Friday, August 2, 2013

“The Best Cutlets Ever” - Lommerzheim

There it is - pork cutlets with onions and potato salad!


When you’ve been teaching for years, it can get pretty stale if you just take the textbook, teach the students the words in the book like “good, better, the best” and then have them go through the exercises at the end of the unit.  I was looking for a creative way to teach a lesson on comparisons to my students so I wouldn’t end up like a desperately bored zombie about to pull out my hair, just to find a little excitement.    I needed a context to put these words into, something fresh, or it would first get stale, and then really old and moldy, like a loaf of bread stuffed into the back of the breadbox and forgotten.   Bread when fresh, is delicious.  Teaching, when it’s fresh, is exciting.

While pondering this, I remembered a tool that helps me find the best restaurants in whatever city I’m currently in – the computer.  Even though I live in Cologne, I hadn’t used the computer much to search out good restaurants, instead relying on recommendations from friends or the same books all the German bookstores have.  It never occurred to me to treat Cologne as though I were a non-German speaking tourist.  This time I went to the web and hit pay dirt – I found a short, to-the-point article in English about the six best restaurants in Cologne.  Perfect.  I made photocopies and brought them to class. 

My students peered at the page and began talking about the restaurants listed even before anyone had started reading.  Number one on the list was a place called “Lommerzheim,” a name I didn’t recognize, but my students certainly did.   “This is a fantastic restaurant,” Günter enthused.  “You used to have to sit on telephone books on top of empty beer kegs if you wanted to sit down.”  He added, “Now you get to sit on chairs at the tables.”  He looked disappointed. 

Sylvia added, “And the walls are a graying yellow, with a one-centimeter coat of old tobacco smoke.”  Thank God restaurants in Germany are now smoke-free. 

Steffie piped in, “You can get the longest bratwurst in the world there - two-meters long.”

“Do you know the story about Bill Clinton?” asked Günter.  “When he was in Cologne a few years ago, he wanted to eat at a Cologne brewery.  His aide called the restaurant and said, ‘I’m calling for President Clinton, who is with me.’  ‘If that’s President Clinton, then I’m the Emperor of China,’ answered Lommi.” 

“Did the President get to eat there?” I asked.

“No, Lommi wouldn’t let him come.  If Clinton came, his normal clientele wouldn’t have been able to eat there.  He chose to be loyal to his customers, so Clinton had to eat at another brewery.”

“Do you know Herr Lommerzheim?” I asked.

“Not anymore.  He’s dead.  Since he’s gone, the restaurant just isn’t the same.  It’s gotten more gentrified.  Nowadays, there are chairs for the people to sit on.”  His nose curled in disapproval.

This didn’t sound bad to me.

“Is the food still good?”

“Ah, the food!”  Peter smiled, his eyes glinting as he looked toward the ceiling, his head shaking slowly as he labored to find adequate words in English to express his feelings for this restaurant.  “They have the thickest pork chops in the world - four-centimeters thick.”  That would be two inches.  Very thick.  “And the cheapest price anywhere – only a few euros.”  He was doing very well with his superlatives.

My son was leaving for Korea the following day to study business, for who knows how long.  Maybe a night out for dinner would be a good idea. 

“What about the beer?”

“They serve Päffgen.”

In Cologne, that statement needs no further comment.  Most Kölner consider Päffgen the best beer going.  It is also my son’s favorite brand of Kölsch.  Other brands of Kölsch are served all over the city in various restaurants, but not Päffgen.  You can only buy Päffgen in the brewery itself on the Ring in Cologne – and at Lommerzheim.

“Can I reserve a table?”

“Ah, that will be difficult.  I don’t think so.  People start lining up outside the restaurant at 4:30 pm, when they open for dinner, and within an hour all the tables are taken.”

I taught the same lesson to the next class.  After only one lesson, the topic was still fresh, and I was curious to see if these students felt the same about this restaurant.

“I go there once or twice a week in the summer,” said one of the students.  Then the students started debating whether “Lommi’s” or Früh, a famous brewery near the cathedral, was better.

“Lommi’s has a beer garden,” said Torsten.  “Früh doesn’t.”

“It does too,” protested Sebastian.  “You can sit outside.”

“Ah, but it’s not a beer garden.”

I was beginning to feel a conviction in my tummy that this might be a good place to spend our last evening before Jon’s departure – if we could get a table.

I went home and phoned the restaurant, but only got an answering machine, instructing me to leave my name and number, and someone would call me back.  I left my name and number, telling the machine that I wanted a table for three at 7:30 pm.  We waited for a call-back.  And waited.  By 7:00 there still was no returned call, so we decided to simply go there and try our luck.

“Hey – this restaurant is on our side of the Rhine!” I announced to Jon as I checked the address.  It is very difficult to find anything interesting on the right side, so we usually have to endure long tram rides onto the other side of the Rhine when we go out to eat.
Lommerzheim Brew Restauratn - with the tiniest sign in red, on the left
After a short tram ride, we got off near the Deutz train station and started walking, Jon using his cell phone as a navigation device.  Lommerzheim was on no main thoroughfare, but we eventually found it, in the middle of a short, narrow street.  It was about as old as Deutz itself and looked ready for demolition.  It was certainly hard to find.  You needed to know the house number to find it.  It didn’t even have a sign saying “Lommerzheim” anywhere on the outside.  There was a tiny little area to the side where a few intrepid diners (it was rainy and about 60° - typical June weather in Cologne) were eating.  Ah-ha.  The famous beer garden, tables now sodden after hours of constant rain.  I didn’t want a table that badly.  There was a crowd of people standing out in front, though.  This didn’t look good.  When we looked closer, though, we saw that they all had beer glasses in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  Ah, so this was where all the cigarette smoke was landing these days.  Maybe our chances weren’t so bad after all.

After one glance around the restaurant, we could see that all the tables were occupied, but we asked a waiter anyway.  “You can try your luck downstairs,” he said. 

Downstairs, it was cozy and even sort of attractive, with a stained glass piece lighted up from behind.  We found one sole empty table, and bolted for it.  A friendly Köbes, the word for waiter in a Cologne brewery, came and took our order.  I told him I had tried to reserve a table on the phone.  “What time did you call?” he asked.

“Around five.”

“Oh, that’s when we get really busy.  It was certainly too loud to hear any messages.”

I didn’t know how to order.  Could I eat a four-centimeter pork chop?  Some friendly-looking people at a table nearby were also eating pork chops.  “Can we split an order?” I asked them.

“Of course.  What do you think we did?  I could never eat one of these alone,” the woman answered.  “Is this your first time here?” she asked.

After my affirmative answer, she said, “You’re in for a treat.”

The beer was ice cold and delicious.  My students were right about the beer.  We could order the pork cutlets either “juicy” or “well done”.  We went for juicy chops with onions.  Two plates arrived for the three of us, thickly laden with onions that threatened to spill off the plates.  We bit into the most tender and flavorful pork chops we had ever eaten.  We couldn’t decide between French fries or potato salad, so we ordered both.  The French fries were crisp on the outside.  Inside, they were soft, like comfortable tiny pillows, except you could eat them, and they had that earthy potato flavor.  The potato salad was creamy, with a slight mustard tang, a perfect balance to the pork chops.  With that order, we had practically exhausted the menu.  There wasn’t much left to choose from, but it didn’t matter.  We couldn’t have ordered any better solace for the months of separation to come. 

It’s hard to imagine a restaurant that could be plainer, but also more comforting.  Perhaps that is the charm.  Perhaps what draws people to this restaurant is not only the food and beer, but its unpretentiousness.  My husband Peter shivers each time we pass a restaurant with cold halogen lighting, pale, bare wooden tables, chrome and mirrors.  In this frenetic, insecure age, more and more people seem to need warmth, comfort, and the solidity of honest age, devoid of facelifts.  We crave friendly waiters and fellow customers who aren’t too reserved or uppity to talk to us, just as much as we crave the security of comfort food.  

I asked the Köbes about Lommi.   “Did you know him?”

“Oh, yes.  I worked for years with him.”

“How did he manage to get permission to be the only restaurant outside of Päffgen itself to sell this beer?”

“He was a Köbes there for years, and he won the trust of the owners.” 

There it was.  Lommi was trustworthy, and he created a restaurant with the same honest, straightforward core from which he lived an entire life.  He built a legacy which lives on.  After his death, and after his widow retired from serving Kölsch to what must have been hundreds of thousands of visitors, she sold the restaurant to Päffgen, who promised to maintain the restaurant in the décor in which they received it.  The owners of Päffgen, also following in the tradition of their founder, also proved trustworthy.  The only thing that has changed is that Lommerzheim has been brought up to hygienic and construction standards.  For instance, the kitchen and restrooms are clean.

“This is one place I’m going to bring my Korean friends when they come to Cologne,” Jon said as we walked back to the tram.  “I can’t wait to tell my students about it,” I said.  I love it when my students teach me things.

Me eating there again - I forgot the onions!  They came later.

Siegesstrasse 18
Köln-Deutz (tram stop on 1, 3, 4, 7 and 9 - Bahnhof Deutz)
Telephone:  0221/ 81 43 92
Opening hours:  11-2:30 pm, 4:30 pm – 1 am; closed Tuesdays
Credit cards not accepted. 

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