For the Love of Sauerkraut
Chef John Schuster and his wife, Maria Nopper, ran a restaurant in the Black Forest of Germany. In a freak accident, a tornado picked up the place, transported it across the Atlantic and dropped it into a Midtown strip center. That's the best explanation I can come up with for the cooking at Charivari, anyway. Where else in town can you find fish served with sauerkraut?
On a cold, rainy evening, Maria shyly greets us at the door with some mumbled words in a German accent and leads us to our table. She brings us a basket of crusty bread and a little crock of caviar mousse, while we look at the menu. And what a lovably weird menu it is. Written in a mishmash of languages and sprinkled liberally with typos, it is a list of familiar and arcane dishes from the four corners of the European continent. Schuster and Nopper seem to have no idea how strange this collection of dishes looks in Houston, Texas.
There is not much to say about Charivari's decor. The ceiling is acoustical tile; the carpet is industrial gray; and the linen-covered tables are in symmetrical rows. The square strip-center space is not broken by any architectural features. There are some luxurious thick red curtains in front of the commercial storefront windows, but that's about it. Luckily, the earnestness of the owners makes up for the lack of warmth in the interior design.
My girlfriend has the antipasto platter, and I start off with a bowl of garlic cream soup that is nothing short of miraculous. Thick, rich and piping hot, with crunchy croutons and a floating garnish of cool chile-pepper whipped cream, the soup satisfies me to the core. I can't imagine anything that could taste better on a chilly winter night.
She giggles over the description of the chicken breast but orders it anyway. It reads: "Stuffed with dried plumes baked and served with a pilaf vegetables brunoise, cranberry cream sauce." The chicken breast turns out to be beautifully breaded and baked into a conical shape. The white meat is moist, and the prune stuffing complements the spices of the breading. The rice pilaf is average, but the cranberry cream sauce is off-the-wall. The chef is no doubt still learning about American ingredients. Tart cranberries don't do much for cream sauce, and the pink color makes it look like Pepto-Bismol. The chicken is wonderful; the sauce is a laugh.
I order redfish, lobster and salmon fillets served on a bed of Riesling sauerkraut with a reduction of Riesling wine cream sauce and parsley potatoes. When I take my first bite, I get a lump in my throat
The Black Forest, where John Schuster and Maria Nopper really did run a restaurant for many years, is right on the other side of the border from Alsace. Choucroutes, sauerkraut dishes with various accompaniments, are the specialty of Alsace, a region in France that has flip-flopped between French and German rule a couple of times. Schuster continues to cook sauerkraut as if he were still in that part of that world -- much to the amazement of Houstonians.
"Sauerkraut and fish? Bleech!" said a man at a neighboring table when he asked what I was eating. This is a typical reaction.
I was raised on sauerkraut. My grandmother immigrated from what is now Slovakia, where sauerkraut is also a staple -- but not the kind you're thinking of. Nobody in the sauerkraut-eating part of the world eats the stuff out of a can. They use sauerkraut fresh from a barrel, then rinse off the brine and cook it in wine with apples, juniper berries or any of a hundred other ingredients, so that the fermented shredded cabbage becomes tender and saturated with flavor.
But the best sauerkraut dishes come from Alsace, where they call both the ingredient and the dish choucroute. I have been back there four times to eat sauerkraut. I even spent a whole week looking for the best choucroute in Alsace for a travel magazine. I am, in short, a choucroute freak. And in Alsace, I discovered that while sauerkraut was predictably delectable when combined with sausages, spare ribs and the typical pork cuts, it was equally delicious with such unlikely partners as oysters, skate wings and halibut.
I have never found a restaurant in the United States that even comes close to good Alsatian choucroute. Until now. I am absolutely astonished to say that Charivari serves the best seafood choucroute I've ever eaten. And I've eaten a lot of it. With a forkful of tender winekraut, a chunk of lobster tail and a dollop of cream sauce, I even convince my girlfriend, Miss Skeptical, a St. Louis native who firmly believes that sauerkraut should be confined to hot dogs, to reconsider her Midwestern attitudes about fermented cabbage.
It's that good.
But given the impossibility of overcoming Middle America's indifference to sauerkraut, I can't help but wonder how long it will last. If you are a sauerkraut lover -- there has to be one or two of you out there -- I suggest you go to Charivari for dinner before the owners wise up and take it off the menu. (Don't look for it at lunch; they don't serve it then.)
The chef is wearing a white jacket and a black skullcap when he stops at our table to ask how everything is. An intense-looking man with short dark hair and a Translyvanian accent, he doesn't look like the kind of guy who welcomes complaints. So I mumble something like, "Just fine."
But what I really want to say is this: "Some of the things I ate here tonight were so good they made me want to cry. And some were so silly, I can't believe you served them."
Chef Schuster grew up in Romania, a country that now borders Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia, and he worked as a chef in Vienna and Budapest before arriving in Germany. So as you might expect, Charivari's shredded veal "Zurich-style" is heavenly -- a fact I discovered one afternoon in late January when I ordered the tender, pan-browned veal strips with a mushroom cream sauce over housemade spaetzle. (At dinner, they are served with a sherry, fresh mushroom and herb reduction sauce, and rösti.) I soon discovered another fact: All of Charivari's Austrian, Russian and German cooking is divine.
Where Charivari consistently disappoints is with its Italian dishes. This isn't necessarily the chef's fault. It's more a clash of cultures. Take, for instance, the taglierini à la Chitara with salmon and shrimp in a tomato basil cream sauce. The salmon cuts are cooked magnificently -- crisp on the top, moist and tender in the middle -- and the shrimp are big and juicy. But the tomato cream sauce tastes all wrong.
There is no question that the sauce is authentically Italian. I once had a pasta sauce exactly like this in Florence, and I had the same problem with it. It tastes like Campbell's cream of tomato soup. I am willing to bet that 85 percent of Americans under the age of 60 ate a bowl of Campbell's cream of tomato soup once a week as a child. We are tired of this flavor. Which is why such sauces aren't popular in the United States.
Canned-flavor associations are also the problem with the vitèllo tonato, cold slices of veal topped with a sauce made from canned tuna fish and capers. Charivari's tuna sauce is actually pretty good. The cold veal slices are awfully dry, but that's where the sauce comes in. Still, this is a tricky dish to serve Americans. If it isn't stellar, the tuna flavor sets off a gustatory dissonance that we can never quite overcome. And unfortunately, this vitèllo tonato isn't stellar.
The same goes for the antipasto. Everything is wrong with it here. The roasted red peppers taste fizzy, as if they were going bad. The canned anchovies are lackluster. And in my book, melon and prosciutto are not a winter antipasto. Cantaloupes are in season in the summer -- and who wants to rush the summer?
Italian food is funny. It's eaten all over the world, and every country has its own slant on the cuisine. In Argentina, they are wild for gnocchi. In the States, we're obsessed with spaghetti and meatballs. In Switzerland, they prefer pasta with lots of cheese. And of course, each country's version tastes a little off to foreigners.
If you went to Vienna, you probably wouldn't order the Italian food -- and therein lies the secret to eating at Charivari. Chef Schuster is a grand master of the dishes of the European Borscht Belt. If you order blini and caviar, "Budapest-style" foie gras, Wiener schnitzel, filet mignon in cognac-green-pepper cream sauce, choucroute or anything else from this area, odds are you're in for an incredible treat. But the Italian food here tastes like something you might get if you were eating in a little restaurant in the Black Forest.
Which, of course, you are.
Wine Notes: Schlumberger, Riesling, 1997, $33
If you avoid Riesling because you don't like sweet wine, try this one from Alsace. Alsatian Rieslings have all the spicy fruit and crispness characteristic of the varietal, but with an elegant, dry finish. This is the ultimate choucroute wine, but Rieslings also are excellent with Chinese food, Southwestern food or any other spicy cuisine.
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