Tuesday, May 10, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: RICHARD'S IN BRUNSWICK MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.

The reader will not know the sense of anticipation with which this reviewer approaches a German restaurant. There are deep associations of gemutlichkeit and the piquant smells of German cooking infused in the very brain cells of this food-loving son of the Midwest.

And Richard's is attractive to approach, located in one of handsome buildings of Brunswick's Maine Street with carriage-trade lettering for the name. It was an especially pretty evening in early spring. The street looked beautiful.

Richard's is a friendly, informal restaurant. When we were seated, there was a congenial, large party of adults holding a birthday celebration a few tables away. This was just the kind of thing you might see in a small European town.

A restaurant of this nature just seems to call for beer, and Richard's is blessed with a selection of those magnificent German beers on draft. Our waitress brought us a couple of samples when we hesitated in our selection. Very nice touch. We had a Spaten Optimator and a Pilsner Urquell (Czech, but German in character).

The menu offers generous choice. Prices are reasonable, including dinners in the eight-dollar range. Top-of-the-line steak dinners go for under twenty dollars. Yes, Richard's has offerings other than German - a nice selection of steaks, some seafood and chicken - even a daily vegetarian dish - but going to a specialty restaurant for me means having the specialty.

We took our time, enjoying the delicious beer, and discussing the possibilities. For although Richard's is a fairly unpretentious, familyish restaurant, our waitress did not rush us with the phrases young waiters working in chains learn to politely push you through consuming, paying, and leaving.

Our leisurely selection was further supported by a basket of bread. A delicious pretzel (the fat, soft ones, near relatives to bagels) and some very tasty warm rolls. A pot of Richard's own mustard is provided, and what a find it is. A hot, sweet mustard loaded with cracked pepper, perfect for pretzels or sausages. The stuff is good enough to eat by the spoon.

After we had ordered, we looked around a bit. The décor is not nearly as impressive as the mustard. Touches of a pub with some heavy, dark, wood-clad pillars, a bit of an eighties fern-bar motif with a few hanging plants against a brick wall, and some rather frowsy bits of old, small-town restaurant or hotel, including a salad bar that resembles a basement workbench with cotton print draping the bottom. The ceiling is high, but it’s a black-painted suspended one. Basement rec room, circa 1969. Chairs are of the style often found in fern bars, polished tubular metal with cloth-covered back and seat cushions.

But food must always have first place in a restaurant. And when we tasted our soups, a pumpkin bisque and a seafood bisque, food did again command our attention. These were excellent, probably about as nice as you'd find across the state. The pumpkin was slightly peppery and rich with the taste and aroma of cooked pumpkin. Thick enough with its softening elements of cream and white sauce almost to scoop. And no pasty under-taste, common enough where a white-sauce base isn't simmered long enough. The fish bisque was loaded with chunks of seafood, its thick creamy base being appropriately salty.

There was a delay in our appetizer of strudel filled with ham, asparagus, and cheese. Our waitress explained that the strudel had been burnt, and, "You know German chiefs! That was him throwing a pan in the kitchen!" I liked her style, and, needless to say, we were glad the burnt strudel was not served. What was served was delicious with cheesy juices squeezing under the fork from a nice crust with beautiful bits of ham and fresh asparagus. This is the kind of appetizer I could make a meal of.

By now I almost didn't care about the décor. The expectation of such quality whetted the appetite. We ordered two glasses of Schlink Haus Kabinet, one of those delightful German wine concoctions with apple juice as part of the recipe. Richard's does not have an extensive wine selection, but it is nicely done with good wine-lover phrases to help with your selection.

Perhaps, I've just enjoyed too many great sauerbratens. This was the Rheinischer type which traditionally has raisins in the sauce. Sauerbraten is a pot roast that has been marinated for some days before cooking. It is very tender, and its complex flavor reflects red wine, red wine vinegar, leek, celery, onion, cloves, peppercorns, juniper berries, and butter or lard (and crushed ginger snaps in some versions). This is not food for light eaters or tepid tastes. But Richard's sauerbraten disappoints. The beef was tender, but the sauce, which at its best is one of the world's exquisite food creations, was disappointingly sweet and lacking in piquant highlights. Instead, a somewhat cloying and unsatisfying sweet and sour flavor dominated.

You shouldn't have Rheinischer sauerbraten without big potato dumplings, but here again Richard's disappoints. They have the dumplings, but they are what I would call decent utility-grade. German dumpling-making is almost a craft in its own right, and there are dozens of varieties, so the humble-sounding dumpling offers considerable scope for creativity.

The one outstanding item on the plate was the Rotkohl, a close relative of Rotkraut, a pickled red cabbage with many recipe variations. This was perfect, comparable to Richard's mustard.

Our other plate was more successful. Bratwurst and hot German potato salad. The Bratwurst is home-made (Richard used to sell it in a stand at the Portland Market), authentic, and tasty. The potato salad was very good with balance in its characteristic vinegar and bacon flavoring. A very nice touch here was a serving of fresh fiddleheads. This delicate vegetable (actually a kind of baby fern) was cooked simply and perfectly.

We finished the meal with a shared portion of Richard's own Sacher Torte. Our ever-informative waitress advised she had just cut into a fresh one. This is classic stuff, about as rich as human ingenuity can make it with chocolate cake, butter cream marzipan, raspberry glaze and chocolate glaze. You feel the weight gain with each silken bite.

Our bill came to forty-six dollars. Richard's has a very nice custom of leaving chocolate-glazed strawberries with the check. What an improvement over mints!


[3 Stars]

No comments: