Notes from Hamburg

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Hamburg St. NicolasThe view from the top of the spire of St. Nicholas.Onboard ICE 209 -- Currently traveling via train from Hamburg to Berlin, the second of a three-city tour that will end in Paris. While Berlin and Paris are revisits, Hamburg was a first for me.

Although it is the second largest city in Germany, Hamburg seemed more like a smaller town. I found it pleasant enough, but I don’t see myself planning to revisit anytime soon.

The major dining outing was at a restaurant called Bullerei, set in a warehouselike structure in the meatpacking district of Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood. There are actually two dining options: a cafe out front and a pricier dining room in the interior. I’d say that one was casual and the other fancier, but both were casual, if the dress and demeanor of the guests are indicators. A better distinction would focus on price point.

We decided to dine in the pricier dining room, surmising that the menu would be more ambitious. But while we liked the food OK, nothing was outstanding.

Hamburg BullereiThe dining room at Bullerei.

We started with an appetizer that included tastes of four entries: fried rice balls, housemade mozzarella, vanilla-poached “king” prawns (so small they wouldn’t qualify for duke in any seafood royal court), cured salmon and steak tartare. Among them the tartare was a standout, cool and well-spiced with a prominent mustard note. But it was served on a toast point that quickly moisted away. The salmon was also quite good, but the rice balls tasted of nothing and the cheese had an odd elasticity.

As you might expect from something poached in vanilla, the shrimp (let’s just call them what they were) were sweet. Not a flavor I look for in my seafood but I can appreciate the creative attempt.

For my entree I had the “stuffed veal chest,” as it was described on the menu. The veal was milky and tender and quite good, though the moist and bready stuffing was forgettable.

Rick had the osso buco, which was quite good, and the long strands of plain spaetzle were wonderful.

The dining room is a large hall with very high ceilings, but the seating arrangements made it feel less cafeterialike and more intimate, comfortable. It was modern and stylish and I liked the atmosphere very much.

Our server told us upon greeting that her English was not very good, even though we had not yet said a word to her (how can they tell?). She seemed frightened of us and therefore avoided us as much as possible. She sent a manager over to go over the wines (we had not asked any questions about the list). He assured us that the Riesling was not sweet at all. Can’t imagine what he considers sweet because this one was pretty treacly.

The evening was not unpleasant, but it also wasn’t the wonderful dining opportunity we had hoped for.

Hamburg MollerSchnitzel mit ei, at Frau Moller.The first night we had arrived in Hamburg, we ducked into a bar and restaurant called Frau Moller on Langhe Reihe, a street in the St. Georg section of town near our hotel. It was raining and the tavern was filled with happy people crowded into the the rustic space, sitting around wood-block tables, each with a wine-bottle candle. It felt comfortable and warm, and we vowed to return for a meal. On our last night in town we did.

We started with a board of assorted cheeses and liver sausages accompanied by pepperoncini, olives, a sour cream sauce and mild mustard. It was more than we needed as an appetizer before the entrees, but we couldn’t stop nibbling and enjoying the good bread.

We both had schnitzel, mine topped with a fried egg, and it was just the sort of German meal I had been longing for since we landed. The pork loin was laid atop an ample portion of fried potatoes and next to a superfluous salad.

Service here was terrific, young women who all seemed to like and help each other. Our server was a very nice young woman who spoke perfect English. When I complimented her about it, she said it was because she used to live in Florida. Something to file in the ‘small world” category.

We had also paid a visit -- though not to eat -- to Hofbrauhaus, a large inside biergarten near the Central part of town. Here was the typical atmosphere found in Munich-style drinking halls, complete with groups of rowdy young men who will burst into the chants of their favorite football teams at the drop of an emptied stein. Not for the easily intimidated, but a fun and authentic experience. Well, Bavarian authenticity, anyway.

Best non food or drink related experience: a trip to the top of the St. Nicholas spire, the remains of one of many churches destroyed during the bombings of the Allied Forces. An elevator takes visitors to the top of what is still the tallest church spire (the pilots used it as their guidepost) for a spectacular view of the city and its great port and canals. It’s a touching memorial, with touching photos of the destruction in the surrounding neighborhoods on display. The commemoration makes a point to say that although the bombings were carried out by British and American forces, the destruction was a direct result of the path the German government had taken in the prior decade.

Biggest disappointment: we found that we were visiting at the beginning of the annual port festival, which brings fleets from near and far to the city for a carnival-like atmosphere. What we didn’t know is that the first day of the festival, which was our last day in the city, is a holiday, and almost all businesses, including stores and markets, were closed. 

Luckily, though, most restaurants and pubs were open, so we managed nicely.

By the way, along with Frau Moller, you’ll find numerous other charming cafes along Langhe Reihe. You can easily head there without a plan and leave happily fed and slaked.{jcomments on}