Original review published 2/19/2010
By Greg Cox
Claudia Cooper is on a mission. A native of Heilbronn in the Neckar wine region, Cooper is out to dispel American stereotypes about German food. “It’s so much more than bratwursts and boiled potatoes, just like American food is more than burgers and fries” is the sort of thing you’re apt to hear within five minutes of getting her talking about the subject.
Cooper’s mission began in earnest in 1998, when she opened Guglhupf, a bakery that showcased the Old World breads and pastries she had mastered at Rischart, a noted bakery and pâtisserie in Munich. The shop was tiny and hard to find, but word spread quickly about the little bakery with the quirky name (which refers to one of the shop’s specialties, a distinctive cake little known outside Germany and Austria).
In no time, lines of people waiting to buy Linzer cookies and loaves of sourdough rye were snaking out the door.
In 2004, Guglhupf expanded into the neighboring building, a contemporary structure with an airy two-level dining room opening onto one of the area’s most inviting patios. Guglhupf Café began serving breakfast and a lunch offering of small plates, salads and sandwiches on those artisanal breads. The menu wasn’t strictly German, but there were plenty of offerings such as Alsatian onion tart and shaved Westphalian ham on rye to make Cooper’s point.
Acclaim continued to spread like schmaltz on warm bread, reaching as far as the Food Network and Die Zeit in Hamburg. Locally, people clamored for more.
That’s just what they got last year, when Guglhupf Café began serving dinner in October. Cooper hired David Alworth, a veteran of two decades in area restaurants (most recently as chef de cuisine at Watts Grocery), to create a menu of traditional and contemporary German fare. Alworth responded with an offering that leaves little doubt about the cuisine’s freshness and diversity.
It doesn’t hurt that, along with his considerable talent and experience, the chef brings well-established connections with local farmers and artisans. If the flavors on his plates appear surprisingly fresh and the colors surprisingly bright for a cuisine known for its monochromatic heaviness, it’s at least in part because many of the ingredients traveled only a few miles from farm to table.
That includes the bronze-skinned roasted chicken that is served with an herb-flecked potato leek gratin and emerald green petals of buttered Brussels sprout leaves – and the pink petals of house-cured salmon gravlax that accompany crusty golden potato latkes.
Not that the chef is a stickler about local sourcing. He gets his fish — snapper, triggerfish and flounder, to name a few — from North Carolina waters whenever possible. But if dry-pack scallops out of New Bedford, or monkfish or wild striped bass from elsewhere, look better, he’ll happily feature them as his market selection.
Alworth fills crêpes with a blend of fromage blanc and sautéed yellow foot chanterelles, mountain hedgehogs and other mushrooms foraged in the woods of Washington state for a presentation that is at once airy and deeply earthy.
When nothing but lingonberries will do for the compote on his German-accented bruschetta sharing platter, he gets frozen ones from Austria. Once you’ve had a dab of the compote with the local goat cheese bruschetta — or, if you’re feeling feisty, the chicken liver paté — you’ll agree that only lingonberries will do.
It’s the all-American cranberry that adds sparkle to Alworth’s take on maultaschen, a vegetarian delight featuring fat crescent-shaped noodles stuffed with a hash of sweet potato, walnut, blue cheese and shiitake mushroom. And the intense flavor of the huckleberry, wild cousin of the blueberry, provides fruity counterpoint to a house-cured duck confit salad.
The chef substitutes pork for the traditional veal in Wienerschnitzel, but the plate-eclipsing cutlet is as tender as veal and the crust commendably delicate. Another pork dish, as substantial as the schnitzel is light, is a 12-ounce pork porterhouse, grilled to a rosy-centered turn and served with superb house-made spätzle.
Pastry chef Antonia Manzi’s sweet temptations live up to the standards set by the savory fare – not to mention the longstanding reputation of the pâtisserie.
Particularly memorable is the caramel chocolate tart, topped with cardamom-scented marshmallows and garnished with sugared almonds and delicately spiced kumquats.
It’s tempting to say “mission accomplished,” but Claudia Cooper doesn’t see it that way. For her, “continuing adventure” is closer to the mark. She freely confides that she hadn’t originally planned on opening a restaurant when she opened Guglhupf, but “it just kept growing and growing.”
In her next breath, she enthuses about more changes she’s considering, including the addition of a bar, and maybe a fireplace for the patio. Looks like Cooper’s adventure has a fairy tale ending for all of us.
2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Prices: Entrees $11 to $25
Atmosphere: contemporary, airy and warmly inviting
Service: consistently eager to please, variably experienced
Recommended: wild mushroom crêpes, potato leek torte, bruschetta, Wienerschnitzel, maultaschen, desserts
Open: Breakfast and lunch Tuesday–Friday, dinner Tuesday–Saturday, brunch Saturday–Sunday
Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection