Even from a block away, Grüner is a far cry from your stereotypical German restaurant. There are no gilded gables of a faux chalet. Instead, amber light spills from tall windows cut into a jutting, angular facade—the work of Portland avant-architects Skylab, who also designed the Nines hotel's futuristic rooftop restaurant Departure. Inside, servers in crisp black and white weave through the space's clean lines and muted earth tones, delivering cleverly titled cocktails like the gin-based Zeitgeist ($8). No buxom, blond-braided beer wenches slosh multi-liter steins. No lederhosen or cuckoo clocks or alpenhorns or roaming accordion players, either.
Of course not. This isn't some sprawling suburban purveyor of das kitsch. Grüner is the new venture from Chris Israel, the chef behind some of Portland's culinary titans—legendary Zefiro, 23Hoyt and Saucebox, the restaurant that introduced Portland to Asian fusion. Grüner isn't even technically a German restaurant—it's the food of the Alps, encompassing Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Romania.
So then why is the menu so much like a stereotypical German restaurant? Bratwurst and kraut, schnitzel and spaetzle—it's all here. And it's all quite good, but it's not exciting. Not exciting enough for one of Portland's marquee restaurants helmed by a celebrated local chef.
Grüner serves the meat-and-potatoes fare of people who live with deep snow—hearty and satisfying. A recent plate of rosy-hued beet-and-ricotta dumplings ($9), dressed in clarified butter and poppy seeds, deliver a subtle, earthy bite, but grow tiresome before you finish the shareable portion. While the hefty "Grüner salad" ($9), which boasts everything from cucumbers and sunchokes to chickweed, coalesces better than its 11-ingredient kitchen sink composition might suggest, it is served ungracefully in a glass mixing bowl. Cranberry relish nicely accents crisp-battered pork schnitzel ($15), a solid but unmemorable incarnation of the German staple. Grüner's mixed grill ($21) paired pancetta-wrapped quail (an infallible combination) with complexly flavored boudin blanc, but the accompanying potato gratin was downright bland. Velvety, crème fraîche-laced spaetzle was the highlight of our entrees, mingling tender rabbit with the firm bite of wild mushrooms and crisp fried shallots ($21, now served with chicken for $19).
Perhaps Grüner is limited by its chosen cuisine. It's certainly a challenge to render beets, potatoes and pretzels exciting. Or perhaps, striving to emphasize the cuisine's rustic traditions, Grüner fails to innovate in the name of authenticity. The menu's rich and earthy flavors beg for sharp and vibrant counterpoints, but too often heartiness becomes heaviness and subtlety slips to dullness. Ultimately, Israel's noted reputation may be the restaurant's undoing; for Grüner, the bar is set high—too high for it to reach just yet.
Grüner, 527 SW 12th Ave., 241-7163, grunerpdx.com. 5-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday. $$ moderate.