Hamburg is fish heaven. The seafood is so fresh it practically leaps off the plate. In addition to the local catch, prime Breton lobster and Nordic salmon show up regularly on Hamburg menus. Regional cuisine is typified by dishes like Aalsuppe (a complex, savory, and somewhat sweet eel soup with vegetables, dumplings, and dried fruit), Kieler Sprotten (smoked Kiel sprats, a coastal fish that resembles herring), and Bohnen, Birnen, und Speck (green beans, pears, and bacon-flavored with savory). The food-loving ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl does not consider a trip to Hamburg complete without Labskaus, a sailors hash of corned beef fortified with pickled beets, a rolled-up herring, and a fried egg.
The small taverns crowding the harbor offer standard renditions of these dishes and the catch of the day, but for those who want to do the town in style and try the very best in traditional fare, we've checked out some of Hamburgs most venerable institutions for good cooking and good value.
If we could have only one meal to savor the "real" Hamburg, we would leave the fashionable hotels behind and head for Fischereihafen in Altona. Widely regarded as the best seafood place in town, it turns out impeccably fresh regional specialties in a quiet, secluded corner of the port overlooking the Elbe.
Fischereihafen is Hamburg in miniature: conservative yet comfortable; understated elegance with a nautical flair. On our final evening in the city, we exchanged greetings with the lonely-looking doorman and swept up the stairs past tanks of lobsters and crabs. At the top, we were met by an enormous, terribly handsome dog who fixed us with a gravely polite stare but was too dignified to come any closer.
The small, paneled dining rooms hung with gleaming brass fixtures and pictures of old sailing ships balance traditional gentility with a light modern touch. Likewise, the service is old-fashioned without being stuffy. (To obtain a table by the window and a view of the harbor, you must call early and request one.) As we were seated, we spotted the lead tenor from the previous nights opera performance sitting nearby with a companion.
The menu is practically a textbook of orthodox Hamburg cuisine, with a section of sushi and dim sum thrown in for good measure. Appetizers include smoked trout, oysters on the half shell, lobster, and caviar (16-35 DM/$8-$20, 56 DM/$31 for the caviar), as well as that famous eel soup (13.50 DM/$8). Main courses feature fish prepared every possible way, starting from 28 DM ($16) on up to "Market Price." We take it as a good sign that the menu changes to reflect the best of the days catch. The wine list, which features mostly German and French whites, and a good deal of champagne, is adequate but not particularly brilliant.
For a mere 65 DM ($36) we ordered the "Regional-Menu" and got a four-course tour of Hamburg. Every dish represented a landmark in the local culinary landscape. It began with salty bites of house-marinated chopped herring served on rounds of dense, fragrant black bread, followed by the celebrated Labskaus. The main course was a double feature pairing Hamburger Pfannfisch (haddock, Hamburg style) with the most exquisite piece of salmon we have ever encountered, draped in a delicate mustard-butter sauce. Wisely, the kitchen ignores the temptation to do too much to fish, letting its freshness and quality speak eloquently for itself. Dishes are formally presented, yet maintain a down-home quality.
Dessert was Rote Grütze, a velvety red berry compote with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and topped with custard cream. By now, our waiter Klaus was so enchanted by our having paid his hometown the compliment of polishing off every bite that he shook our hands and reminisced about sailing to America on a yacht 40 years ago. We nodded to the opera singer, lifted our glasses in a good-bye toast to the ships sailing out of the harbor below.
Dinner for two without drinks: 120 DM ($67).
Contact: Fischereihafen Restaurant Hamburg, Gr. Elbstrasse 143, D-22767 Hamburg. tel. +49/040/38 18 16, fax 389-3021.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 14/20