It’s an unsettling start to the summer when the phrase “zombie apocalypse” is tossed about so often, followed by nervous laughter. But there’s nothing like “herring with sour cream and boiled vegetables” to strike fear into my heart. Will the flesh of that poor, innocent fish be pulped by acid, the cream fizzing with age, or the vegetables waterlogged?
At Landbrot, the German all-day café and bakery in the West Village, the herring salad ($11.50) is styled like a holiday platter from the 1950s, everything piled symmetrically on an oval platter of lettuce, but the horrors end there. The pieces of gentle, wine-soused herring are in a fresh sour cream dressing. It might not be splendid, but it is pleasant.
Landbrot specializes in artisanal German breads, many of which are made with rye. These archaic, dense, cerebral loaves wear their dark crusts like armor and demand inordinate amounts of butter. They are brilliant. Throughout the day, the bakery also offers a range of granny-chic pastries, like sticky Linzer cake ($4.75) and jelly-filled Berliners ($3.75). There are sandwiches, too, stashed with vegetables, nuts, and sprouts, as if prepared by a friend’s mother, worried you’re not getting enough to eat at home.
Take the Cambozola sandwich ($10.25), made with untoasted bread speckled with walnuts and cranberries. The ruffle of red microgreens is neatly tucked away, dressed in a sharp vinaigrette. And there are slices of raw apple with the green peel still on (that’s where all the nutrients are!), providing crunch for a soft slab of Cambozola cheese, embroidered with blue mold and sheathed in its edible, velveteen rind. It’s not a bad sandwich, but you finish it with a sense of duty. It comes with a great German-style potato salad, generous with vinegar instead of mayonnaise.
Sit in the sleek café, out on the busy sidewalk of Seventh Avenue South, or in the dollhouse perch upstairs—where the waiter once forgot about my party for so long we came down to remind him we were there. Apologies, not the passive-aggressive kind, were made, and a round of beers was brought up on the house. On another occasion, when a pen brought to sign the check exploded with ink, it was again handled with care, but without a fuss. Perhaps the staff is so agreeable because they aren’t cased like sausages in bargain-basement Hansel and Gretel costumes. But I suspect it’s because, as one waiter told me, they start and end their shifts with pretzels.
Those pretzels ($3) are lovely, with a yeast-sweetened dough. Like the breads, they are baked upstairs using German equipment, by head baker Udo Fischer. Love them for being lopsided, stretched out by their own weight as they’re knotted midair, giving them those soft, doughy bottoms and crispy crossed arms. A variety of toppings is available, with sunflower seeds being especially charming, along with rolls and Gouda-filled pockets. No matter what you get, say yes to a side of butter, which comes on a stone slab with a tiny wooden paddle, and is best slapped onto the pretzel while it’s still hot.
In the morning, there is coffee, but otherwise, try the beer on tap from the German brewery Höss, which does not arrive in cartoonishly large mugs that thump down on the table and test the strength of your wrists.
Landbrot brings us truly special breads, but just respectable cafeteria food. Sausages are lackluster, and the café holds back with the traditional flammkuchen, or “flaming pie” as it’s called on the menu ($12). Its thin crust is haunted by just a ghost of crème fraîche, and somehow manages to be both overly greasy and stingily topped with bacon and onion. A schnitzel sandwich ($10.50) doesn’t come with the mustard it loves, which makes an otherwise happy crinkle of butter-fried pork feel a bit lonely.
Asking for mustard is not the end of the world, of course, but getting the attention of Landbrot’s waiters, even when you’re seated downstairs in plain view and the place is not busy, can take an absurd amount of energy and time. Table service at a low-key café is a nice touch, but only if that friendly waitstaff is paying attention. A sister location, newly open in the Lower East Side, offers a smaller menu with longer hours. And assuming the apocalypse can be put off a bit longer, this promises to be a better showcase for what Landbrot does well.
Updated on July 13, 2012: Udo Fischer is no longer the production manager at Landbrot.