed as a soup on the menu, so I would expect it to be available at the same price as any other soup. At the very least, I would expect to be told that there would be an additional charge, but was not. A small grumble, really just enough to satisfy my curmudgeonly urges, but a valid one. 

I feel better, and not just for having said that; also for having nipped down to the kitchen during the writing of this for a bit of that leftover schlemmertopf Weiskirchen. Mmmm. 
Winzer Stube on Urbanspoon

* In Germany, I once met a man in the tourist business in Latvia who told me that in his home town of Riga, "We get a lot of German tourists. You can always tell them from the others, because they never smile."

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