Review: German Gymnasium

December 1, 2015

The name German Gymnasium evokes images of preening, glistening men flexing their biceps; of grunts of exertion and the repetitive fwap of fists against leather; of the distant scent of Lynx. Restaurant giant D&D’s new venture is so-called because it’s located in the former German Gymnastics Society building at Kings Cross, once home to the indoor events of the first National Olympian Association Games in 1866. It’s an inelegant name for a restaurant – even a German one – but at least the building wasn’t once a Turkish brothel, or a Bulgarian abattoir.

The restaurant casts its culinary net slightly further afield than its name suggests, with a smattering of Mittel-European dishes (tafelspitz and schnitzel from Austria, goulash from Hungary), but it’s predominantly German, and cooked by a German (Bjoern Wassmuth, previously of the Hamburg Fairmont Hotel). It says a lot about the exportability of Der Deutscher’s food that this is the only high-end, sit-down restaurant I can think of that specialises in their meaty cuisine. It’s about time. I’m a quarter German – on my mother’s side – and part of me hungers for the heavy, warming food of my ancestors, for eintopf and schweinshaxe and sauerbraten and pfefferpotthast; for distinctive, stock-heavy broths and the sharp twang of fermented pickle.

German Gymnasium does it all, and does it incredibly well. The vast space in which athletes once leapt and tumbled and pirouetted has been cleverly adapted, with nary a German-themed, over-sized bier pitcher or pair of lederhosen in sight. Instead it’s filled with black leather and marble and gold. It’s got space for well over 400 covers but doesn’t feel overwhelming, split into a semi-open plan downstairs cafe, a bar and a giant balcony space. The faint nnts-nnts-nnts emanating from the DJ booth is easily ignored.

You can order food that hasn’t been cleaved from a cloven hoofed animal (oysters: perfectly acceptable; shrimp cocktail: nicely put together but lacking oomph) but you shouldn’t. You should start by sharing the very smoky Black Forest ham, mostly so you can wonder at the accompanying celeriac slaw with remoulade, a French condiment made by mixing mayo with curry-powder. Also try the chunky, tomatoey goulash soup with an ice-cream scoop-sized blob of sour cream.

If you want the authentic experience, get the currywurst, which is exactly as revolting as the stuff you get from Berlin street vendors, the sliced pork sausage covered in so much tangy, cloying sauce that it could be just about anything. We are at least partly to blame for currywurst: it was invented by Herta Heuwer, a food kiosk owner in war-torn Berlin, who sourced the ingredients – curry powder and ketchup – from British soldiers, mixing them together and serving the resulting goop on sausage and chips. I imagine that my grandfather, himself a British soldier stationed in Berlin after the war, lapped the stuff up, it being the least “foreign” thing on offer.

The Münchner Weißwurst is a different beast altogether: a veal and pork sausage, flavoured with parsley and onions, gently heated in warm water. They’re unsmoked and made without preservatives and it’s considered terribly bad luck to eat them after noon (without refrigeration they would have gone off very quickly, potentially leading to a case of WeißScheißer). I ordered them at 10.30pm and I’m glad I did because they’re delicious: delicate, almost translucent, entirely unlike any British sausage. You’re supposed to skin them, but you don’t have to here. They’re served with sweet Händlmaier, which is to German mustard what Heinz is to UK ketchup.

The high-point, though, was the Berlin-style liver – rolled in flour, sautéed in butter, served in a gummy caramelised onion and apple gravy – which was as perfect an expression of how delicious this toxin-filtering organ can be as I’ve ever tasted. It came with a dish of squat, floury spätzle – “little sparrow” – noodles. By the time the second goulash arrived, this time a main involving two gigantic cuts of slow-cooked beef, the meat-sweats were starting to take hold. The beef was well cooked and flavoursome, the sauce thick and rich and pungent; it was great, thanks, yeah, no nothing wrong with it, just take it away so I don’t have to look at it anymore. I soldiered on, ploughing through a fine, fleshy apple strudel (also Austrian) with lashings of cinnamon.

I ate and drank my way through £180 but you could comfortably spend half that. D&D (formerly Conran Restaurants, now owned by Des Gunewardena and David Loewi) has more than 30 venues on its books, some of which I like, some I don’t, but none that would immediately spring to mind if I were recommending the best restaurants in any given category. Until now. And not just because German Gymnasium is basically the only restaurant serving proper German food: because it’s brilliant. The Germans have a word for what happened to me there: kummerspeck. It means excess weight gained through emotional overeating – the emotion was joy.

First published in City A.M.