Land of the Misfit Restaurants

Some zip codes just aren’t hip enough for critical review. 97220 in the Parkrose neighborhood, home of The German Bakery, is one of those.

The unassuming storefront on Sandy Boulevard could do more to showcase the array of central european delights that await the intrepid germanophile. Long overshadowed by their far more popular competitor, Edelweiss, in the considerably trendier 97202 area code; the plucky volksdeutsche out there in no hipster land toil away at their jaegerbrot, marzipan, and their baerentatze in relative obscurity. Two glass display cases are filled with rolls, cookies and impossibly beautiful pastries. Behind the counter hangs another glass case filled (well, mostly empty past noon) with house baked- rye and white flour breads.

Not ready to venture beyond the motherly embrace of inner southeast Portland for a couple of pastries and some marzipan cookies? The Bakery just happens to be connected to The Bavarian Sausage Company whose main location is in the true hinterlands of Tigard. The selection ranges from 18-inch long thuringer bratwurst to dinner franks and spicy beer sausage. No New Seasons’ “loose-lean-ground meat seasoned with a haphazard quantity of spice dust, and placed in the general vicinity of a pig’s intestine.” These are the real Bavarian deal. The seasoning could, to my mind, be a little more forward but that’s probably just the Cincinnati in me talking. The sausages have snap and the smoke (on those that are) is just right.

When Leona and I go, we’re usually heading out of town to do some hiking and we want something that we can eat cold on rolls (the laugenwecke, pretzel rolls, are delicious). So we go for the cold cuts and cheese. Head cheese comes in a couple of incantations and it’s delicious. Lyoner, Black Forest Ham and Westphalian ham, like the less-aged German version of prosciutto are also on display and well executed. Bavarian mustard, gherkins, pickled beets, saurkraut, and various other, stranger, German condiments fill a couple of shelves. Butterkaese is one cheese you should stop living without. The variety they carry here appears to be a mass market example but it’s incredibly satisfying nonetheless. As the name implies, it tastes like butter, but its a semi- soft cow’s milk cheese that’s aged for about a month. What could be nicer with a liter of hellesbier?  Nothing, that’s what.

Speaking of beer, they’ve got about thirty labels, mostly mass market stuff, but a couple of treats, and they serve breakfast and lunch.

Breakfast, referred to simply as “German Breakfast” consists of a variety of cold cuts, some butterkaese, a selction of rolls (usually plain seeming “milk rolls”), butter, apricot jam, and a soft boiled egg. Perfect. Lunch, I have yet to try. I will only mention here that they serve a dish called rouladen which is a stuffed, stewed beef roll, pork chops, and stuffed cabbage. I believe that they serve these with a selection of sides, like german potato salad.

There are other misfit restaurants that I intend to bring to you in the very near future. Following the example of gastronomes like Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern one can find a plethora of great, authentic eateries that survive not through fanfare, deep pockets, and critical reviews, but through the loyal patronage of a loyal clientelle. The original intent of those authors, which has now been largely perverted on the websites chowhound.com and roadfood.com, was to showcase regional American institutions, places that fed generations of people the sort of familiar fare that they truly, earnestly desired. What today we refer to, sometimes derisively, other times simply condescendingly, as comfort food. The problem is that as the generation that frequents these institutions dies off or retires to Florida, their offspring do not step up to take their places. They go either the way of Safeway, Wal Mart, and Wendy’s or the way of Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Toro Bravo (not to pick on that restaurant per se, but you know what I mean, don’t act like you don’t).  The problem is, to my mind, especially keen in the area of retail food. American butchers, bakers and greengrocers are practically extinct. The trades themselves are going fast as well, considering that at the average American supermarket they train people only as “meat cutters” as opposed to butchers (most actually only train them to be “meat wrappers”), the bread is generally of low quality and often made from mixes, and the deli counter is more a showcase of the travesties of modern industrial food supply than a display of proudly crafted artisan goods.

If urban young people continue to ignore these institutions they will disappear. With them will go a large chunk of our awareness of our past and America will continue to be regarded in some circles (europeans, trendy American “foodies”) as lacking a serious food culture.

Savory Far Eastern Donuts

I haven’t eaten this well since San Sebastian feasts of chuleton and pinxos de foie gras. I don’t know what took me so long to get out to Syun Izakaya in Hillsboro, except for the fact that it’s out in Hillsboro, but I can hardly wait to get back. I’ve of course been hearing about this joint for years, Syun is amazing, Syun has the biggest sake selection on the west coast, Syun is the reason to go to hillsboro (otherwise known largely for its subdivisions and its migrant farm worker population), but I could never justify the trip.

It’s not that I don’t like Japanese food. On the contrary it is, to my mind, one of the few cuisines worth going out for. Japanese food is not part of my repetoire and I know enough about the accomplishment of Japanese chefs to keep me from trying to learn it. I’ll stick with what I understand intuitively, and all of the Pan-asian, world beat, globalist, multi-culti numskulls with their little bamboo mats and their ridiculously expensive Damascus steel japanese cutlery and their Far Eastern spiritualism can flounder about in half- hearted, unapologetic ignorance. Problematically, I also generally reserve judgement on cuisines of the far east because I’m so unfamiliar with their paradigms and standards.

Of course bad fish is bad fish in just about any language (although I feel sure that there must be some culture that absolutely revels in the ammoniac aroma of 12 day old prawns), fermented sauces notwithstanding. And sometimes deliciousness likewise knows no cultural, political, or gustatory bounds. Syun presents just such a revelation.

We started with some fried smelt, simple, perfectly fresh, not a trace of the fish fat rancidity that usually haunts the littler fishes of the sea. Just dusted with flour and pan-fried and served with a wedge of lemon. We also had what was described as a raw beef salad. A strip of loin meat (striploin?) had been previously seasoned and lightly seared on all sides then sliced down thinly and served over a bed of mixed greens dressed with some sort of miso-soy dressing and the whole thing showered with little dollops of exceptionally mild fresh grated horseradish. This was the least impressive dish we had, and it was phenomenal.

Naguriyaki

We got a little plate of japanese pickles, delicious all around. Especially a log of pickled daikon (the waiter gave it another name that designated its stage of maturity), that had been cut open and laid flat, like a pork loin for stuffing, then filled with shiso leaves and rolled back up and sliced into little pinwheel rounds. Impressively exotic. The real triumph however, possibly of the entire meal, was an appetizer called Narutoyaki. I’ll obviously be the first to admit that I am an ignoramous about all things “Asian” (more about how much I detest that designation later) but I had never heard of it. Neither Shisuo Suji (Japanese Cooking) nor Charmaine Solomon (Encyclopedia of Asian Food) nor even the great wise Google of the Internets makes any mention of the dish . How sorry my life has been till now. Thin sliced beef (sirloin?) pounded, seasoned and seared to medium or so, was tossed with an abundance of thin sliced yellow onions and dried bonito flakes and a deeply savory dressing that included the collected juices of the beef and apparently some fermented soy product or another. Truly a revelation.

Artsy-Cutesy

We moved on to Miso soup. nothing much to say. Then on to what, from our western perspective, serves as the main course in a japanese restaurant, massive amounts of raw fish in all mannner of artsy-cutesy presentations. I had my first otoro, fatty tuna belly, and I was… underwhelmed. It’s just fatty, really fatty and it tastes like little more than creamy fat, like lard of the sea. I noticed that more than one person at the table gave each bite a good double dipping in their soy/wasabi dish (I know you’re not really supposed to do this but if you want a keen awareness of and attention to japanese protocol and etiquette, you’re definitely reading the wrong blog). On the plus side, I suspect that the wasabi was real and fresh. Very subtle, not like that scorching, palate-excoriating mustard explosion one usually is forced to desecrate one’s aquatic megafauna with.

The sashimi was excellent. Lacking the training, knowledge or adjectives to describe the subtleties of great raw fish I’ll just mention my personal highlights. The uni which we were informed was flown all the way from japan (so much for local seasonal etc…, I believe that much of the seafood here was flown from the far corners of the globe, In this case it was carbon well expended), was unlike any I (or any of us) had ever tasted. It was like Butter of the Sea, not a trace of iodine, subtley shellfishy, like a cold creamed scallop. Speaking of scallops, sliced thinly, layered with even thinner slices of blanched lemon. The bitter-sour of the lemon waging an adorable battle with that bivalve’s rich plumpness.

I need to mention the rice. We got bowls of warm white rice, nishiki was the variety, to accompany our sashimi platter and, although I hear you accusing me of employing precious hyperbole (and just plain being precious), it was poetic. I’ve read of the pleasures of eating plain rice in far eastern literature class and I’ve scoffed. I don’t scoff no more. This rice was sticky and glutinous, but not like the “sticky rice” you get in thai restaurants, more like rissoto, but softer, finer and although of a short grain variety, the grains were thinner than those plump nuggets of rissoto. It was unseasoned and its perfume, not bold, not floral, just sweet, slightly earthy, and somehow “human”, drifted through.

Well Fed

Of course, we were still hungry, so we got rolls. The finest being tempura prawns rolled up with rice and topped with grilled unagi eel and drizzled with sweet teriyaki sauce. This reminded me, somehow, of fresh fried donuts. A savory far eastern donut. The combination of the slightly oily, incredibly crispy and sweet prawns, the aforementioned rice and the rich, sweet teriyaki sauce harmonized to create, in my mind, the illusion that I was eating not the end result of a three hundred year evolution of Japanese court ccuisine but the modern Japanese equivalent of the donut holes that my mother used to fry on the exceptional sunday morning of my youth. Incredible.

Dinner and How to Braise It.

The season of the anniversary of my birth is a trying time for eaters. I daresay I tire of meat and roots and preserves. Nevertheless, with a little luck, a little patience, and an ample supply of reduced beef stock one may occasionally turn out something worth eating, perhaps even relishing. I’ll try to stop writing like MFK Fischer soon.

dinner

I seasoned a seven-bone chuck roast with a paste of salt, pepper, garlic and the trimmings of the rosemary shrub which appears to have suffered the worst of the winter. After several hours in the refrigerator and several more at room temperature, I scraped this paste off and seared the roast until it was really quite dark on either side. I then braised (slow cooked in a covered pot) it with onions, dried chilies, bay leaves and the reserved marinade paste; I added no additional liquid. This I accomplished in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven. Upon reaching a state of toothsomeness that would best be described as unctuous, the roast was allowed to rest by the wayside while par-cooked pearl barley finished up in the pan juices which I had since thinned with the aforementioned beef stock and fortified with dried, pestle- ground Chanterrelles from fall’s bounty and some tomato paste that was aging in the fridge. A little Hungarian paprika “reddened” things up and the resulting overwhelming richness was cut with some red wine vinegar (There only being enough wine in the house for drinking.)

Some leftover cabbage and carrots were sliced thinly and sauteed in butter and olive oil until just barely wilted (what my wife would call a “stir fry.”) Luck came in the form of some green tomato jam given to me by my friend, a great cook called Scotty G., that, redolent of cayenne and the beginning of fall, lent the necessary verve and vigor to lift it from its late-winter doldrums. Preserves are to March what laughter is to the gallows.

The term (and art) of braising is, to my mind, not the same as stewing. Some claim that a braise differs from a stew in that in a braise, the meat is seared before enough liquid is added to partially submerge the meat while stew sees the meat fully submerged in its cooking liquid. That’s a negligible difference that leaves little conceptual space for the term “stew” to occupy.  A stew is a stew whether you sear the meat first or not, and whether you add twice or half the volume of liquid as meat. Braising means that the beef is browned and little to no liquid is added to the pot  (a splash of booze, a cup of wine), the meat cooks in its own juices and the juices get rich, really rich. Don’t let it burn, add more liquid if  (absolutely) necessary and maybe turn the meat every now and again. Remember that perfection lies just this side of burnt.

Some might question the usefulness of this methodology, since I thinned everything down at the end anyway. It’s useful because, with so little liquid, the particles in the juices get time to really brown and get intensely meaty while the fat emulsifies with them. The effect can’t be duplicated by adding more liquid and cooking it down until it’s the consistency that you want. Another benefit is that you don’t need stock to make a good braise; the meat and vegetables provide all the juice you need. The rest of the internet can disagree; I’m right and the internet is wrong.

I’d also like to add that according to a greater authority than me, the lid should be left slightly ajar while braising to keep the temperature inside below the boiling point. That’s probably not going to work here. Which, I suspect, is why others (including the inventors of the Alsatian classic  Baeckeoffe [and I know they call for adding a bunch of water there, I bet if you left it out it would be way better]) want a very tightly sealed lid, preferably with a strip of simple dough. I don’t do that, you could. Suffice it to say that you should keep the temperature low, around 200° F.

homebrew: Altbier

I kegged my Altbier this morning and I’m still attempting to figure out force carbonation. The “shaking it around on the floor until the damn thing stops making noise” method is not, in my very amateur opinion, the best way to go about it. One brewing website speaks of a certain “patient method” which involves hooking the CO2 up to the “out” nozzle on the keg, setting your pressure regulator according to a chart that converts pressure to “volumes” (a term that I imagine implies the number of times a unit of space is filled with the quantity of gas that said unit would encompass under normal circumstances) turning the gas on and throwing (or carefully placing) the whole getup in the fridge for 48 hours. I guess we’ll see on Saturday.

The impatient method was, of course, initially appealing to me because I’m impatient, especially when it comes to beer, or wine, or booze. But it’s shortcomings soon became apparent. First I tried it with the pressure at about 15 psi and let it sit overnight. But it was a little to flat so I tried it again, this time at 30 psi. It was still a little flat after another 12 hours or so, but only because of the fact that it shot out of the nozzle with such outrageous ferocity that it was difficult to hold the glass at the proper angle for a good pour. It was kinetically equivalent to the little girl in the excorcist projectile vomiting.

More importantly, the fizz just wasn’t right. Like the way a good pint has equal carbonation from the top to the bottom and the bubbles are fine and start from the bottom of the glass and trace a bead all the up.

But enough about that beer, it’s gone anyway, to the consternation of my friend Rob who was, rightfully, a part owner. The Alt will be delicious. It’s just the little Charlie Papazian extract recipe and it’s real simple with only one 60 minute hop addition. It turned out dry on the palate (even with a TG of 1018) and with just enough dark toasted malt to keep it interesting but without its tasting like a medieval breakfast.

Don’t worry, have a homebrew.

Update 3/30/09:

Tried the beer on 3/28/09 at my party. Still too flat so I cranked the pressure up to close to 12 PSI, today it’s damn near perfect. Rick, I hear you about priming, I just like the way mechanically carbonated beer tastes. The carbonation seems to dilute the beer a little and priming never gets enough foam in it for my liking, I’ve got that American palate.