Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, Dem Gasthof
Gasthof Zur Gemütlichkeit
2300 University Ave. N.E., Mpls.; 781-3860
There's a common catalog of anticipatory sounds that set the adrenaline pumping, like the rumble of a crowd as you set up the stairs toward a big stadium concert, the trumpet of elephants as you approach the circus, and the distant crash of waves as you come upon the ocean. I'm ready to add another one to the list--it's the distinct sound you hear once, coming in off the street on a Friday or Saturday night, you close one set of the Gasthof Zur Gemütlichkeit's big double doors and approach the other set. The rumble of the ein prosit toast drums through the door, notes of accordion music spark about, and what can only be described by the cliché of "screams of laughter" scrapes along the woodwork. Once you open that second set of doors and throw yourself into the fray, it's a sound that will forever thrill you--for what a fray it is.
Waiters and waitresses in lederhosen or St. Pauli Girl-style outfits rush around, taking breaks between carrying enormous platters of beer and schnitzel to lead the crowd in drinking songs. College kids heft beer mugs the size of their thighs. Thirty-foot tables groan beneath the pounding of three generations of a single family as they shriek "In Heaven There is No Beer" and drum against the table with their silverware--all but drowning out the strolling accordion player with his rhinestone-crusted instrument. People dig into brats one meter (one meter!) long. Waitresses might break into a coordinated jig. Strangers at neighboring tables challenge one another to drinking, or eating, or singing contests. The ein prosit--a call-and-response toast that sounds like "zigi zaki zigi zaki: oi, oi, oi!"--unites the entire dining room in a cathartic howl. Waiters and waitresses dispense shots of snuff from little catapult-like machines. There's hooting. There's hollering. There's chaos of the most elementary sort--the happy kind of mayhem you may not have participated in since your schoolyard days.
Of course in schoolyards you weren't lucky enough to have an array of imported German and Austrian beers with which to perk up the proceedings, and at the Gasthof they have many. Like a bunch of Dortmunder Union, Gösser, and Paulaner varieties, and the wonderful Franziskaner Weiss, Schlösser Alt, and Warsteiner. The beer comes in your choice of comparatively tiny ordinary glasses ($2.70), biggish half-liter mugs ($4), heavy, hefty 1-liter mugs, and shapely glass boots--the smaller 1-liter variety ($9) or in unbelievably large, actual-leg-sized 2-liter boots ($14). The tradition of the boot is that, once filled, it must not be set down until empty--even if you have to enlist strangers to help out. It's like a barfly's barn-raising.
While a handful of wines, mostly imported Rieslings, are available and attractively priced (bottles run from $12.95 to $26), they don't make the splash the waitstaff-toted shot boards do. These boards are thin meter-long planks fitted with cavities to hold a dozen shot glasses of a German liqueur, like the sweet, cinnamon-laced Apfelkorn, the familiar licorice-like Jägermeister, or a bunch of others. These shots ($3-$4.50 each; $30-$36 a dozen) arrive so dramatically, extended, trembling, so far in front of your waitperson in such a foreign, tough, appealing way, that they're virtually irresistible--which is why you'll see people you never would imagine, like 80-year-old couples on dates, doing shots.
The food is hearty pan-German fare, terrifically filling, and served in enormous portions. The Matjes Herring appetizer, herring filets served in a sour-cream, apple, and onion dressing, is swell, and easily serves four ($4.95); the Kalte Gemischte Platte ($8.95) is the same herring accompanied by ham, Camembert, salami, and loads of crackers. It's supposed to serve two but easily satisfies four. The liver-dumpling soup ($2.95) is good, though not for the squeamish; it's big tar-colored lumps of hot chopped liver in a plain broth. The goulash soup ($2.65) was uninteresting, a bland bright-orange blend that didn't taste like much.
Food doesn't seem to be much the point here, and on different nights the quality of the meals coming from the kitchen varied widely. On a busy Saturday night I thought the Wienerschnitzel ($15.50) was tough and the accompanying homemade spätzle gummy and exhausted, but on a pacific Sunday night the same dish of a fried veal filet was crisp and light and the spätzle was springy and delicious. But I still liked the raucous Saturday with the lackluster meal better.
House platter combinations are supposed to serve two people, but they are so outrageously outsized that they easily serve three, and I think with an appetizer four. The Schlemmerplatte ($39.95) is wienerschnitzel; a serving of sauerbraten which I thought was bland and goopy; a tasty couple of servings of käseschnitzel, a fried breaded pork filet that's light and crisp and served with a functional parmesan cream sauce; and a grilled chicken breast topped with a creamy caper sauce. Add in spätzle, fried potatoes, braised red cabbage, an icky serving of peas and carrots, a couple of iceberg-lettuce salads topped with a sweet, tomato-laced French dressing, and two shots of Apfelkorn and you can imagine the enormity of the situation.
The Bavarian house platter ($33.95) includes Rouladen, an improbably tasty dish of braised beef filets rolled around a bacon-and-pickle center; two tender smoked pork chops that were a hammy-pink color; a pork schnitzel with the cream sauce; two bratwurst; and all of the sides outlined above. Vegetarian options don't exist, but the broiled pike ($12.95) was fine and workmanlike and came with that same cream sauce; I imagine it's popular (sauceless) with the heart-healthy set. My favorite dish for taste was the Geschnetzeltes mit Schwäbischen Spätzle ($14.95), pork strips in a rich mushroom gravy; but my all-out favorite dish is the Meterbratwurst ($13.95), which is just what the name would imply. You get a souvenir certificate upon finishing this lengthy dish, but best of all it sets neighboring tables abuzz, which tends to draw accordion players.
If you come to the Gasthof enough you'll learn the specialties and strengths of various accordion maestros. Some know Johnny Cash, some specialize in Brahms, some are bawdy crowd-raisers, some are more romantic--Bill Koncar even knows Elvis tunes. He plays the standards that crowds love, like "Edelweiss," but can also do a pretty kicking version of "Wipe Out." Koncar, who's also a Brooklyn Center cop, plays downstairs in the big polka-friendly bar with his band the Koncar Brothers, which includes his 16-year-old son on drums, and strolls upstairs followed by his 15-year-old accordion-playing son Andy. It is, figures Koncar the elder, an educational experience for the kids: "When our band plays downstairs, people stand up on the table and dance and pull down their pants and all that," Koncar says. "My 15-year-old goes around and he snuffs people with the non-tobacco snuff. He comes up to me after the show and tells me about all the goofy stuff he's seen."
The Gasthof also teaches an invaluable lesson in stress management. After a bad day at work, Koncar says, he'll start playing and "it might take 15 minutes, but eventually you just get happy." There are some things--like bumper cars, trick-or-treating, and lusty, spirited sing-alongs--you can't remain unhappy while doing.
Mario Pierzchalski, the Polish-born owner of the Gasthof, calls his place "the stress-relief restaurant. People are a mix here. It's not all a young crowd, we've got 90-year-olds singing, doing polkas. People are going back to their grandparents' roots because singing, doing a polka is much more relaxing, much more fun than sitting around quietly. People come in and say, 'I want a quiet table,' and I say, 'Then you'll have to sit in my office.' There may not be much quiet here, but there's happiness."
HUNGRY FOR COLOR?: According to the latest Bon Appétit, you need not stop your flower-devouring with nasturtiums--dianthus (pinks), marigolds, carnations, hollyhocks, bergamot, calendulas, violets, and dandelions are edible too. Chow at your own risk though; I did notice that they said edible, not tasty.
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