Bavarian on the bayou
The way people tuck into traditional Bavarian food this time of year, you’d think Oktoberfest celebrations were the only chance New Orleans had for dishes like bratwurst, spaetzle and red cabbage.
But there is a steady current of German food running through local restaurants year-round, sometimes turning up in unexpected quarters and contemporary renditions.
For instance, fluffy, baked German pancakes share the breakfast menu with chili con carne omelets and quesadillas at Canal Street Bistro.
Then at dinner, when this eclectic Mid-City café switches to mostly upscale Mexican dishes, you’ll find wienerschnitzel beside the ceviche.
It might seem incongruous, but the menu mix makes perfect sense to Canal Street Bistro chef Guillermo Peters, whose father hailed from Hamburg and whose mother was a native of Mexico City, where he grew up.
“I tell people I’m a Volkswagen that was designed in Germany and assembled in Mexico,” Peters said. “I grew up with the two backgrounds together.”
Similarly, since John Besh opened Lüke in 2007, this CBD brasserie has been mixing local dishes (like shrimp and grits) with traditional Franco-German dishes from the Alsace region (like choucroute, a one-pot feast of sauerkraut, ham and sausage).
More recently, Lüke’s chef de cuisine Matt Regan has been branching out by essentially applying the guiding principles of Creole cuisine to dishes with Germanic roots.
“I feel we’re able to take an idea from the German tradition and then do what we always do here, reworking it for what’s fresh and what we have available to us with the seasons in Louisiana,” Regan said. “I think that makes it something authentic but also our own.”
Maultaschen, for instance, may customarily be prepared as meat-stuffed ravioli in broth, but at Lüke it becomes a sausage-like loaf of veal and spinach rolled into spirals around fried noodles and set in a deep tureen of smoky, Creole-style tomato sauce singing with garlic.
It’s available as a prix fixe special on Tuesdays, along with a cup of seafood gumbo.
“We have some latitude to change things up,” Regan said. “People aren’t as familiar with German food as some other cuisines, so it will feel new to most people either way.”
German culture, in general, was once much more familiar in New Orleans, which was a major destination for German immigrants in the 19th century. But traditional German cooking mostly merged into the Creole culinary equation rather than persevere as its own ethnic specialty.
Kolb’s was the city’s most prominent German restaurant before it closed in 1995, after nearly a century in business, but even there diners could order schnitzel topped with shrimp.
Today, Jäger Haus German Restaurant & Bar carries the torch, serving an almost exclusively German menu.
But elsewhere, German cooking makes some surprising guest appearances.
Down in Lafitte, David “Voleo” Volion serves gumbo, muffulettas and more contemporary Creole seafood dishes at his Voleo’s Restaurant while maintaining a sideline in schnitzel.
It’s a tribute to his mother, Blanka Bäumler Volion, who grew up in Nuremberg and met David’s father, Norris, while the Louisiana native was stationed there in the Army.
“We cook it up partly because it’s good and also so you don’t forget how to do it all,” said Volion. “I wish I could open a purely German restaurant, but there isn’t that much demand.
“Some people would rather die than try it, but really you look at wienerschnitzel and it’s basically a breaded pork chop with a German name.”
Back in New Orleans, the veteran restaurateur Joe Segreto has been conducting something of a social experiment on the question of German cooking with his old friend Gunter Preuss, an expat German who operated Broussard’s Restaurant for nearly 30 years.
On Sundays and Mondays at Segreto’s Italian restaurant Eleven79, the two men serve dueling menus of four-course Italian and German dinners, with customers invited to vote with their forks.
The idea sprang from their mutual admiration for each other’s culinary heritage, Segreto explained, though he admitted he’s been surprised so far by the response.
“I thought 70 percent of the people coming here would pick Italian. This is an Italian restaurant, after all,” Segreto said. “But it’s been even, fifty-fifty. I think when people have a chance to try it and see what it can really be, they go for it.”