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Food & Drink

EuroFlash: Speisen’s Menu Visits Several Continental Countries

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A single dumpling floats atop an honest bouillon soup.

Just inside the entry at Speisen sits a gleaming, grand piano; on a Monday evening, its keys were moving to a ghostly hand, as tinkly tunes such as “Strangers in the Night” emanated from the lacquered confines.

Carlos and Dianko Barajas, whose popular Guajillo’s pays homage to their Mexican father’s side of the family, have recently opened Spiesen just up the street in order to give equal due to their Austrian mother’s heritage. I didn’t ask the brothers if they had contemplated a menu that was exclusively German/Austrian; even in San Antonio, a city that historically owes much to Teutonic titans of business, that would likely have been risky. But, rather than casting a slightly wider Austro-Hungarian net that might also have included northern Italy, they decided to annex all of Europe: Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland … There are risks in this approach as well.

If so inclined, however, you can avoid pesky border crossings and language barriers and concentrate on what could be the core fare from Austria, Germany and Hungary. On different occasions, I sampled two Austrian soups, the cream of potato soup Salzburger style, and a beef bouillon with semolina dumpling. The potato soup was served steaming hot, with generous bacon—and even more generous salt—lifting the hearty potato flavor. Less luxurious (and, fortunately, less salty), the honest bouillon had a simple elegance of its own, one that was almost undermined by the single, very large dumpling. It turned out to be much more delicate than its size suggested, but still…

A sub-alpine mountain of shredded-looking spätzle, powdered with wisps of parsley and powerfully scented with caraway, accompanied an order of Hungarian goulash. Americans have seriously subverted goulash over the generations, in the process developing an over-upholstered dish with a life all its own. Speisen takes the opposite tack, turning out a product with semi-tender cubes of beef in a thin sauce speaking seriously of paprika that is even more purist than renditions I’ve had in Hungary. Here I’m happy to praise the intent but not the one-note result; even a wisp of sour cream might have added texture and depth. The noodles, though, rock.

Before I forget, this observation: The wine list at Speisen offers a single bottle from the homeland, an Austrian grüner veltliner. Even without getting esoteric with such grapes as blaufrankish, there are dozens of rieslings and gewürztraminers that would have been appropriate here; it’s an opportunity missed.

Beer pairings, however, can be seized upon, and my Pilsner Urquel, handsomely served in a specific, stemmed glass, seemed destined for spätzle.

Though they are prominent on the menu, I passed on the schnitzels in favor of another Austrian plate, the pork loin schweinebraten-style with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. The lean and tender slices were served with brown pan gravy accented with garlic—again a little salty. Nutmeg perfumed the potatoes, caraway and possibly juniper accented the sauerkraut, yielding a trio that was, if not Mozartian, at least Salieri-like.

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