It's been several years since I last dined here, and nothing seems to have changed. Gasthaus Gutenberger still has that Germanic-chalet look, with walls part pale stucco and part wood panelling, adorned by paintings and a few antique-looking (but locally made) wood-cuts of medieval monks carousing among the beer barrels (the dark ages clearly weren't totally dark). The ambience is casual, apart from the formal-looking, high-backed chairs that have been there forever and also seem unchanged, except for the uncomfortably sagging seats.
When original chef-owner Kurt Wagner retired a few years ago, some habitués wondered if the new owner-chef's cooking would live up to that of the master's. They needn't have worried. Jereme Labelle was trained by and worked with Kurt Wagner for eight years before taking over, and the German specialties I tried recently seemed as good as ever.
You still get a basketful of one of the city's best breads -- dense, flavourful, dotted with tiny flecks of bacon, served with both butter and a spread of garlic and chive-flavoured cream cheese. Dinner entrées also include soup or salad -- I'd opt for the richly flavourful soups over the merely so-so caesar salad.
The appetizer on my first visit was the house-made Norwegian-style lox, which came with ordinary lettuce, capers, onions, horseradish cream and a tiny dab of black caviar ($12.95). It was watery and far too salty, and I regretted not having opted instead for the marinated matjes herring ($11.95) or the frikadellen meatballs with caramelized onions and beer sauce ($9.95).
But I had no regrets about the superb starter of a second dinner, the plump, juicy and remarkably non-fatty Bavarian bratwurst in a light beer sauce with hot mustard on the side -- my favourite of all the dishes I tried. The appetizer portion is generous ($9.95), and it is also available as an entrée, garnished with sauerkraut and potato dumplings ($19.95).
Most of the menu is German, with schnitzels predominating -- slices of pork or veal, pounded thin, lightly breaded and fried golden brown ($22.95 to $26.95 at dinner, or $14.95 to $16.95 at lunch). There are seven versions, some topped with ham and cheese, but most differing only in the sauces chosen. If you enjoy the look of abundance, go for the schnitzel platter at $26.95 per person, for a minimum of three.
It comes bearing two schnitzels per person (one pork, the other veal); long ribbons of buttery spaetzle; a lovely mild sauerkraut; velvety sweet and sour red cabbage; a few spears of excellent asparagus and a scattering of sautéed mushrooms. There are also mashed potatoes that could have been creamier, and the same potatoes turned into fluffy croquettes, plus bland rice, cauliflower and carrots. On the side are three gravy boats containing delicious sauces -- sautéed mushroom in a rich demi-glace, the zesty zigeuner gypsy sauce of onions, tomatoes and peppers, and a luscious white wine cream sauce.
If schnitzels aren't your meat you might be happy with the rinderroulade -- a slice of lean beef rolled with bacon, pickles and onions, coated in a rich brown gravy and paired with spaetzle and red cabbage ($22.95), or, on weekends only, the massive grillhaxe, i.e. pork shank, which I missed this time but have enjoyed in the past ($23.95). For those who'd like something lighter, a salmon fillet is expertly roasted, fresh-tasting and paired with plump, sautéed shrimp and asparagus, but the plain rice (not a pilaf, as described), cauliflower and carrots are as bland as those on the schnitzel platter ($26.95).
The noon buffets are renowned. The last one I tried was four years ago, the Sunday $24.95 gut-buster, which featured almost half the menu, but slightly less intimidating versions are available on Thursday and Friday for $18.95.
There are several ice cream-based desserts, but if you have the room, opt for the apple strudel. The dough isn't thin and flaky but it is good, the apple slices retain their integrity and the vanilla sauce is light and pleasant. I can't remember when I've had a good Black Forest cake and thought my luck might change here, but I was wrong. The cherries were nicely boozy but the cake layers were dryish, not chocolatey enough and the whipped cream tasted as though it had been stabilized.
Obviously there's a good selection of German beers, but there are also several German wines, which I've never tried before on the assumption they'd be too sweet to go with the food. But our knowledgeable server directed us to a Relax Riesling, a No. 1 in sweetness, and it was light, lovely and absolutely delicious.
The service was excellent on both visits, but taxed on a Saturday, when there seemed to be only one server for the nearly full house.
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