For the last quarter century or so, much of New York City has been a German bread desert. The only way to get a loaf of freshly made bauernbrot was to trek out to Central Queens, where neighborhoods like Ridgewood and Middle Village still cling to vestiges of German ethnic tradition. It wasn't always so. In the late 19th century, Manhattan's booming Little Germany district marched north from the Bowery, bringing with it beer halls, restaurants, and bakeries. From frankfurters to lager beer to ham on rye, German immigrants helped lay the foundation for the way the city eats. But then a couple of world wars and the cults of French and Italian cuisine turned us away from sausages and dense rye breads.
Luckily, however, tastes change, and that's where David Rothe and Volker Herrmann saw their opportunity. The two young businessmen come from Baden-Wurttemberg, a province in southwest Germany where local bakeries routinely sell 50 different kinds of loaves. On a business trip to New York, they noticed the complete absence of German bread, and that's when their ambitious plan was born. They found spaces in the West Village and the Lower East Side, imported baking equipment from Germany, and hired a Bavarian master baker, Udo Fischer, who has worked all over the world. They installed the ovens, along with Udo and a team of assistants, on the second floor of the West Village space. Last Sunday, they opened Landbrot, their German bakery/café/mini-beer hall, with over two dozen breads on the menu.
Almost all of Landbrot's breads contain rye flour. According to Udo Fischer, the recipe for his Berlin Brot ($12.00 whole) is 1,200 years old. It's a big round miche made from 85% rye flour. The crust is thick yet chewy, with a pleasantly bitter caramel bite enclosing a moist and dense crumb. It has a good rye flavor set off with a sourdough tang and a bit of spice from a light sprinkling of caraway seeds. A whole loaf will feed a party, but you can also buy half and quarter loaves.
Another rye-heavy loaf is Landbrot's table bread ($5.50), a staple of German mealtimes. This is a football-shaped loaf with holes in its crust that looks like it was dug up in some Teutonic village excavation. It doesn't have quite the sour flavor as the Berlin Brot, but the dense rye makes an excellent base for a thick smear of leberwurst or dollop of herring salad.
For lighter fare, you have to try Germany's contribution to New York City street food: pretzels. Landbrot shows you how debased these hot dog cart staples have become in the city. The bakery sells plain (lightly salted), poppy, and sesame pretzels, as well as pretzel rolls. The pretzels have the traditional fat body and skinny arms shape, giving you both puffy and crunchy parts to chew on. Unlike the usual street pretzels, the Landbrot pretzels have a rich buttery flavor because, surprise, they're made with butter in the dough. Eaten with a bit of German mustard and washed down with good German beer, one of these pretzels will transport you back to the 19th century beer halls. All you need is an oom-pah band.
Finally, you should keep an eye on the daily special breads. These range from an excellent onion bread on Mondays to an exotic Khorasan loaf made from kamut flour on Sundays. The Four Seasons bread, the Tuesday specialty, is a flattened round loaf covered and stuffed with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, caraway seeds, cracked wheat kernels, and who knows what else. More than any other baking culture, the Germans know how to use whole grains. It's delicious.
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