In an unguarded moment a few years ago, a well-known television chef told me something he probably shouldn’t have.
I was covering a food event where he was promoting his new, over-the-top New York restaurant, serving guests microscopic spoonfuls of shrimp and grits on tiny plastic plates. Chef had also brought along an assistant. She apparently had one job: Keeping him “hydrated” with plenty of samples from the vodka sponsor in the next booth. So by the end of the evening, when I asked about his new menu, he was rather well-lubricated. “I make two kinds of food: the stuff you want to eat when you’ve been drinking, and stuff that makes you want to drink more. I’m in the restaurant business. It’s all about booze,” he said, punctuating his confession by popping a piece of shrimp into his mouth and flashing his veneers.
It’s no secret that many restaurants rely on alcohol sales to boost their profit margins, or even to keep them afloat. But there is a downside: When you can charge diners two, three or even five times the wholesale cost for a bottle of wine, food can become a lure for the thirsty, not an end in itself.
BYOB restaurants have no such cushion. They live and die by the strength of their menus, and there’s a purity of purpose in that. It’s also risky, which is why it is so rare to see a place like Portland’s Schulte & Herr, still thriving without a liquor license nearly seven years after it opened.
In the 24-seat West Bayside dining room, you will not find an oompah band, beer steins or rosy-cheeked, bedirndled bar maids. Here, the soundtrack is a little moody: The Beatles and downtempo classic rock, shading into The Black Keys and CocoRosie – but all in perfect alignment with co-owner Steffi Davin’s description of the place as “more mellow, quaint and not rowdy.”
She and her husband, chef Brian Davin, who are often the only two staff members in the restaurant, work hard to build a sense of coziness on a nondescript block that needs it badly. “We want to make a gathering place that feels like you’re at a family member’s house – a place where you feel like you’re with friends, an intimate place,” Steffi Davin said.
Look around at Charles Alden’s oil paintings of German street scenes hanging on the whitewashed, paneled walls; the plainly tiled floor (no rugs); the indirect lamp lighting and even the dishware, like a 1970s coffee mug that recalls the muted colors and big geometrics of DDR design. It really is homey here.
The menu, featuring hearty (but not necessarily heavy) dishes from across Germany, amplifies the gemütlich vibe with several dishes that represent Steffi Davin’s childhood food memories. Her fondest two are here: extraordinarily good palm-sized pancakes made from potato and onion, grated together and bound with egg and flour, then shallow-fried until just crisp ($5 served with naturally sweet applesauce and sour cream, or $11 served with house-smoked salmon and capers). In her four-star review from 2012, this paper’s reviewer raved about them. It’s easy to see why.
The other, Rheinischer Sauerbraten ($21), beef served with cinnamon-scented red cabbage that her mother served every Christmas, is the Platonic ideal of tender, boneless pot roasts. Marinated for three entire days in red wine, vinegar and mirepoix, then braised for several hours and finished with brown sugar and raisins, the marbled shoulder cut tenderizes languidly as it makes its own sweet-sour gravy.
That gravy is not to be wasted, so Brian Davin serves the sauerbraten with something to sop with – buttery pan-fried Servietten (napkin) dumplings that he prepares by fashioning a log from moistened bread. He poaches it, lets it cool and slices it into discs that he pan-fries to lend color and a nutty flavor. “They’re like fried bread pudding, but savory,” he said.
I was unprepared for their lightness, just as I was by the same quality in the Schweine schnitzel ($18), pork loin pounded as thin as a poker chip, then dredged in egg, coated in breadcrumbs and flash-fried. It wasn’t just the texture that took me by surprise, but the skillful use of just a few seasonings: only salt, pepper and lemon juice in a balance calculated out to the 10th decimal place. On one plate, an object lesson on simplicity and execution for every chef in town.
Seasonings were equally superb in the roasted local bratwurst ($15), a mace-and-ginger flavored sausage served with a mild sauerkraut sauteed with bacon and aromatic juniper berries. Or the Zwiebelkuchen ($7) a quiche-like, Gruyere-topped onion custard made with sultry Spanish onions that have been softened at a glacial pace (over an hour, but never browned) and baked in a flaky, savory pâte brisée crust. Or even the tangy potato salad ($4) with roughed-up red potatoes, cornichons, red onion and bacon – a classic for good reason.
The evening’s only missteps were minor ones. Like a vegan chocolate cake ($6) with dark chocolate icing, a patchy middle layer of raspberry jam, and an optional (not-so-vegan) dollop of whipped cream. The dessert tasted lovely, but should have come out of the oven a minute or two earlier to keep the outside edge as moist as its center.
Or the Schwäbische spätzle ($14) – short, rustic-looking egg noodles pan-fried with Emmenthaler cheese until just a little crusty, like the browned top and sides of homemade macaroni and cheese. Here, there was not enough of the irregular, dumpling-like noodles and perhaps a bit too much cheese. In fairness, on a freezing day in February, a little cheese overload might be a feature, not a flaw. Either way, a bite of mandolin-sliced cucumber in dill vinaigrette offset the spätzle’s extra richness.
It’s the kind of dish that would have gone wonderfully with a zesty white wine, like the Berger 2015 Grüner Veltliner we brought with us. I have seen the same bottle on local wine lists for upwards of $45, but thanks to the awkward placement of Schulte & Herr’s original bathroom – a quirk that, until it was relocated recently, prevented the restaurant from seeking a liquor license – it cost us $16.
There is no way around it: BYOB allows diners more affordable access to better wine. It also opens up a much greater range of pairings than any single restaurant could provide, even with a massive wine and beer program. I’ll go a step further: I’d wager that not having a liquor license has made Schulte & Herr a better restaurant. Without the extra profits from alcohol, the Davins are, by necessity, more attuned to the quality of every bite of food. And it shows.
They are also free to take chances. Nothing radical – this is still traditional German cooking – but you can see a little of that abandon in dishes like a complex, acid-forward smoked trout salad with sweet pickled beets, matchsticks of radish, vinaigrette-dressed potatoes and arugula ($9). “I’ve never had a salad exactly like that, just all the tastes of Germany on one plate,” Brian Davin said. It’s also an outstanding plate of food with an eclectic combination of flavors that would probably stump even the best sommelier. But hey, the Davins are in the restaurant business. It’s not all about booze.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: