How foreign must foreign food be to count as foreign? In Berkeley, the answer is: surprisingly, not very. In a town whose toddlers scarf samosas, few could name nusskuchen. And who in these parts has even heard of Apfelschorle, that effervescent golden marriage of apple juice and seltzer?
These crave-worthy curiosities, served under Gaumenkitzel's huge, honey-colored, rough-paneled, seemingly sky-high ceiling, spring from the heart of a heimisch homeland that lacks jungle and desert, Great Wall and gazelles: Germany. Give or take a Greco-Latin adjective or two, Germany's language largely begat ours. The same is true of its cuisine. Although we blithely ignore this lineage with every hamburger and frankfurter we fry, Gaumenkitzel glorifies it — gently.
Not that Gaumenkitzel is a dogs-and-burgers sort of place in either menu (nearly 100 percent organic pastries and deceptively simple fare) or milieu (farmhouse-hip, with heavy cloth napkins in sky-blue, berry-red, rose-pink, and tangerine, and walls, I-beams, and wooden chairs to match). Rather, it's the sort of place for authentic muesli, lightly roasted fair-trade coffee, fish soup, beef roulade, rhubarb compote, and poppyseed cheesecake made with sour-creamy, seldom-seen-in-the-United-States-but-ubiquitous-in-Europe quark.
Hamburg-bred husband-and-wife owners Kai Flache (he's the designer) and Anja Voth (she's the chef) want to make the wholesome, whole-food old world new again. Collecting recipes from early-20th-century German cookbooks, they use nearly 100 percent organic, local, seasonal, sustainably sourced, pesticide- and cruelty-free components, including grass-fed beef. Most excitingly of all, they make many of their key ingredients in-house.
They curdle their own yogurt, press the apples whose juice informs their Apfelschorle, brew their own fruit syrups and caramel cream, and flake their own oats from full kernels. Voth not only bakes her own bread and rolls, but actually mills her own whole-wheat flour — a task for which she wakes at 4 a.m., as did German farmwives of old. "During the Twenties and Thirties in Germany, between the wars, people had only pure ingredients," Flache said.
Those soft-crusted and unpretentiously rustic brot und brötchen are served alongside cheeses, cold cuts, and sweet spreads fashioned in Gaumenkitzel's kitchen from fresh local Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and rosemary. Across a four-menu day that is divided neatly and ever so Teutonically into breakfast, lunch, teatime, and supper, the breads and rolls also accompany seasonal salads (currently starring piquant wild arugula and mellow roasted beets), soups, and a small selection of entrées — also seasonal and set to change every few weeks.
Deliberately lower in fat and sugar than their standard-bakery counterparts, Voth's versions of desserts such as Bourbon-sauced rhubarb-strawberry compote, nut-crusted Linzer torte, buttery striped tea cookies, and velvety-tart blood-orange-buttermilk crème are made with brown sugar, honey, and fresh seasonal fruit. Crumbly-topped schnecken — "snails" — beckon at any time of day.
Fresh produce arrives daily from Monterey Market, fresh fish from Monterey Fish Market. Putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to freshness, Gaumenkitzel has neither a freezer, a fryer, a griddle, nor a grill. Even Voth's preferred cooking style is time-consumingly retro, employing low rather than high heat — "because with high heat, you get hydrogenation," Flache explained.
Because Gaumenkitzel opens at 6 a.m., in a predawn darkness sometimes glazed by candlelight, you can literally watch day break here — through floor-to-ceiling windows affording wide gray views of seagulls, gritty sidewalks, a sink store, and San Pablo Avenue — over a breakfast of tangy fruit-topped yogurt, dreamy-creamy barley-oat-coconut porridge, or hearty barley-rice-oat-almond granola.
All of these offerings are unmistakably hand-hewn, as is the Bircher müsli, a pale wet mountain of freshly flaked oats, grated raw apple, slivered toasted almonds, and caramel cream. Only fleetingly sweet and soaked to that subtle borderline between crunchiness and mush, this is the original muesli, invented circa 1900 by the avant-garde Swiss doctor and raw-food advocate Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner.
Serving soaked fruit-grain melanges at his Zurich sanatorium, Bircher-Benner was one of many 19th-century radicals who forged in Germany and its neighboring nations the roots of what we now call the health-food movement. Others include Bavarian whole-wheat promoter Sebastian Kneipp and pioneering Prussian vegetarian Eduard Baltzer. By taking "plain" and "simple" to mouthwateringly new heights, Gaumenkitzel keeps the faith.
It does this in such fare as mellow oven-roasted beets, turnips, and sweet potatoes, served with a spunky jade-green quark-parsley dip; eggs sunny-side-up atop silky creamed spinach and sea-salt-specked, perfectly pan-fried potato cubes cut identically with German precision; and a meat plate that features frikadelle, those peppery pan-fried patties that Germany adopted from Denmark. (Gaumenkitzel sports a north German rather than south German flair, after all.)
A few kinks still need working out. During one visit, our otherwise extremely helpful server forgot to bring us bread, then butter. Prices are arguably high and portions arguably small; neither quark nor handcrafted purity come cheap.
During another visit, we watched a man park out front. In his passenger seat was a schnauzer. Entering Gaumenkitzel, the man ordered a bag of pastries to go. Seated again in his car, he talked animatedly and happily to his dog. How Teutonic is that?
This is not tourist-teasing, oom-pah-pah, Oktoberfest Germany (although a beer and wine permit is pending). This is an everyday-immaculate, classical-music-flooded, flowery-field Germany where fruit and fish need few if any frills.
"Germans will say this place is not German enough," Flache said. "Among Germans, as soon as you do something different from the way someone's mom did it, they complain. We're notoriously hard to please — and very hard on ourselves."