"New Alpine Cuisine" - is that a "thing" yet? If it's not, maybe it should be.
With the meteoric rise of Noma to prominence among most lists of the world's greatest restaurants, there has been plenty of talk of the "New Nordic Cuisine." No doubt, the ultra-local and ultra-seasonal cooking at Noma is far more radical and ambitious than what's going on at Grüner, Chef Christopher Israel's restaurant in downtown Portland, Oregon. But Grüner makes a good argument that "Alpine Cuisine" deserves greater attention.
What Grüner calls "Alpine Cuisine" is the foods of a stretch of Europe including Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania starting in the Alps, and meandering along the Danube River out to the Black Sea - an area which Chef Israel claims, with only some poetic license, bears a resemblance to the geography of the Pacific Northwest. This is fare that typically is more hearty than haute. While the food at Grüner is not exactly precious, and still retains the gutsiness of its inspiration, it is done with a skilled hand; it is not so much Alpine food "reinvented" as it is "refined."
The look of the restaurant is more bauhaus than bierhaus: black-stained wood and glass frame the exterior and interior, while bare maplewood tables lighten things up a bit. The menu is simlarly modern: it offers a selection of small "snacks" (many of which are also available on a bar menu at some very friendly happy hour prices), roughly a dozen options for appetizers and salads, with a shorter list of about a half-dozen entrées, all of which stay more or less faithful to the theme.
Dinner starts with a pretzel twist and some rough-textured seeded bread. Both had their charms, but the clear favorite was the pretzel - dense, chewy, crusty and salty (recipe here).
Both were welcome vehicles for this "snack" of liptauer cheese, a creamy, light-textured house-made product punched up with paprika, caraway, shallots and herbs, which was equally good on fresh crisp radishes and celery. Right here was evidence of how this cuisine paints with a different spice and herb palette than much of the rest of Europe, to great effect.
Another nice snack were the croquettes of creamy potato, their crusty shells hiding a treasure of melting raclette cheese inside, a repackaging of the traditional Franco-Swiss dish of melted raclette cheese served with steamed potatoes for scooping.
Salad may not be the first that comes to mind when you think of Austro-German food, but at Grüner there were several that sounded tempting. The "Grünsten Goddess" ultimately won out, with crisp iceberg lettuce, peppery radish slices, tender julienned zucchini and slivered green onions tossed in a creamy avocado dressing brightened with shallots and herbs. Served in a big glass bowl, this was an ample portion for sharing.
There are some food formulas that work perfectly if you just don't muck them up. A BLT. A club sandwich. The ingredients work, don't screw around too much. I'd put tarte flambée, the Alsatian take on pizza, in that category. Flatbread, bacon, sautéed onions, fromage blanc - what's not to like? Grüner's version is a pitch-perfect rendition: a thin shell with nicely browned edges; meaty lardons perched right between chewy and crisp; melting sweet onions; and just enough fromage blanc to pull everything together.
But the best dish of the evening, the one that most clearly demonstrated how Grüner is capable of elevating the pedestrian to the exceptional, was the choucroute garnie. The dish that inspired Jeffrey Steingarten to trek across the Alsace in search of the best version of this "dizzying, almost inconceivable gastronomic summit," choucroute garnie is, Steingarten's hyperbole notwithstanding, truly a homey and homely affair: sausages and other pig parts, cooked with sauerkraut.
Grüner's version includes house-made bratwurst and saucisson, a few thick slices of magically tender house-cured pork tenderloin, and a slab of glistening, rich cider-braised pork belly, all crowned with savory sauerkraut redolent with bay leaf and juniper. A ramekin of sweet-spicy mustard completes the composition. It is a great plate, a perfect example of how a stodgy traditional dish can be resuscitated with some loving attention.
Our only miss of the evening was the golden trout, wrapped in bacon and served with a corn and tomato salad - not so much that the flavors were off, but the fish was a touch dry and speckled throughout with small bones, which were rendered even harder to identify and extract by its bacon blanket.
As the kids plied themselves with hazelnut-powdered doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce (dense and heavy but good), and milk and dark chocolate mousse (textbook other than the use of the different chocolates to make two mousses which were then dolloped together, parfait-style, which didn't add much), I sampled something that seemed very much in the spirit of the place, a Clear Creek Douglas Fir eau de vie:
The analogy between the Alpine region and the Pacific Northwest finds a clear exemplar in this glass: Clear Creek, a Portland-based distillery which uses traditional European techniques, was inspired to create this Douglas Fir eau de vie by an "obscure Alsatian distillate called Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin." I was not remotely dissuaded from its pleasures by the kids' suggestion that it smelled like bathroom cleaner.
The wine list likewise sticks with the theme, focusing predominantly on Germany, Austria and Northern Italy for both the whites and the reds. We had a Wimmer-Czerny Roter Veltliner from Wagram, Austria, an interesting wine which offered some of the same minerality and pleasing vegetal notes of a grüner veltliner, in a more heavyweight, full-bodied package.
When the bill comes at Grüner, it is presented tucked into the pages of a German book. Some diners have gotten Goethe or Kant. We received a novel by Max Dauthendey, a turn-of-the-century Impressionist. It was a whimsical and appropriate touch: Grüner may not have rewritten the book on "Alpine Cuisine," but it is penning an interesting new chapter.
527 SW 12th Avenue, Portland, OR
Between The Modern, Seasonal and Edi and the Wolf in New York, and to a lesser extent, the bierhaus-like Publican in Chicago, maybe "New Alpine Cuisine" really could be a thing.