WE CAN TALK ABOUT IT The trout salad at Schulte and Herr.
This year the German restaurant Schulte and Herr won the Phoenix reader poll for Best Ethnic Restaurant. Is it enlightened or provincial that we Mainers hear “ethnic” and don’t think, as many do, exclusively of non-Europeans? Enlightened, perhaps! Or maybe “ethnic,” as applied to restaurants, has fully inhabited its functional meaning as food for which we don’t pay as much. Schulte and Herr, thanks to its BYOB policy and its restrained pricing, is among the most affordable, elegant meals in town. In offering European food at Thai prices, S&H has scrambles traditional categorization.
Census figures indicate that German is the most common American ancestry. And since Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, Dutch, et cetera are all culturally Germanic, our city’s dominant ethnicity is quasi-German. So in naming Schulte and Herr the best ethnic restaurant, do readers indicate that it is the city’s best overall? I think it might be. The more new restaurants open in Portland, the more I like Schulte and Herr. We would pay more for dinner there. It is nice that they don’t ask us to.
Many other things are nice about S&H. For example, how they staked out a neglected section of Cumberland—pulling Portlanders beyond their habitual evening stalking grounds. It is nice that they show how some effective spiffing and simple charm can replace the expensive redesign so common in new restaurants—expense that leads to debt, which leads to pricey wine lists. It is nice that they hold onto their original waitperson, who does justice to the ugly-pretty names of the German dishes, and organizes your meal with pleasant efficiency.
Most fundamentally it is nice that they manage to preserve what is comforting in German cuisine while giving it unexpected brightness. So a salad of smoked trout and potato does not chase flavor with an aggressive dressing or by over-smoking the fish, but instead uses peppery arugula, spicy shards of radish, and tart-sweet pickled beets to enliven things. Even potato pancakes are almost light—under the thin layer of gorgeous brown crunch is a whipped up fluff. The dish is best ordered with salmon, cured in house with notes of citrus and pepper suffusing its creamy texture. Even S&H’s fantastic rye bread manages to be moist and dense but not heavy—especially when smeared with the house’s thin cream cheese—animated with herbs and chives.
The entrees, usually several varieties of sausage, a schnitzel, a roast, a fish, and spaetzle, delve into the heavier elements of German cuisine but never rest there. So on a recent evening a roasted beef was so tender it seemed airy. Sharp and sour flavors in the dark sauce and the red cabbage livened the dish, and even the bread dumplings had a peppery taste and creamy texture. The spaetzle used emmenthaler and caramelized onion to give this simple pasta and cheese a dark, rich, earthy quality—the pasta itself maintaining some good texture to chew on. In this case the heft of the dish was unmitigated, except by the accompanying dill-infused cucumber salad, and a side of light and sharp sauerkraut.