Doing right by traditional German cooking -- with plenty of schnitzel and spätzle
Schmidt's, which opened last summer in the heart of the Mission District's latest trendy-food zone, would appear to be an offspring of Hayes Valley stalwart Suppenküche, but its parentage is actually traceable to Walzwerk. Suppenküche has a blond-wood look that seems to be part ski chalet and part beer hall, while Walzwerk conjures the spirit of contemporary Prenzlauerberg, the Berlin (once East Berlin) neighborhood where urban chic has bloomed amid war-ruined buildings. Walzwerk didn't face quite so steep a climb, of course, but it did manage to be a success in a troubled space on a fairly sketchy run of South Van Ness Avenue.
With expansive wood floors worthy of a gymnasium and plenty of wood furniture (too dark to be blond), Schmidt's resembles Suppenküche more than Walzwerk, but it's roomier and more open than either. Its ceiling floats high above cream-colored walls that could not be barer. As if to compensate for this desolation, the design seems to invite noise. Once the place starts to fill up — and fill up it does, mostly with younger people who might find the moderate prices attractive — conversation becomes difficult.
Other notable peculiarities: Schmidt's doesn't accept reservations, takes only cash (there is a cash machine stashed in a far corner, near the toilet), and, under its deli cap, sells German groceries from a wall of shelves just inside the door. In this sense the place reminds me a bit of Speckmann's in Noe Valley, which gave way some years ago to Incanto.
Schmidt's mixed bag of eccentricities wouldn't mean much either way if the food wasn't good, but it is good. The heart of the menu is the grilled sausage platter ($10), which gives you a choice from among a dozen or so interesting varieties of sausage (including several types of bratwurst), along with a heroic pile of potato salad and a heap of the house-made sauerkraut. We found the kraut to be a bit salty, despite a festive leavening of fried capers.
The other main dishes tend toward meatiness, although the emphasis is on lighter meats (if there is such a thing), such as pork and veal. A Holstein-style schnitzel ($12) features a breaded veal cutlet pan-fried to a bronze crispness; it's seated on a bed of braised cauliflower florets and leeks and topped with an anchovy and a fried egg. The organizing principle of this dish escaped me, but there was no denying its complex substance.
A German meal could hardly be complete without spätzle, the little noodle pellets that are the German answer to orzo or pearl couscous. If you're a vegetarian, you can get the spätzle as a full main course, but even as a side ($4), it's pretty substantial. It's even more substantial with cheese ($1 extra), which results in something like macaroni and cheese.
The most interesting cooking can be found among the appetizers and salads. Here you'll find such treats as pea cakes ($7.50 for a trio) topped with house-cured gravlax and crème fraïche. The cakes themselves strongly resemble latkes, except that they're bright green and retain their distinctive pea flavor. Radishes, a winter staple, become the basis of a salad ($7.50) energized with sections of blood orange and given a thick, creamy dressing based on quark (k'vahrk), a fresh, white cheese that resembles a cross between mascarpone and ricotta. Most salads are ensembles, but this one turned out to be completely dependent on the blood oranges. A forkful without some orange was pretty undistinguished, but with the citrus, it was like flipping on a light in a dark room.
Desserts, in the tradition of Mitteleuropa, are impressive. Linzertorte ($6) turned out to be basically a slice of strawberry pie, intense with berry flavor in a swaddling of flaky, buttery pastry. And speaking of pastry: the apple strudel ($6) was a rectangular fortress of crispy phyllo sheltering apple slices under a sky filled with thunderheads of whipped cream. The strudel had a wonderfully light, airy look, but when you are working your way through an arrangement of butter and cream the size of a brick, you are scarfing up some calories, even if it doesn't quite feel that way.
Service is friendly and knowledgeable if occasionally balky. My impression was that the floor staff is stretched a bit thin — maybe, like the value pricing, a sign of the times.
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: nightly, 5:30–11 p.m.
2400 Folsom, SF
Beer and wine