Something about its low, timbered ceilings and massive stone fireplace makes Alameda's Speisekammer feel like a Bavarian hunting lodge done by IKEA. Banquettes line the periphery; sturdy blond-wood tables are surrounded by severe chairs with padded seats and high, narrow backs. Only two paintings -- both of bucolic Teutonic scenes -- decorate the whitewashed walls, which otherwise are left institutionally bare. But most shockingly, from doorway to kitchen, the cement floor has been painted a shiny, throbbing, lacquer red.
When the track lights are turned up, that floor glares at diners balefully, and the restaurant resembles a converted church basement. But when the tabletop tealights take over, the room becomes oddly romantic.
Speisekammer's owners, Peter Kahl and Cindy Johnson-Kahl, have some experience designing restaurants that straddle the line between old-fashioned and hip. Kahl owns half of the long-running San Francisco restaurant Suppenküche, a suitable setting for both Swabian farmhands and drag queens in fetish wear. Johnson-Kahl owns the nearby underground speakeasy-turned-jazz-rock venue Cafe du Nord. The two bought a house in Alameda several years ago, and decided to bring a little hipster style to the cozy, family-friendly island, purchasing Le Bouc when its owners decided to retire.
It's not that you won't find families at Speisekammer; it's just that the parents will have huge mugs of Doppelbock in front of them. The restaurant boasts a large bar with eleven beers on tap and another ten in bottles -- from tart, girly Berliner Weisse flavored with a shot of raspberry syrup to toasty Kostritzer Schwartzbier. Wine lovers will find a short but interesting list of German and American whites and reds, and it's also possible to order such Frankfurt favorites as Cosmopolitans and Mojitos.
In the dining room, Kahl's never been afraid to seat small parties next to each other at the family-style tables. On my first visit, a friend and I wandered in and encountered a busy weeknight crowd. Rather than wait a half hour, we decided to take the hostess' offer to share a spot with a couple of businessmen. After saying hellos, we all spent the rest of the evening comfortably ignoring one another. On my second visit, my three companions and I were allowed to keep a table to ourselves.
On first glance, Speisekammer's menu looks resolute in its Germanness: lots of meat paired with lots of potatoes. Cabbage, cucumbers, and beets abound. But once the food arrives, it's clear that the traditional-sounding dishes have been lightened considerably. Don't get me wrong -- Dean Ornish would never give the fare the thumbs-up -- but it's possible to finish one's plate without falling into a coma. Another sign of Kahl's long residency in Northern California is that vegetarians can choose one of three meat-free entrées.
At the top of the menu is a quartet of salads, which can be combined into a large combination plate. Tasting clockwise around the latter, I sampled pale green cucumber half-moons, sliced thinly and tossed in a tart, oilless vinaigrette flecked with dill. Then I progressed to red beet batons, boiled until tender but not mushy and lightly dressed with a little vinegar so that their sweetness came through. Next came a slaw of pickled fresh green cabbage, onions, and slivers of bacon, followed by a caper-studded potato salad, creamy with sour cream rather than mayonnaise.
More substantial appetizers include a plate of thick potato cakes, finely shredded and molded into squares that were pan-fried in a lot of oil -- much of which had soaked into the cakes -- until the edges became fully crisp and the insides melted together. Despite the salt and grease, I kept dipping forkfuls in a cinnamon-heavy applesauce.
Though there's a chicken and a fish entrée on the menu, Kahl's specialty is red meat: lamb, pork, beef, veal, even venison, roasted and pan-fried and stewed. Many of Speisekammer's entrées have migrated across the bay from Suppenküche, and they run the gamut from homey to elegant and from cheap to moderately priced. After a month in business, the kitchen is still getting up to speed, but there's much to like.
A roasted potato hash, crisped around the edges and speckled with slivers of bacon and onions, accompanied the Wiener schnitzel. The pounded veal cutlet crusted in breadcrumbs (yes, you can get it with guilt-free pork) was pan-fried until crisp on the outside but still cuttable with a butter knife. Slices of sauerbraten, beef tri tip marinated in red wine for several days and then braised and braised and braised, pulled apart with a fork. The acid from the red wine seeped into the beef, leaving it slightly pickled, which a dollop of cranberry relish counteracted. Eggy, impossibly light spaetzle, a freeform pasta made by grating dough into boiling water, soaked up some of the remaining juices. The red cabbage alongside it, cooked with onions and cider until soft and sweet, was some of the best I've ever tasted. The meatloaf is already acquiring a reputation, and it's well-merited: An inch-thick bacon-wrapped slab comes slathered in a meaty onion gravy on a heap of mashed potatoes. At the heart of the meatloaf is a hard-boiled egg.
Two of the nightly specials tanked: Instead of studding the meatballs called Königsberger klopse with bullets of flavor -- sharp pickled capers and salty anchovies -- Kahl was content to leave ground veal almost plain, form it into small meatballs, and stew them until their internal moisture had departed. They were finally napped with a caper-anchovy cream sauce, which dissipated the lively charge of those two pungent ingredients. A half rabbit had also been braised in a standard brown sauce until dull and dry.
But a third braised special reminded me of how elemental good German food tastes. Chunks of boneless pork shank spilled off a mound of long-cooked sauerkraut. Its tart juices mingled with the beer-based gravy covering the plate, counteracting the unalloyed stalwartness of the pork. Next to the meat sat a perfectly round, snowy potato dumpling, poached until the center was as soft and starchy as the edges.
Both of Speisekammer's desserts were tasty but lacked finesse. The apple strudel needed to be reheated in the oven until the pastry crisped up. Refreshingly, though, the apples and golden raisins inside had been left a little tart. The Black Forest cake layered soft, airy chocolate cake doused in kirschwasser with whipped cream, but the ensemble would have benefited from more than a couple of cherries scattered inside.
The service is still struggling. On my first visit, our German waitress couldn't get it together, threatening our faith in Teutonic efficiency. She was quick to take our order, and even quicker to deliver our entrées -- not five minutes after she left for the kitchen. That's because she forgot to place the appetizer order. We ate it along with the entrées once we finally convinced her to fetch it.
The bar remains open for several hours after the kitchen closes, making Speisekammer a much-appreciated addition to Alameda's late-night scene. The lederhosen and leather-skirt sets are welcome to raise a midnight stein together to the hippest new hofbrau east of the bay.
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