Yes, Oktoberfest is kitschy and cliche, but I still love it. I always try to visit as many restaurants as I can that are offering Oktoberfest dishes. This seems to grow each year, so I am obviously not alone in my fascination with this annual event.
We never make it to Deustches Haus, though that is a good one. And we know that Horst Pfeiffer celebrates the culture of his native country for six weeks each year, but we didn’t know about some unexpected places that feature a taste of Bavaria. Some were really a surprise.
Starting with the Peppermill. I noticed one day on their website that they did Oktoberfest. The Peppermill is a reliable very good restaurant that does great New Orleans Italian food and a legendary breakfast. It was a surprise to see them doing Oktoberfest. We had to go. I took the easy way out by not getting a schnitzel. They do a traditional one with veal, though pork is also popular. I don’t eat veal so I ordered the only other thing on the list that wasn’t veal. It was a corned beef and cabbage dish with potatoes. That doesn’t seem like Oktoberfest, but I can never resist it.
It was in keeping with my general assessment of all of the Peppermill’s food, which means comforting in the way my mom would have made it. It spoke to my soul. First of all, it was so stove hot I had to wait to eat it. So refreshing! That almost never happens anywhere I eat. The corned beef was perfect, sliced thin, making it tender. It has a great corned beef taste and was served over a large pile of cabbage that was soft and exactly like the plate I had so often in the kitchen of the home of my youth. Good memories, which is a wonderful thing for a plate of food to engender. This was served with some ordinary potatoes and a large slab of cornbread that I was very happy was large. I savored this delicious cornbread with butter. Great cornbread is not easy to find in a restaurant, (or anywhere else) so I relished this chunk of goodness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we dropped in at hip Greyhound in Covington for dinner one evening and noticed a few dishes offered for Oktoberfest. I succumb whenever I run into the specialty menu for October. Here was pork schnitzel with a coarse mustard sauce and spaetzle.
My first impression of this was that the schnitzel was too dark. This has become a “thing” with me, because we go to nice restaurants where the oil should never produce a dark fried anything. One expects in places like this that oil should be changed at the first hint that it has been used enough.
But here was an otherwise beautiful plate of pork schnitzel and spaetzle with pork that was tender where it needed to be and crisp when necessary, with spaetzle that was an ample pile of buttery potato pasta curls.
But we didn’t stop there. Cochon Butcher was also offering some Oktoberfest items, and we dropped in for lunch. When I saw online that they were offering Currywurst I could barely contain my excitement. Currywurst is sort of the hip signature dish of Berlin. Essentially a hot dog with fries and curried ketchup, this is everywhere in Berlin and very popular with its younger population. Mary Leigh and I discovered it in line in Bavaria at Neuschwastein Castle as we stood behind some Japanese tourists who were rhapsodizing about it. I have since seen it in London and L.A. but never here. Naturally, the day we went it was not offered. I have never been a fan of Bratwurst, so I was disappointed that was the main featured dish that day. My attitude about Bratwurst is negative because I have only seen a white wiener version, but this was pink on the inside, as my pork stereotype commands. We also got a ham and cheese pretzel and German potato salad. All of this came after the first course, Rotkohlsuppe, which was a red cabbage soup with apples, garlic, and cream.
The soup was a little forbidding but quite tasty. Maybe my trace German ancestry causes me to favor cabbage soup, but this was made even better by the presence of cream. (Because isn’t everything made better by the presence of cream?) I wanted to savor this a bit more but we were pressed for time.
The ham and cheese pretzel was an open-faced sandwich with an assertive Gruyere cheese and coarse horseradish mustard. Both the ham and the cheese were very European-style, which means they made a statement. It was “authentic”, and I felt I could get something very much like this in real Germany. On the radio show (2-4 weekdays 990AM) I am always grousing about “fake” American food, which is the milder version of meats and cheeses, and pretty much everything else.
The brat itself was fantastic. It was seared nicely and the casing was crisp, but inside was a coarse ground sausage that was pretty in pink and full of pork flavor. The pretzel roll was taut, providing the perfect backdrop for the sausage. This was a very good hot dog, blanketed by fresh sauerkraut, served with the same coarse mustard and housemade pickles. Quite tasty.
After trying real German potato salad more than a few times I must admit it is not my thing. I’ve had it mixed with sauerkraut, but this was laden with bacon, which should elevate anything to apotheosis. (It did not.) This potato salad was no exception to the losing streak. Mustardy, and warm, I’ll pass on this and defer to “fake” American cold potato salad with mayonnaise.
Just for fun, I got some housemade potato chips, which were excellent, of course. Cochon Butcher employs a clever marketing scheme of putting them by the order counter to tempt you successfully. I’m sure they sell a lot that way.
Finally, we made it to Middendorf’s for what I knew would be an “authentic” set of dishes done by owner Horst Pfieffer, a native of Bavaria. They really get into the celebration there, with Oktoberfest flags all over, and everyone wearing leather lederhosen or Brunhilde dresses. It’s festive and fun. Horst’s brother comes in from Germany to walk the dining room playing his beautiful accordion. (Clearly, he has never heard the joke: What is the definition of a gentleman? Answer: Someone who can play the accordion….but doesn’t.)
Middendorf’s does Oktoberfest for six consecutive weeks and each week is different. It is only offered Wednesdays and Thursdays. The night we went the menu was pork schnitzel with a mushroom sauce and dumpling, a plate of meats and cheeses, pretzels with mustard, and a group of salads that were the sides for the schnitzel.
I started with the meats and cheeses, which did not look anything like our lovely charcuterie plates. The cheeses were not too arresting, but one of the sausages was frankly a little scary. It was a large disk of dark meat with little pockets of white fat. There was a small in diameter but long sausage, and a few thin sliced discs of friendlier whitish sausage. About a tablespoon of a soft pate was also part of this plate. This came with a pretzel and a tiny salad of halved cherry tomatoes in a salad dressing that was creamy. This was okay, as were the whitish sausages.
The schnitzel was too thick, overcooked with coating separating from the meat, and covered in a gloppy mushroom sauce. Nothing about this was enticing. The dumpling beside it was a large disc of nothing, and I do mean nothing. It was like a hunk of starch. The most interesting thing about any of this was the side for the schnitzel, which was a combo plate of four cold salads. One was arugula with a mildly sweet, vinegary dressing, beside a mound of shaved carrots with a vinaigrette containing cinnamon, a cucumber salad with dill, yogurt, and mint that could have been served in a Mediterranean place, and a thinly sliced potato salad with a vinaigrette dressing and bacon. All of these salads were interesting, but none enough to finish.
I’ve never met a German pretzel that wowed me, and these were no different. They were smallish, not too chewy, with a bit of salt flavor imparted from the salt crystals on top. Harmless enough.
Germans are not known for their food, which tends to be very heavy, pork-centric, with cabbage aplenty, mustardy, and generally unimaginative. What was before me at Middendorf’s hit all those notes, thankfully minus the cabbage. Not a good endorsement of the cuisine, but maybe there isn’t one.
I will still continue my annual search for a great plate of German food, starting next year with the Currywurst at Cochon Butcher. For an ongoing anytime chance to savor truly authentic and delicious food of that country, there is little Brats Ya’ll in Bywater. They would never do anything so hip and silly as Currywurst.