The Head Cheese Stands Alone
605 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; (651) 292-9421
Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.
For the purposes of this review, let us divide the world in half: On one side are those who don't mind blood sausage and head cheese but who would also rather walk barefoot through the State Fair's swine barn than endure a meal in which a recording of "Edelweiss," played on cowbells, is sounded half a dozen times. On the other side are those who are happy to listen to "Edelweiss" repeatedly, interlaced with an accordion-driven rendition of the "Chicken Dance," but would rather subsist entirely on movie-theater nachos than sample the more icky organs of your common barnyard animals.
Which side are you on? Answer that question and you'll pretty much know where you stand with regard to Glockenspiel, a new German restaurant on West Seventh Street in St. Paul that opened in late February, brought to you by Dave and Mary Wildmo, the folks who gave the world the Tavern on Grand, that northwoods-themed restaurant that specializes in walleye. When I first visited Glockenspiel a month after it opened, I was with a German friend, and as soon as we walked into the burbling place, vibrating with the noise of beer, bar chatter, and polka music, she exclaimed: "Wow--this smells like a German restaurant. I mean, it smells like a real restaurant, in Germany." She had never smelled anything like it in the United States, she said, and we attributed it to the particular scent of beer, sausage, cigarette smoke, and soap that laced the air. We settled in and were duly impressed with a couple of elegant, glass-cylinder steins of Warsteiner ($3.75), and the Brotzeit Teller, an appetizer plate for three or four people ($13.95) that boasted blood sausage, head cheese, cold bratwursts, cold slabs of ham, discs of summer sausage, thick slices of cold-cut-like sausages, a half-dozen sorts of cheese, herring, pickled eggs, four kinds of brown bread--in short, the works. "This is so right," said my friend, impressed. "This is exactly what my parents' friends would have when they got together."
Seated under the soaring tin ceiling, I marveled at the transformation wrought upon the gleefully tacky space that used to house Continental Pantry, seeing where fake fireplaces had been pulled out and where a black-velvet mural embedded with Christmas lights had been taken down. Now the space is all fairy-tale, jewel-toned murals and fresh paint. I also noted that as right as the appetizer plate was, aside from the very good blood sausage, the chunky chopped chicken liver, and the gelatinous head cheese (which even I'm not a fan of), none of the sausages or cheeses was better than you'd get at a run-of-the-mill grocery store. I attributed that to new-restaurant inconsistencies, as I did the cardboard-dry sauerbraten ($14.95) and salty, tough, hot-pink pork chop ($13.95), and nearly inedible, gummy spaetzle. I was heartened, though, by the Dobos torte ($3.95) that finished the meal; the traditional nine-layer dessert was made from delectable chocolate buttercream layered with moist, golden strips of sponge cake as tender as any I've ever had. This restaurant, I thought, is on the right track. Surely they'll refine the weak spots and we'll have a mature German restaurant to compete with the best in town, like the grande cuisine Schumacher's in New Prague and the beloved south Minneapolis comfort-food capitol, the Black Forest Inn.
Little did I know how fondly I would come to remember that first visit. Two months later a run of trips to Glockenspiel found the food, except for the side dishes, to be uniformly worse: The Brotzeit Teller had devolved to a skimpy offering of a few dried squares of cheese, nine itty-bitty dried pucks of bread, a sliver of ham, a few postage-stamp-size slices of herring, a slice of luncheon meat, and two cold pieces of bratwurst. Even the pickled egg had been replaced with a mere hard-boiled one. It had the appearance of a tray that had already been cherry-picked by others. I asked the server about the slim pickings, and he said icky stuff like blood sausage had found no fans at the restaurant.
A house salad ($6.95) was both overpriced and underwhelming. The menu promised it would come with "a colorful array of marinated vegetables," which turned out to be a tablespoonful of pickled-onion slices and a tiny pile of vinegared carrot shreds. The only worthwhile part of the plate was a scoop of fresh sour-cream-dressed potato salad (also available à la carte and, at $2.95, the far better bargain). Gulaschsuppe ($4.95), a vegetable-beef soup, tasted burned.
And then there was the awful pork shank ($14.95), which seems to go to every single table in the place. The size of a whole chicken, it's one of those highly visible, nearly unbelievable dishes that inspires copycatting among tables--the thing looks so outrageous you just have to have it. Unfortunately, while pork skin makes an attractive crust following a long roasting, the meat seemed entirely unseasoned and incredibly greasy--I can't remember the last time I had such an unredeemable dish. The only thing I found to eat on the plate was the piercingly salty sauerkraut and the potato dumpling, which wasn't bad.
(What's with all the swine? Well, five out of the restaurant's eight entrées are pork, and Glockenspiel was out of the rainbow trout, $14.95, the two times I tried to order it. There are no meatless dinner items, although there is one lunch entrée of spaetzle covered with onions and melted Muenster cheese, $6.95).
But what irked me most was the way that unadventurous eaters had tamed the Brotzeit Teller. If a cold and wintry land develops a cuisine with a strong suit in thrifty butchering, and refines a food-life based on eating things that can make it through the winter eating scraps--hey, who are we to deny it?
Turns out that the debate over whether to offer head cheese is at the core of an internal reworking of Glockenspiel. Co-owner Mary Wildmo says that head cheese isn't necessarily off the Brotzeit Teller for good; the plate is just in flux: "We just contacted a place in New Jersey that imports items directly from Germany. We're going to change that tray to try to reflect more of a variety of sausages. The true Germans really liked [the blood sausage and head cheese], but the general public wouldn't touch it, so we're trying to find something that will please everybody." Wildmo also says that in the coming overhaul of the menu there will be more vegetarian options. Then she told me that during my last visit to the restaurant, the place was bereft of the chef, who happens to be on a field trip eating and cooking his way through Germany with co-owner Dave Wildmo.
So what should you make of a restaurant that I found mediocre when the chef was there, and awful when he was gone? My advice is to make it an after-theater or post-opera destination, because that's when it's at its best, for some of the desserts and all of the imported beer--Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Gosser Dark, Warsteiner, Paulaner--are great.
In fact, the upside to my run of awful entrées was that it made it so easy to save room for dessert, and a couple of the desserts at Glockenspiel are truly lovely--though not the awful Black Forest trifle (priced at $3.95, as are all the other desserts), a wine glass holding canned cherries, characterless chocolate cake, and whipped cream. And not the "apple-filled pastry," a sheet of puff pastry covered with tiny squares of apple, baked and covered with caramel sauce, which seemed like one of those dishes promoted by cookbooks as being "fast and easy." But the steamed cranberry bread pudding with hard sauce was unforgettably excellent; a slice of pudding so tart with cranberries and nuanced from the pumpernickel bread used to make it that it was wonderful all by itself. But then it was paired with real hard sauce, that ultrarich blend of butter, sugar, and--usually--whiskey or brandy. Swirling the tart bread pudding through the rich, rich sauce was the highlight of my experiences at Glockenspiel (though carefully spooning out tastes of real buttercream from the Dobos torte ran a close second).
I know those are little things, but you really do have to make your own fun at Glockenspiel. In my experience the servers do little to assist you: On every single visit, water glasses went abandoned and the check was dropped gracelessly with the desserts; the servers seem more giddy about the large checks they're ringing up than about providing an appropriate level of service for a restaurant where meals easily run $25 or $30 a person. The wine list is no reason to visit either: It's mostly mass-market stuff, and the list of ten wines includes only two from Germany. But maybe I'm just crabby because on my last visit to Glockenspiel I had to listen to cowbell "Edelweiss" a half a dozen times. It put me in such a mood. You can imagine which half of the world I find myself in.
BUSY BUSY: There couldn't be more going on at local favorite Auriga: Not only will snippets of co-owner Melinda Goodin's wedding to local organic farmer David VanEeckhout be broadcast June 4 on the Food Network's program The Best Of; not only will late June see VanEeckhout, one of the proprietors of River Bend Farms, setting up a Saturday farmer's market in the Auriga parking lot where he'll sell veggies while his wife sells coffee, bread, and pastry (the Kenwood walk-taker's dream destination); but while all this goes on chef Doug Flicka will be setting up a rhubarb still in the kitchen! Seems he's got a new toy, a vegetable and fruit distiller that somehow distills the essence from nearly anything: "It makes the most incredible, bright-pink rhubarb syrup. We're going to be using it in lemonade with sugar and sparkling water--it's great. And if you put some vodka in there--a very, very nice summer drink. Not that anyone here drinks." And not that any of you drink, but Flicka says you can make your own rhubarb syrup by cleaning and chopping rhubarb stems, placing them in a bowl, freezing the lot, and then thawing it out. And yes, I'll be accepting rhubarb martini and margarita recipes for the remainder of the rhubarb season.
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