Just 4,550 miles west of stein-raising Munich is a more laidback — but authentically German — outpost where families can share an Oktoberfest schnitzel (or five).
In the basement of Hudson’s former opera house, Winzer Stube German Restaurant is open year-round, but something about dark autumn nights and scurrying leaves makes it the ideal Deutschland-lovers’ mecca during the generations-old German festival.
When Marie Schmidt (you guessed it, born and raised in Germany) opened Winzer Stube in 1999, she recreated the wine-cellar feel of traditional restaurants back home. The name, fittingly, means “vintner room” in English. But aside from the intimate, subterranean atmosphere, one of the noticeable charms of Winzer Stube is that it doesn’t try to be “a German restaurant.” No dirndl- or lederhosen-clad staff lead you to your table. No cuckoo clocks. And surprisingly, no polka bands. (Just an occasional strolling accordion-player.) But you will find hearty German comfort food, a selection of homeland brews on tap, and a painting of the winding Mosel River that greets you at the threshold.
Growing up in a many-years-removed-from-the-old-country German family, my experience with the country’s food was limited to kraut, brats, and the occasional Black Forest cake. It turns out, when most people think German food they actually think Bavarian food. After all, Bavaria is Germany’s largest state and the birthplace of Oktoberfest itself.
But Schmidt is from Saarland, the country’s smallest state, and the family recipes that fill her menu trace their origins there, too. You’ll still find the meat and cabbage that form the culinary backbone of German fare, but Saarland’s ingredients and flavors are subtly influenced by its neighbor, France.
As I discovered, the best way to enjoy the Winzer Stube experience is at a table crammed with family and plenty of dishes to pass around. (If you’re the sharing type. Most entrées are only one serving.) The still-warm loaves of bread that arrived with our appetizers and salads made one continuous pass around the table. They were followed by some sampler plates: thinly sliced Black Forest ham, pastrami, salami and sausage, along with Edamer cheese and that eternal curiosity, pickled herring. The salads were basic in composition — romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, a couple of beet and tomato slices — but the house dressing, a creamy yogurt concoction, provided a light and refreshing touch.
Our entrées ranged from various takes on schnitzel (hand-pounded in the kitchen), to reubens, to a sausage sampler (your choice of bratwurst, knackwurst, or mettwurst served with sauerkraut). All the restaurant’s sausages are made by a local butcher using Winzer Stube’s recipes. My favorite entrée was one of Schmidt’s own creations, Schlemmertopf Weiskirchen: three sautéed beef filets on a bed of spätzle—irregular-shaped mini dumplings, a cousin to the Italian gnocchi—topped with just enough mushroom cream sauce.
The brew-drinkers in the group gave good marks to the beer, served in stout glass mugs. But for an unconventional way to toast the season, I recommend the Frankfurt-made apfelwein, served hot with an orange slice and cinnamon stick. Or, try a cold glass of spezi — Pepsi mixed with lemonade — reminiscent of a tangy ginger ale. Of course, a meal at a German restaurant wouldn’t be complete without hot-from-the-oven apple strudel. Warm and flaky, topped with vanilla ice cream and cinnamon whipped cream, no wonder Schmidt says they make it twice a day.
When we finally pushed ourselves away from the table, I noticed Schmidt’s unconventional wallpaper. After collecting postcards in a shoebox for 30 years, she decided to decorate the walls with them. These days, when her customers travel the globe, they send more to add to her collection. From the look of things, you could say her restaurant’s home-cooked charm is becoming world-famous.
Click here for recipe for Schelmmertop Weiskirchen, a beef-and-spaetzle dish from Schmidt's kitchen.
This article appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Wisconsin Trails.
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