A historic — and famously slanted — eatery on Hamburg’s waterfront gives diners a taste of the city’s culinary heritage
Author JIFFER BOURGUIGNON
AMONG THE CONSTRUCTION sites and dockyards of Hamburg’s waterfront, the Oberhafen-Kantine crouches under a set of elevated train tracks, sinking noticeably into the ground. Inside, diners steady themselves in creaking wooden booths and dig into dishes of venerable culinary reputation, such as labskaus, a traditional seaman’s meal made of corned beef, red beets, pickled herring and potatoes and topped with a fried egg. Labskaus may lack a certain visual appeal, Kantine cook Stefan Classen admits, but the hearty hash with the subtly fishy tang is sought out by those looking for “a true taste of the Hamburg harbor.” And you’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable setting than the Kantine in which to give it a try.
The Oberhafen-Kantine opened its doors in 1925 on the banks of the Elbe River, in what was then Hamburg’s industrial shipping port, joining other canteens serving coffee and beef patties, or frikadellen, the quintessential dockworker’s breakfast (believed to be the inspiration for the modern American hamburger). In the early days, the friendly face behind the counter was Anita Haendel, the 12-year-old daughter of owner Hermann Sparr. She quickly became the heart and soul of the Kantine, and worked there until she died in 1997 at the age of 83.
The Kantine’s now-trademark tilt is the result of 86 years of wear and tear, including wartime carpet bombings, railroad construction and regular floods. Today, the building that houses it is one of the few original structures left in an area recently dubbed HafenCity, the site of a major redevelopment effort that will bring glossy hotels and office buildings to the once-scrappy industrial zone.
Preserving the physical structure and the culinary traditions of the Kantine is a top priority for restaurateurs Tim Seidel and Sebastian Libbert, the duo behind some of Hamburg’s hippest eateries, who took over from former chef-owner Thorsten Gillert earlier this year. In addition to the labskaus and frikadellen, the Kantine will continue to feature such classic Hamburg staples as eel soup; matjes, soused North Sea herring served with onions and pickles; pan-fried scholle, white fish accompanied by sliced potatoes fried with cured pork; and weisswurst made from herring.
While Seidel and Libbert did convert the former customs office building next door into an open space, dubbed Zollamt, for exhibitions showcasing the work of young Hamburg artists, not much will change with the Kantine itself. “We didn’t want to make it chic, like our other restaurants,” Seidel says. “Blemishes add character.”
GERMANY’S FAVORITE fast food, currywurst, is synonymous with grab ’n’ go. So when Curry Queen’s lamb, bison and kobe-style beef sausages dressed in a choice of eight curries — all created by former Michelin-starred chef Ingo Holland — showed up in the esteemed Gault Millau culinary guide last year, foodies’ tongues started wagging.
Whether or not critics agreed with the inclusion, the 3-year-old restaurant, which has a deli outpost elsewhere in Hamburg and a university cafeteria in Karlsruhe, has certainly spiced things up on the German culinary scene. Its curries ascend from the mild “Purple Curry,” a violet-colored mix of hibiscus, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon; to the “Curry Mumbai,” with jasmine, vanilla and orange peel; to the “Curry Anapurna,” a hotter offering with garlic and turmeric.
At the very top of the piquancy scale, however, is the notorious “King Chili Killer,” a dish so hot that the elderly and anyone younger than 18 are strongly advised against ordering it. Made with the bhut jolokia, an Indian pepper considered one of the hottest in the world, this concoction sent Curry Queen owner and head chef Sascha Basler out dancing in the streets the first time he tried it. He’s probably not the only one, either. “You can tell what kind of curry diners have ordered by the mood at the table,” he says. “The spicier the chili, the more animated the customer!”