Gaumenkitzel tickles the taste buds with pork loin schnitzel.
No one mistakes the two blocks of San Pablo Avenue just south of University Avenue for North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. This stretch of West Berkeley commercial real estate doesn’t boast Chez Panisse or Cheese Board equivalents. But the gradually gentrifying working-class neighborhood is a hotbed of culinary diversity. In addition to stalwarts Lanesplitter Pizza, Rainbow Donuts, and Country Cheese, you can find Latino and Middle Eastern markets, interesting Indian, Italian, and Mexican eateries, and a bountifully stocked neighborhood bar, all within walking distance of one another. Plus, there’s an Everett & Jones just north of University Avenue. Still, it took many trips to the popular Spanish tapas spot La Marcha for Robin and I to finally take notice of Gaumenkitzel, across the street and down a block, even though the German restaurant had evolved into a destination for connoisseurs of schnitzel and spätzle and incredible breads and beers.
When the wife-and-husband team of chef Anja Voth and Kai Flache opened Gaumenkitzel in early 2011, they offered breakfast, lunch, teatime, and supper menus. They have since pared back to dinner six nights a week and elaborate weekend brunches, with daily specials and beer pairings. Hailing from Hamburg, Voth balances that northern region’s lighter dishes — represented by “The Beautiful Rainbow Trout,” which she debones and pan fries and serves with baby spring mix, carrot-thyme salad, and mashed potatoes ($27), and a crispy fried veggie cake ($18) — against the fare of Flache’s southern homeland, the heavier dishes and sausages with which most of us are familiar thanks to the precedents set by the few other German restaurants in the Bay Area.
To create the setting for his wife’s superb cooking, Flache festooned the airy corner building, which is drenched until nightfall by southern and western light, with beer advertising banners — Erdinger, Flensburger, Einbecker, Fruh, Hopf — and painted the massive steel I-beams that frame the entry an eye-popping goldenrod. He furnished the barn-size, concrete-floored, peak-ceilinged, bare-beamed room with sleek molded chairs, a variety of banquettes, two-top, four-top, and communal tables, and an entire wall of shelves that show off a gazillion German beers by the bottle, Voth’s house-made jams, and a small, intriguing selection of imported packaged foods. All that, and a couple of antique lamps and pieces, and a pair of small bookshelves mounted under vintage mirrors, doesn’t fully dispel the space’s former identity as a Metro Lighting store, but it does help create the happy ambience of a beer hall, a vibe supported by the availability of about 10 rotating German beers on tap and more than a dozen wines from German vintners (with cameo appearances by the NorCal winemakers Iron Horse and Donkey & Goat). Thankfully, he didn’t dress the super-friendly servers in tight-fitting dirndls or hire an accordionist to play “Roll Out the Barrel.”
The design details might take a while to register on your first visit because you’ll be so taken with the food. Voth and Flach are rightfully proud that their cooking and sourcing are slow, from-scratch, never microwaved, minimally wasteful, organic, non-GMO, pastured-raised, locally sourced, and cruelty free, and that they’ve won multiple certifications and awards as a green and sustainable business (using 70 percent solar- and 30 percent wind-powered energy). But when chew comes to swallow, the closing argument is the perfect crunch of the light, crispy coating giving way to the tender texture of Homestead pork loin in the schnitzel ($20), its meaty heft lightened by a squeeze of fresh lemon and counterbalanced by the sweet tang of red cabbage braised to the melting point.
Beneath the two cutlets is a bed of spätzle, and, oh, that spätzle. The iconic German egg noodles — handmade, rough, squiggly — come in many guises here: served beneath the schnitzel or the leaner, gluten-free jägerschnitzel ($23); in an au gratin preparation with mushroom–red wine ragout and Gruyere ($18); swimming in herbed walnut sauce with baby arugula and shaved Gruyere ($15); or, in the dish Robin would revisit in a minute, as käespätzle ($16), deliciously gooey with caramelized onions and melted Gruyere, and snowed over with fresh parsley. You can substitute mashed potatoes for spätzle in many dishes. I’ve yet to find out if that’s a good thing. I’ve heard it is.
The interior has a beer hall vibe.
The mouth feel is just about everything with the spätzle, and that holds true for the “100 percent Grass Fed Lean Beef Goulash on Spätzle” ($20), in which the virtually fat-free Marin Sun Farms meat sings to the accompaniment of onions, bell pepper, and crimini mushrooms. Ditto for the scrumptious veggie cake, a compound of carrot, parsnip, eggs, and oats — they reportedly made this in Hamburg more than a century ago — that forces your brain to Ping-Pong between texture and flavor, a task further confounded by the bright blasts of arugula, browned chunks of pan-fried fingerling potatoes, refreshing carrot-thyme salad, and luscious garlic crème.
Voth might tinker with the recipes she inherited from and double-checked with her mother or gleaned from old German cookbooks, but there’s no hint of post-modern, molecular-cuisine experimentation. Her transformations of raw materials are simple and classic, yet wholly in keeping with contemporary sensibilities. You’ll witness that when you start with soup, and you should, whether it’s the delicate tomato, redolent with basil and studded with chunks of mozzarella ($7), the rosemary-scented cannellini bean topped with cheese ($6), or any other that shows up.
The full menu is served during weekend brunch, when the traditional abendbrot dinner platter appears tweaked into the German Gourmet Breakfast ($23), an enormous, cholesterol-glorifying plate bearing smoked salmon, north German butter cheese, wedges of mild brie, slices of jagdwurst (hunter´s sausage), leberwurst, pork-and-beef salami (all the charcuterie, including the separately offered Nürnberger bratwurst and Bavarian bockwurst, is procured from Schaller & Weber in New York), a medium boiled egg, a slice of imported German flaxseed bread, two slices of Gaumenkitzel whole wheat bread, one brezel (house-made pretzel), fresh unsalted butter, and house-made low-sugar jam and chocolate spread. I know all that because I ate all that. All the aforementioned breads are available on the “KQED Check Please! Assorted Bread Platter” ($10), the best possible case against the notion that one cannot live by bread alone. Imagine your ideal exterior crunch yielding to a soft, uniform interior, and that is Gaumenkitzel’s brezel, and its amazing whole wheat bread, too. Ask about buying a loaf to take home.
If you find yourself thinking about dessert, do not perish that thought. Go for the streuselkuchen (streusel cake, $4.50, add $.75 for whipped cream) — ours was nectarine-almond, the next week’s was peach-rosemary — or the Luscious Meringue Cloud ($9), an almond meringue shell filled with whipped cream and melted apricot, surrounded by fresh blueberries and strawberries.
Whether you drop in to pull up a stool at the bar for a beer — always perfectly poured into the properly shaped and branded glass — or settle in for a feast, Gaumenkitzel will make good on the cheerful translation of its name and give you something that “tickles your taste buds.”
German. 2121 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-647 5016. Serves dinner Tue.-Fri. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., brunch Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Gaumenkitzel.net, $$–$$$$