A review of Seattle's Heidelberg Haus, which serves up authentic German food in a homey dining room presided over by a bossy but benevolent server.
The first time I tried to have dinner at Heidelberg Haus in Ravenna, a sign on the window said it was closed for vacation. I wasn’t the only one standing on the sidewalk flummoxed. A young man also peering in the window turned to me and said something in German that I couldn’t understand. Maybe it was, “Where else can I find German food around here?”
Good question. Seattle has plenty of German pubs but few restaurants offering the homestyle German cooking the Henke family does here — dishes like schnitzel, rinderrouladen and schweinebraten. “When we visited Seattle we noticed there was a large German community but little authentic German food,” said Mathias Henke, co-owner with his mother, Waltraud, of Heidelberg Haus. So they moved here to open a restaurant, though they never have run one before.
Novices they may be, but they were smart to hire Martin, a seasoned waiter who also speaks German, something they require of all the wait staff. While the Henkes cook, Martin runs the dining room like a bossy but benevolent uncle.
“No, no; you don’t want the sole. Nobody orders fish in a German restaurant,” he tells me. He points to jägerschnitzel and rinderrouladen. “Here is what you should have. They are my top two.”
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I happily polished off the jägerschnitzel, pork cutlets pounded thin and pan-fried, wearing a heavy robe of parsley-speckled mushroom cream sauce. Rinderrouladen, braised beef rolls stuffed with bacon and herbs, were satisfying, too, though a little dry on the outside edge, despite plenty of rich, dark-brown gravy. Each amply portioned plate included buttered spätzle, made fresh daily. A side of warm red cabbage, teetering between sweet and tart, was served family-style.
“You should take that home,” Martin said, eyeing the leftovers. He wrote “Breakfast!” on the top of the to-go box.
We had ordered potato pancakes as an appetizer, but they never came; either Martin forgot (doubtful) or decided it was too much food (more likely; also true). A crunchy vinaigrette-dressed salad precedes the main course. We didn’t even try to order dessert, having already overheard him discourage others. “You don’t want it. It’s only ice cream.”
On my return visit, I made sure to start with potato pancakes. You should, too. Thin, crisp and dainty, they are lovely with or without a dollop of cool applesauce.
Martin had help on the floor that night. Taylor, dressed all in black with a sculpted coif of hennaed hair, told us she had spent a year in Germany as an exchange student. “I was a vegetarian when I arrived, but that didn’t last long.” When I asked about Fleischkäse, described on the menu as pan-fried Bavarian meatloaf, she said, “It’s more like fried bologna but really, really good bologna.” Better than bologna, I’d say, and best swabbed with Bavarian mustard.
The succulent Kassler rippchen (a smoked pork rib chop), propped against a mound of mild sauerkraut, is another treat. Like the Fleischkäse, it comes from Pike Place Market’s Bavarian Meats. So did the pork roast for that night’s special, Schweinebraten. A refined pan sauce, warmly spiced and ruddy with paprika, draped two thick slices of meat, as well as a trio of semmel knodel, outstanding boiled bread dumplings seasoned with onion and herbs.
The Henkes carefully source their ingredients. The bratwurst is from Uli’s Famous Sausage in Pike Place Market. Hoffman’s Kirkland bakery supplies the towering Bavarian chocolate cake lavishly layered with chocolate mousse, whipped cream and cherries plumped with kirsch. Martin is right. That’s the dessert you want. Forget the ice cream.
A glass of Leibfraumilch or a tall frosty pilsner makes an ideal drinking companion for this food. When Martin dimmed the lights at dusk, it lent welcome dinner drama to the tidy blue-and-white room, accentuating candles on pale wood tabletops and tiny white lights running above the café-curtained windows,
Heidelberg Haus is homey and hospitable. You’re encouraged to seat yourself, or to grab a bowl of pretzels from the bar and bring it to your table. On my visits there were always families with young children, and many German-speaking customers, many perhaps satisfying their hunger for an authentic taste of home.
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