Portland, ME: Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, and Spätzle at Schulte & Herr
"Homemade German Food." Now there's a sign you don't see often enough around here.
I assume the dearth of good German restaurants in New England has a lot to do with demographics. Compared with other parts of the country (i.e., Pennsylvania and the Midwest), the Northeast's German population is almost zilch, and the options for Deutsch staples like proper sauerkraut, bratwurst, and spätzle are correspondingly limited. In fact, I can think of two good spots in the whole region: Karl's Sausage Kitchen (great source for meat, cheese, and imported provisions) and Morse's (a solid market and deli option—if you happen to be passing through rural Waldorboro, Maine). But things are starting to look up. Way up.
Last fall, Portland welcomed Schulte & Herr, a breakfast- and lunch-only spot a few blocks over from the old Portland Public Market building. Everything about it feels cozy, from the mom-and-pop hospitality, to the homemade rye breads (standard and seeded sourdough—both excellent), to the low ceilings and simple, tidy table settings that make you feel like you've just stepped into Oma's house. The food is traditional meat and potatoes fare up and down the menu, but everything we had tasted surprisingly delicate—refined, even. There was none of the heft and gut-busting fullness that I usually associate with German food.
Roasted Bratwurst with Sauerkraut and German Potato Salad ($12) is a carefully spiced trifecta: a sweet, crisp-skinned link accompanied by mellow, buttery, juniper berry-scented sauerkraut and a tangy (but not tart) potato salad. The red bliss spuds give up just enough starch to render the salad almost creamy.
Beer Braised Beef slabs came tucked into a soft bun with plenty of whole-grain mustard, housemade pickle chips, and a ramekin of horseradish cream for slathering ($9). I think I'd have preferred the ultra-tender meat sandwiched between slices of the breadbasket's standard rye—the bun just didn't do much for me—but no harm done.
The carbs were equally good. Potato pancakes are light—almost souffleéd inside—with a crisp crust. A basic order ($5) comes with thimbles of sour cream and, thanks to being cooked with the skins, rose-colored housemade applesauce. Better yet, upgrade to the entrée-worthy version ($9) with wide ribbons of silky house-cured gravlax, capers, cornichons, julienned radish, and more of that tasty horseradish cream.
All I can say about the spätzle ($10) is that for a culture that isn't big on pasta, these noodles are top-notch: rich and tender with just enough satisfying spring and chew. The purist in me prefers a simpler brown butter-shallot preparation, but sweet caramelized onions and melted emmenthal were not half bad (read: really delicious).
Schulte & Herr
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.