Restaurant Reviews

Heavy Mettle

Nobody has ever accused German food of exhibiting a minimalist sensibility. The hearty meat and potato dishes that make up the cuisine's canon are clearly designed to stick to your ribs (and probably, truth be told, to the walls of your arteries as well). Heft makes a certain sense in Central Europe's long, cold winters, when folks have to have the stamina to slog through sleet and snow to get to the gemYtlich confines of the local Gaststatte. These cozy, informal restaurants, with their wood beamed ceilings, Tudor-look walls and plethora of beer company paraphernalia are a home away from home for locals in both villages and urban neighborhoods all over Germany. The food is traditional, the portions massive and the atmosphere audience-participation-style convivial. Who would have expected to find a place just like this anchoring one end of an otherwise banal strip center in west Houston?

To make it even more remarkable, Annemarie's Old Heidelberg has been right there for more than two decades. Twenty-two years ago, Annemarie Butt decided to take the plunge and open her own place. She already knew the business; born into a restaurant family of modest means near the city of Ksln, she spent her teens apprenticing in kitchens and dining rooms around Germany and Switzerland. After coming to the States in 1965, Butt worked as a waitress and manager at Herman Stocker's old Swiss Chalet on South Post Oak; when it changed hands, she used her savings to take over the strip center site on Fountainview once occupied by Salerno's Italian restaurant. "I was 30 years old," BYtt says. "It was time to go out on my own. I know many of my [customers] 30 years now. We all started very young and have grown old together."

Butt's following has stayed with her so long for good reason: She knows how to create and maintain a truly authentic German atmosphere in which to serve truly authentic German food. While there is such a thing as gourmet Teutonic cuisine (and I'd be happy to supply the address of a hidden gourmet gem in eastern Berlin), this isn't it. This is down-home, Sunday-dinner-at-Oma's kind of cooking. But for what Old Heidelberg sets out to do, Butt and the folks in the kitchen do the job very well indeed.

Witness the lentil soup ($5.95 a bowl). Like much German cooking, it's considerably more complicated than it seems. Dark and rich, with chunks of scallions, celery you can actually taste, paper-thin crescents of sliced potato and specks of Speck, the smoky German bacon, it makes a virtual meal when accompanied by thick slices of Old Heidelberg's robust brown bread, and a virtual feast -- suitable for two -- when ordered along with the Westphalian ham platter ($11.95). The thin-sliced ham itself, which traditionally is cured and smoked over beechwood and juniper branches, exhibits an almost apple-ly taste instead of the salt-dominant flavor you'd expect. Together with the dark, chewy bread and the platter's smooth and smoky Camembert cheese, wealth of lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion slices, it makes wonderful open-faced sandwiches. These easily accompany just about all of the soups: the unexpectedly substantial chicken and dumplings ($2.50/$4.50); the potato soup ($4.25 a bowl; with sausage, $5.50), which is touted on the menu as "the only authentic one in town"; and the gorgeously meaty and savory Hungarian-style goulash soup ($3.50/$4.95).

Worth trying if you're unfamiliar with German main dishes are the combination platters. The menu claims that these are suitable for either one ($12.50) or two ($24.50) people. Maybe. But only if one of the people is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The platter for two -- with more-than-adequate-size portions of Wiener schnitzel (a lightly breaded veal cutlet that's pan fried and traditionally enjoyed with a squirt of fresh lemon juice), rouladen (thin filets of roast beef wrapped around a stuffing of pickles, onion and bacon, and topped with savory gravy) and sauerbraten (the famous beef dish that takes days to make) -- is big enough to bench press.

The sauerbraten in particular is a find. A pot roast is marinated for several days in a sweet/sour mixture that includes wine, spices and, often, juniper berries and sorrel, then braised and slow cooked until it's so tender that the meat practically melts. The surprisingly complex flavors work well with the accompanying spatzle, tiny, twisty dumpling-like pasta with a hint of nutmeg, and the traditional red cabbage, which at Old Heidelberg tastes really homemade. This is not the shredded, mushy canned or bottled stuff. Instead, the texture of these irregular-length, magenta-colored ribbons of Rotkohl (which have been braised with apples, bacon bits, onion and vinegar), is still al dente. The second layer of flavor, which never comes through in the mass-produced versions, features teasing hints of cloves and bay leaves. The combination platters also include a pretty good version of chunky, peppery German potatoes fried with onions and a forgettable serving of mixed broccoli and carrots.

The same collection of side dishes come with another house specialty, the Rahmschnitzel "Old Heidelberg" ($13.95). These tender veal cutlets are pan-fried and topped with a substantial cream sauce chock-a-block with fresh mushroom caps the size of petits fours. The spears of delicate white asparagus, considered a major delicacy in the old country, are enfolded in Butt's own homemade hollandaise sauce. The range of tastes here is firmly in the middle ground.

The same cannot be said of the Eisbein ($10.95). Even the Germans don't know why Eisbein is called Eisbein. Pronounced ice-bine, it translates as something like icy leg. What it means is a knuckle of pork so huge and heavy that the plate seems to weigh at least ten kilos, and the amount of food is enough to feed a family of five. Served atop a mound of sauerkraut, the meat is so unlovely to look at that it seems like a mean-spirited caricature of German food -- direct from the pig to you. But give it a chance. This Teutonic version of Irish corned beef and cabbage is not to everyone's taste, but it is at the very least interesting. The melding of the pork's smoky-salty taste and the deceptively complex flavors of the sauerkraut is worth a try. The recipe, which is a specialty from Butt's home in the area around Ksln, requires ham shanks to be cured in salt for at least a week. The meat is then boiled and finally baked until it becomes crusty, at which point it's served piping hot atop the pickled cabbage.

At Old Heidelberg, the sauerkraut is one more homemade item. Seemingly simple, it's actually subtle and complex. The Germans supposedly got the idea of fermenting cabbage from the Roman legions -- just before the Teutons ran them out of Central Europe -- and have been perfecting the recipe ever since. Shredded white cabbage is immersed in a secret mixture of salt, apples, juniper berries, dill seeds and Butt only knows what else, then given time to ferment. It's tart and still vaguely crisp, with undertones of many elusive flavors.

The dunderheaded desserts (all $3.75) aren't worthy to follow such an entrancing dish. The apple strudel, which you'd expect to be pretty darn good in a place like this, is soggy and tasteless. The alleged Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) is a travesty. And the carrot cake, which was actually pretty good, looks like it came from the bakery department of the Rice Epicurean Market down the street.

Pass on the desserts and try an after-dinner liqueur instead. Kick back, talk to friends or friendly strangers. Listen to, dance to or sing along with the nightly live music and enjoy the convivial atmosphere. That's what gemYtlichkeit -- and places like Old Heidelberg -- are all about.

Annemarie's Old Heidelberg, 1810 Fountainview, 781-3581.

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Joanne Harrison