Restaurant Reviews

My Finny Valentine

The herring salad at AnneMarie's Bistro is very good, but you wouldn't expect a grown man to get all choked up about it. It's spread out on a bed of butter lettuce on a cute little fish-shaped glass plate garnished with tomatoes and pickles. I ordered it on a romantic whim -- Valentine's Day is just around the corner.

The creamed herring is supple, with lots of onions and apples mixed in with the sour cream. The hard-boiled egg on the side is a nice touch. So is the basket of dense German rye, which makes a perfect base for the open-faced herring sandwiches I am composing. But what's really getting me misty-eyed is the combination of the creamed herring and Paulaner Salvator, a dark sweet German beer from Munich.

This is what I ate on the first day of my honeymoon.

We were wandering around Munich in that jet-lagged, first-day-in-Europe daze -- dying to go to sleep, but trying to stay up as long as possible. Our hotel was very close to Marienplatz, the location of the Neues Rathaus, or city hall. According to our guidebook, there was a famous tavern, known simply as the Ratskeller, in the basement. We went inside hoping to get a brew and a bite to eat.

On the first day of a trip, when the culture shock is still fresh and exhaustion makes everything look like a dream, the impressions you gather are especially vivid. Regardless of how ordinary the actual experiences might have been, they loom large in the romantic imagination. And so it is with the matjes hareng my new bride and I shared in Munich's Ratskeller on October 17, 1985.

Leaving the sunlight of the street behind, we descended by way of a huge wooden staircase. We were awestruck by the scene in the dark, cavernous hall. Ancient oak beams were supported by stout stone columns, barrels lined the walls, and wrought-iron chandeliers hung over the rough wooden tables. The smell of beer and the staccato of Teutonic consonants were overwhelming. We settled into a cozy nook and ordered by pointing at the menu.

The massive fillet of reddish pickled herring came to our table on a plate with fresh sliced apples and a generous dollop of crème fraîche. We ate it on dark rye bread. The sweet amber beer was the perfect accompaniment. I don't think I've had better herring to this day. Or was it just the rosy glow of newlywed bliss that made it taste so good?

I've always had a soft spot for German food. I worship sauerkraut. And I crave wurst with mustard at the slightest hint of chill in the air. In fact, I've been looking for a place to eat German food in Houston ever since I got here. Last year, I discovered Charivari, where a recently transplanted Transylvanian chef excels in capturing the distinctive Mitteleuropaische flavors of fine Austrian, German and Alsatian cuisine (see "For the Love of Sauerkraut," February 8, 2001). Over the holidays, I enjoyed more German-style food at Rotisserie for Beef and Bird (see "Who Stollen Christmas?" December 20).

But the newly opened AnneMarie's Bistro is the kind of place I've really been looking for. The menu offers goulash, a smoked sausage platter, Wiener schnitzel and a grilled bratwurst sandwich. The shopping strip location, next to a Swiss bakery called Roland's, exudes the proper middlebrow German aesthetic. It reminds me of those trying-to-be-elegant restaurants in Germany called weinstuben, which are so often decorated with the owners' ceramic collections.

The dining room at AnneMarie's is long and narrow with a terrazzo floor; it looks a little like a train station lunchroom. The windows are dressed up with plastic plants, and on the back wall there's a painting of a snow-capped peak that looks like the Matterhorn at Disneyland.

AnneMarie Buett, the restaurant's namesake, is an Alp of a woman. She stops by our table, and my dining companion recognizes her as the former owner of the Old Heidelberg Inn. After 27 years, AnneMarie says, she sold the place to an Iranian man. She managed the restaurant under his ownership for a year and then retired.

"Do they still serve German food there?" my tablemate asks.

"Ja, but it's a different kind of German food now," she responds diplomatically.

AnneMarie seems to have lost faith in the German restaurant business. At her new place, half the menu is German, and the other half is generic. The appetizer menu features fried calamari, quesadillas, escargots and smoked salmon as well as a sausage and cheese plate and herring salad. A club sandwich, a hamburger and fettuccine Alfredo are among the entrées, along with several steaks and grilled salmon.

But everybody seems to be ordering German food. In fact, if you happen to be searching for the long-lost members of your high school German club, check here first. I heard more German than English being spoken on both of my visits. Before AnneMarie moved in, Roland's Bakery had a Swiss cafe in this space, so there was already an established German-speaking lunchtime clientele.

I started off my lunch visit with the wurst and cheese plate and a cup of goulash. The goulash had lots of paprika but was not at all piquant, and the chunks of stew meat and potatoes seemed a little lonely in all the sauce. It was pleasant enough, but I wanted to eat it over noodles. (I took the rest home and did just that.) The flat strips of American cheese on the appetizer plate appeared to still bear the impressions of their individual plastic wrappers, but the bratwurst and knockwurst chunks were wunderbar with mustard and bread. I also tried the Wiener schnitzel: two thin slices of veal, expertly breaded and fried. The veal was good, but without any sauce, it was a little dry. Oddly, at night the schnitzel is served with mushrooms and cream sauce.

At night the restaurant also features off-the-menu dinner specials, all of which are German. Tonight, it's rouladen, a stuffed meat roll. The stuffing of ground meat and sausages is rolled inside something that resembles a flank steak. Then the whole thing is simmered to a soft, pot roast-like consistency in a rich red sauce. The meat rolls come out very tender, and there's plenty of sauce to go with the excellent browned potatoes and onions. Skinny green beans, cauliflower and carrots are cooked until done but still firm.

The same potatoes and vegetables are served with stuffed pork tenderloins with porcini mushroom sauce, another hearty German-style entrée. I like the thick, creamy mushroom sauce with the potatoes even better than the rouladen sauce. The pork is juicy, and the stuffing seems to contain minced mushrooms. The portions are enormous; my dining companion and I can't finish the entrées, and half the herring salad remains as well. He takes the leftovers home for his wife. For dessert, AnneMarie demands we sample the cherry and apple strudels, both of which are good but not fantastic.

"Why is the menu half German and half other stuff?" I ask AnneMarie later on the phone.

"People don't like German food all the time; they think it's too heavy," she says. But the popularity of the German items on the menu at AnneMarie's Bistro hasn't escaped her notice. "I am going to change the menu again next month," she says, "and I think it's going to be more German." But AnneMarie is probably wise to stay flexible. When summer comes around and German food doesn't sound so appealing anymore, she'll have her options open.

I also want to know why the Wiener schnitzel has cream sauce at night but not during the day. "The original Wiener schnitzel is served without sauce," she says. But if you want cream sauce on it at lunchtime, all you have to do is ask.

And where does she get the herring in cream sauce? "I make it myself," she says. The herring comes already cured from the supplier. She rinses off the wine marinade it comes in and prepares the German-style sour cream, apple and onion dressing. AnneMarie's herring is one menu item that will taste just as fabulous in the summer as it does right now. But then again, my opinions about herring shouldn't be trusted.

My ex-wife and I have been divorced for eight years, but the spirit of our honeymoon lives on in my irrational adoration of herring with apples and onions on rye bread with German beer. As the Pennsylvania Dutch say, "Kissing wears out. Cooking don't."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh