Outside of Schmidt's looking into restaurant. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
One day last week, the lady and I had plans to visit Schmidt's for dinner. When we're deciding what to eat, we tend to favor collaboration and compromise, at least I do. Sometimes, rarely, our tastes don't intersect, and I always want to find dishes we both want, even if it means passing on something I'd really, really like to try. In the case of Schmidt's, a sleek, two month-old German eatery in the Mission District, I knew what I wanted, and would accept no proxies: hasenpfeffer, a red wine-soaked saddle and leg of rabbit with braised lingonberry-sweetened cabbage. In the hours leading up to our meals together, we typically examine menus online and discuss what appeals via texts and emails. Frequently, we have a pretty good idea of what we'll order before we walk through the restaurant's doors. On this occasion, I'd done my research, and knew, without question, that I had to hit that hop. The problem was, I wasn't so sure my lady would dance with me.
I positioned myself accordingly. At around 1:00 p.m., I sent off a quick text:
Was thinking about bunny. Now not so sure.
Her swift response, even more succinct, confirmed my fears:
I will not eat the bun.
Disappointed yet far from resigned, I honed a strategy. It was too early for negotiations. I ate lunch and crafted a diversionary text, giving the impression I was feeling flexible and perhaps willing to eat something else altogether:
Salad good. Still hungry. Tonight maybe fish if on special.
Rabbit is a polarizing meat. The world is full of people like my lady: hyper-carnivorous, adventurous gourmets who gleefully inhale piles of Korean barbecue, fried chicken dinners, and entire flocks in the form of steaming shawarmas, yet turn meek and wane at the prospect of the Easter Bunny, sauteed, on a plate. Rabbits are cute but surely no cuter than fuzzy sheep, baby chickens, and pink piglets -- cuddly creatures we're generally more comfortable cooing over and then, respectfully, consuming. Rabbits are also pets, but even those of us who have never fed and groomed one feel as if we know them. From folklore-steeped tricksters Bugs and Bre'er, to Thumper, Alice's elusive White, and the whole floppy-eared cast of Watership Down, the rabbit has an enduring and frequently anthropomorphized presence in popular culture, one that surpasses those of other commonly eaten animals. In whatever form, such familiar images, voices, stories, and carried connotations grip folks, and that, more than a real rabbit's bobbing tail, vacuous little eye-specks, and pink twitching nose, contributes to the skittishness diners display when there's hare to be had.
In many cultures, rabbits are a symbol of fertility and rebirth. They're associated with the season Spring and, of course, Easter. In real-life, they're viewed as gentle, vegetarian, harmless, and, despite their breeding proclivities, somehow suggestive of innocence. However, to gardeners like my mother in Louisville, Kentucky, they are far from innocent or harmless; they are a nuisance, a virulent menace fond of hopping, rustling and sniffing, through the backyard shrubbery every April to terrorize lettuce, cucumbers, squash, beans, herbs, and flowers. My mom doesn't hunt or even eat meat, but I doubt she'd mind if Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam showed up one year, shotguns at the ready, to declare war on her tormentors, and keep the neighborhood bistro stocked with lapin all summer long.
Back in San Francisco, it was 6:30 p.m. My lady and I rolled into Schmidt's, ravenous. As I'd suspected, there was no fish on special. My lady wanted a sausage, which was fine by me. We had to find another entree. I knew exactly what that had to be but I had to bide my time. If she sensed my profound resolve, she did not let on.
"I just don't think I can do it," she said, her eyes peering out, just barely visible above the menu held in front of her face.
"Do what?" I asked, feigning cluelessness.
"The bunny," she said, sighing. "I'm sure it's amazing, but I don't want to eat it."
"It's cool," I answered, sort of shrugging lightly and waving my hands as if I didn't care. "No bunny, no problem. I'll get a sausage too, maybe the duck one."
"Two sausages? They don't make the sausages here. If you're writing about this, we should get something they make here too," she said, ignoring my allusion.
"Well, I don't want blood sausage or the veal," I countered, gesturing towards the listing for an egg-topped schnitzel festooned with white anchovies, capers, and cauliflower. It was time to play hardball, to throw down cards, and make a final, decisive play. "I'm getting the rabbit," I said, folding my menu and reaching for the beer list. "Will you eat it?" I didn't look up as I spoke, trying to appear focused on selecting an appropriate brew.
There was a pause. "Hell yes."
And so, maneuvering ceased; we were eating rabbit.
In the classic 1949 cartoon Bowery Bugs, Bugs Bunny, pacing in circles around his den, carrot in mid-gnaw, makes, in that distinctive, chattering, Flatbush bark, his case for survival to a downtrodden New York City bookie in search of a good luck charm. "These rabbit's feet never brought me any luck," Bugs points out, pleading. "Look at the lives rabbits lead: Dogs, hunters, and hasenpfeffer."
Hasenpfeffer, a red wine-soaked saddle and leg of rabbit with braised lingonberry-sweetened cabbage. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
Bugs could use some perspective. If the version at Schmidt's serves as any indication, hassenpfeffer is an unpretentious yet noble and exceedingly delicious way for a rabbit to end up. For a goofy, unintelligent, nervous wreck of a mammal, this beast sure tastes serious, deep, and soulful after a trip through chef Matt Shapiro's kitchen. Sweet shards of pale meat tumble off delicate bones rising up from a creamy, golden moat of rich sauce, a purple mountain of cabbage looming behind. The picture currently floating around the Internet (to be fair, in the company of a positive, well-crafted mention) unfortunately makes Shapiro's hassenpfeffer look like a symptom of an obscure, unsavory medical condition, or something from one of the Alien movies, a mound of extraterrestrial dung, perhaps. I sympathize. My first crack at pictures in the restaurant's dark dining room turned out so badly I had to outsource art to a real photographer.
Bean Salad. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
The rabbit was the defining triumph but not so magnificent as to obscure the rest of the meal: an excellent Thuringer brat, snappy and juicy, best with a touch of an amazing sweet mustard (Schmidt's sells it, along with other German products such as mini-wieners, bottled, floating in water), a subtle, nutty, toothsome salad of green and waxed bean strips with hazelnuts, fried sage, and a citrus vinaigrette, and spaetzle, sans cheese, in fluffy, mild strands, like scrambled eggs colliding with a bowl of cereal -- in a good way. Far from the sort of heavily branded hot-spot designed to lure diners from around the city, Schmidt's is a new neighborhood gem the neighborhood can actually afford -- truly, simply, a very fine place to eat, much like Walzwerk, the owners' first restaurant, though more austere in appearance, with better food. We ordered some bread too, with the idea we'd use it to sop up every last bit of rabbit essence. This was unnecessary. The rabbit came with plenty of bread, the dense, heavy German sort. Unlike less refined purveyors of wurst, Schmidt's doesn't bludgeon you with excessive portions. Bread abuse in the line of duty -- respect for the rabbit's last luscious remnants -- caused me to walk at a 45 degree angle all the way home, stuffed, my body unable to conjure energy for any task beyond digestion. Yet even as I limped, 'kraut-addled, harebrained, breaded, and in need of a comfortable chair, part of me wanted to head back, to find a way to eat some more rabbit. To rock it, to roll it, slop it, and stroll it, once again -- at the hop.
2400 Folsom St
(between 20th St & 21st St)
San Francisco, CA 94110