As such an early influence on US cuisine, German food and its effects on our daily diet tend to be overlooked. But as new restaurants turn back to the art of well-crafted comfort cuisine, the US has taken a second look at its German roots. Redlefsen’s in Bristol proves you can become relevant by staying right where you are, because everything old is new again. It’s striking that a restaurant so essentially traditional can offer dishes and an experience hard to find elsewhere.
While the place is capable of getting Octoberfestive, Redlefsen’s prefers the Bavarian over the bachelor party. The interior is warm with dark woods, murals, vaulted ceilings and even stained glass, and they boast a nice covered terrace outside. Lots of Old World ornamentation abounds, including traditional porcelain taps at the bar, without it becoming kitsch or distracting.
Come the crisp days of fall, Redlefsen’s comes into its own, but we managed just fine on this hot summer evening. (From late September to the end of October, Oktoberfest is in full swing at the restaurant, with Alpenblumen Bavarian dancers, accordion music, and a lot of loud singing.) The menu is pan-European and explicitly so, with little flags indicating the country of origin of each dish: Italy, Belgium, France, the UK and, of course, the stars and bars. It’s a little twee, but even if German food victory is uncertain, they conquered the beer list long ago. Among others: Konig Ludwig and Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen, Kostritzer Schwarz, Ayinger Celebrator, all on draught and by the pint, thank you very much, plus more unusual Sours and the Rauchbier in bottles. A taster ($6.50) of all of the aforementioned was perfect, finished with a pint of the Weihenstephaner ($6.75): my old-faithful straw-colored hefe, perfectly poured in a big vase.
We began as German as could be with pfannkuchen ($12) and kaesespaetzle ($7) for appetizers. Savory pfannkuchen takes the versatility of the delicate crepe and hammers it into a more substantial meal. With a white cheese sauce flecked with bacon, the dish could easily end up unrelentingly rich, but instead, with plenty of earthier mushroom varieties, it was hearty and delicious. Similarly, kaesespatzle is Germany’s completely worthwhile retort to mac and cheese or gnocchi. Freshly grated egg dough is dropped into simmering water, forming something between a dumpling and a noodle. The texture of this spaetzle was lovely, surprisingly light, mixed with the perfect amount of cheese and bacon and garnished with chives. Like any great provincial food, there’s nothing sophisticated about it, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it either.
Either the starters were so generously portioned, or our appetites were so underrated, that as we cleared our plates our new waitress asked us about dessert. No, no, we have entrees to come. Happily, before our stomachs had time to tell our brains we were full, wienerschnitzel ($26) and a sirloin ($30) arrived. All the recent carpet bagging of that Southern comfort food suggests there’s an appetite for schnitzel, and wienerschnitzel is thought to be the basis for chicken-fried steak. Once again this was as traditional as can be: a perfectly breaded crisp veal, topped with a rich brown mushroom sauce called Jaeger. The sides were likewise timeless: purple sauerkraut and still more spaetzle, with lemon anchovies and capers to punctuate and cut through the rich sauce. I thought I out-ordered my wife this time. Her sirloin, though grilled exactly to order with a very nice fruity and vinegary house-made steak sauce and a hefty dollop of mashed potatoes, was a little ho-hum in comparison, simply because you could get it anywhere.
Of all the flags hoisted outside Redlefsen’s, by the end of the meal we had to raise a white one rather than take dessert. Next time perhaps, with a little more planning and a little less spaetzle, we might be able to make it. When it’s cooler, it’s just the thing for something a bit different, if you’re committed to putting some meat on your bones and watching some darker pours.
444 Thames Street, Bristol