If, before winter completely melts away, you want to make a stab at hearty food that many of us are particularly fond of in the cold months, you could do a lot worse (wurst?) than a German supper at Schulte & Herr in Portland.
This simply furnished eatery on a dim stretch of Cumberland Avenue has been drawing customers and accolades for its breakfast and lunch since it opened last August.
Responding to customer interest, the restaurant started serving dinner in early February. I’m not sure where else in Maine you can get table service offering delicious bratwurst, killer sauerbraten, perfect potato pancakes and sauerkraut that’s been cooked with juniper berries and bacon.
The dinner menu of such home-style dishes includes five appetizers, four entrees, a handful of sides and one dessert. That limited number meant four diners were able to taste almost all of the offerings, and we did so with a food bill that just topped $110. That seemed pretty reasonable, considering the quantity and quality of what we ordered.
To adore this restaurant, it helps to love meat, cabbage, potatoes, dill and vinegar-y dishes. Which I do. The flavors here alternate between sharp and mild, slightly sweet and sour. The dishes are scrumptious, but they fall short of complex or surprising. It’s country food.
Dinner started with two homemade breads — a fantastic caraway-seeded rye with chewy crust and a moist sourdough rye with sunflower seeds, served with a cream cheese-based spread with paprika, capers and cornichons.
Oxtail borscht — flavored with dill, chunky with meat and beets ,and almost a meal in itself — was brilliant in color and execution, and a bargain at $5 for a giant bowl ($4/cup). Zwiebelkuchen, which translates to “onion cake,” was a low-rise tart chock-full of caramelized onions and gruyere in an egg custard (appetizer, $5).
In some parts of Germany, this traditional dish is served in the fall along with the new wines of the region.
Don’t miss the house-cured salmon plate, not only for the salty-sweet, delicate swirls of cool fish served with capers and cornichons but also for the golden, crispy crusts that yield to soft yet full-bodied interiors of the accompanying potato pancakes. Dip any and all items into the sour cream with a tinge of fresh horseradish. People who want their sinuses to clear will find this sauce too tame.
Schulte & Herr’s sauerbraten, braised with clover and juniper, was pull-apart tender. The accompanying red cabbage carried delicious notes of cinnamon and cloves ($18). But I only needed a bite of the greasy pan-fried bread dumplings to know that the rye in the basket was a better alternative.
A trio of a lightly browned bratwurst link, kielbasa chunks and thick ham slices served with grainy mustard was a wurstplatte fit for a stout Bavarian with a forgiving stomach.
A friend who knows and enjoys these meats made quick work of my leftovers, spearing the snappy-skinned bratwurst and kielbasa and proclaiming them among the best he’s had. Both were sourced from Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen in Lisbon Falls, and were pleasantly ungreasy and sharply flavored. The thick ham slices were smoky and delicious, although one was a dry end cut.
Rounding out this hearty peasant platter ($16.50) was ice-box cold German potato salad and a mountain of warm sauerkraut from Morse’s in Waldoboro that the chef had doctored by cooking it with pork, onion, juniper berries and bay leaves. Cool and cleansing, a dill-laden cucumber side salad was almost a need ($3).
Schulte & Herr’s fish stew departs from the Mediterranean varieties to which many of us are accustomed. The thin broth was carroty in color and flavored with plenty of paprika. (Think Hungarian goulash.) It was also full of cabbage, tender haddock and Maine shrimp, average mussels and potatoes that crumbled with a touch of the fork ($16.50).
The restaurant’s ravioli-like “swabian pasta,” a preparation common to the southwest region of Germany known as Swabia, was millimeter-thin and wrapped around a filling of densely packed spinach with a touch of ricotta ($15).
Those who nibble at salads won’t find a lot of options, although the salmon appetizer could easily stand in as a meal for lighter appetites. The gemischter salatteller — a colorful appetizer plate of pickled marinated green beans, cucumbers in sour cream, radishes and a dip of pureed squash ($7) — is one of just a few vegetarian options.
For dessert, an inch of dense and crumbly cake held large, tart sections of plum, the slice served with a mound of whipped cream — a simple, not-too-sweet pastry you’d likely have sitting in a kitchen over coffee ($3.50).
Co-owners Steffi Davin, a German native, and her husband, Brian, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, lived in Berlin for nine years, where they found inspiration for the dishes at Schulte & Herr. They tend their restaurant with care and aplomb, bringing friendly and personal service as well as singular food to their cozy eatery.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: