The familial quintet that owns the St. Louis Gast Haus -- matriarch Maritza Stock, her husband Bill, daughter Carmen, grandson Ed and sister Ann Sueme -- deserves some kind of medal for setting up shop three months ago on a desolate, unpromising corner of Chouteau Avenue, quite possibly St. Louis' most charmless, blighted boulevard from beginning to end. Before this German restaurant came along, dining on Chouteau meant a fast-food joint, a gas station or the avenue's sole glimmer of glamour, King Louie's. The Gast Haus, which inhabits one of the distinctively designed corner storefronts along the south side of Chouteau east of Jefferson Avenue, revels in an inviting, gingerbread exterior that incorporates Lafayette Square's fanciful architecture. When the glow from within spills through the restaurant's long row of tall windows after dark, even Chouteau feels a little enchanting.
Along with their destination-only location, the Gast Haus' owners have set up another obstacle for themselves. It's not often somebody says, "Who's up for German?" or "I feel like German tonight." If that were the case, corporate America would have already pounced with a Schnitzel King (or perhaps a Sprechen Sie Yum!), and longtime St. Louis stalwarts Bevo Mill and Schneithorst's would still be packing 'em in. Let's face it: German cuisine ain't pretty. It's brown, for one thing, and relentlessly so. Looking homemade and rough around the edges might work in some contexts (like bistro cooking, which doesn't emphasize art-directed presentation) but German fare also tends to look as heavy on the plate as it will later feel in the belly. These are mighty tough impediments when you're asking customers to cough up twenty bucks for an entrée. Plus, many German dishes rely on pricey cuts (particularly veal) and painstaking preparations (think spaetzle and goulash).
The Gast Haus' menu was formed by committee, from myriad family recipes. None of the owners has any previous experience in the restaurant business (though one ancestor cooked professionally in Nuremberg). There's also no head chef; instead, a three-cook rotation takes turns on different nights. Perhaps it's that lack of authority in the kitchen that explains why so many dishes came to our table lacking.
To kick off a meal in rousing fashion here is a challenge. On two occasions, cream-based soups arrived merely lukewarm and disappointingly meek-flavored. A beer cheese soup boasted a properly pungent, Limburger-like aroma but submitted to a wan, oomph-less follow-through. Bits of diced white onion sprinkled atop were (for white onion) wimpy. Cream of spinach soup was inoffensive but bland as canned. A broth-based beef-vegetable soup (served nice and hot) carried plenty of browned ground beef but required loads of salt and pepper to liven it up.
Only two appetizers are listed on the dinner menu: artichoke dip with Melba toast (a French invention), or a small basket of soft pretzels, shaped like a bun (round), a roll (oval) or a prototypical pretzel (Bavarian-style). Though they possess a rich, brown color on the outside, on the inside the Bavarian pretzels are a bit stale and therefore unfortunately chewy, and (again) not warm enough. The roll pretzels are spongy in a very unpretzel-like way. All varieties are dosed with a tiny freckling of salt, a ramekin of kicky mustard sauce that cartwheels straight up the nasal passages and a second ramekin of cheese dip that tastes exactly like Cheez Whiz. The bread basket is similarly uninspired, containing neither pumpernickel nor bauernbrot (the latter a traditional German farmer's bread).
Of the main courses, the schnitzels make the best impression. In addition to the granddaddy preparation, Wienerschnitzel, made with a breaded and sautéed veal cutlet, the Gast Haus offers Schweineschnitzel (made with pork) and Haehnchenschnitzel (chicken). Any of the three will deliver a hefty hunk of meat, breaded liberally and sautéed just right. White pepper and garlic added to the flour result in a welcome kick.
Virtually all other meat choices are red (tilapia is the only fish listed on the menu). Rouladen are a culinary curiosity of sorts: slices of beef that are pounded flat, sautéed with onion and bacon, baked and then wrapped around a baby dill pickle with some more onion and bacon and secured, like an hors d'oeuvre, with a wooden spear. It would have made a better impression if all that cooking hadn't rendered the meat so dry.
Considering the devotion that goes into the sauerbraten -- a roast of beef is marinated for five days in red wine, vinegar, white onions, bay leaves and dates, then seared and roasted, while the marinade is rendered into a sweet and tangy gravy -- it's a shame the resulting entrée is no better than OK. What should soar with flavor and ache with tenderness comes across as merely ordinary.
Both ham steak with apples and a vegetable casserole (the sole vegetarian entrée) are good in a blunt, overpowering sort of way. A meat as sweet as ham, laden with apples like those found in a pie or atop a stack of pancakes, tastes like dessert. This dish is so sweet, in fact, that it's hard to finish -- though that also owes in part to its immense proportions. (All entrée servings are oversized here.) The vegetable casserole bakes a layer of spaetzle beneath a smattering of undistinguished mixed vegetables and a landslide of cheese. If you believe as I do that melted cheese is never bad, then on that fundamental level, neither is this casserole.
The Gast Haus does a workmanlike job with sides, available à la carte or alongside entrées (it might also be smart to order a few as appetizers). Most are as plain as they're supposed to be: Even with brown gravy, the spaetzle proves more of a textural experience than a flavor blast, while the Bavarian dumplings taste like matzo balls. The creamed spinach seems to be a condensed replica of the cream of spinach soup. A red-cabbage salad was vinegary and krauty, lip-smacking for those who crave that sort of thing. But the potato pancakes provided the only genuine treat: slightly sweet, with a very eggy texture, and accompanied by a fresh, chunky applesauce.
Similarly, just one of the four dessert strudels (made either in-house or by a family friend) is noteworthy: the poppy seed, with its subtle sweetness and pleasant grace note of lemon. A cherry strudel seems to have been fashioned by wrapping an unremarkable pastry shell around a few dollops of cherry pie filling and sprinkling too much confectioner's sugar on top, while the pecan strudel appears to contain a ground-pecan powder in lieu of whole pecans. (It actually didn't taste much different from the pretzels.) Black forest cake, unelaborate and missing the heady kick of kirsch, resembled a supermarket bakery product. Its garnish bore the chemical-aftertaste fingerprint of Hershey's chocolate syrup.
Inside the Gast Haus' front room, which conjures both a Bavarian ale house and a grandmotherly bed and breakfast, stands the bar -- where, thanks to Germany's renowned suds-lust, the sins committed in the kitchen could be forgiven. Four German beers rarely seen stateside are served on draft: Bitburger Pilsner (one of Germany's best-selling beers), Spaten Oktoberfest, Konig Ludwig Weisse (a wheaty, sour ale from Munich) and Warsteiner Dunkel (one of Germany's most-touted dark lagers). Though they constitute the makings of a really good time, it's too bad more drafts weren't invited to the party. Of the eighteen bottled beers, ten come from the motherland, but untitillating labels like Beck's and St. Pauli Girl qualify as filler.
A brief wine list features about two dozen bottles that largely ignore native soil -- a scant five German labels, just two of them Rieslings and not one a Gewürztraminer. But that's not necessarily bad. Hearty, heavy dishes cry out for hearty, heavy reds, while Germany's cold climates work best at producing wonderful whites that are best consumed with spicy foods native to warmer climates. (A notable exception: sausage and other charcuterie, which are swell when paired with the crisp acidity of a German white.) The real problem with the Gast Haus' wine list is that whites outnumber reds two to one, and those reds comprise a ho-hum three merlots, one Australian shiraz, two California cabs and one California pinot noir.
It's clear just by walking into the St. Louis Gast Haus that the venture is a labor of love. A little more discipline in the kitchen and diligence behind the bar, and the devotion might really shine through. As it stands, too many cooks may be spoiling the brat.