I SPENT some childhood years in Konstanz, a German town that shares a lake with Switzerland. My mother married a German man and brought him back to Canada, where he cooked us the Alsatian, Swiss, Austrian, and German food that I later learned is known as “alpine.” Today, the taste of gratin, spaetzle, and sauerbraten ignites my warmest childhood memories—of summer holidays in Konstanz and learning to grate potatoes at my stepfather’s knee.
In other words, this warm, starchy cuisine is my comfort food. And Chris Israel, the chef behind Grüner (German for “greener”), a restaurant that opens on December 28 in downtown Portland, agrees. After tasting his way through Central Europe, Israel resolved to bring its flavors home. “I’m interested in the commonality between all those regions,” he says. “You say ‘alpine,’ and people think you’re talking about fondue. My goal is to expose this cuisine to people in a way that they haven’t thought about before.” That means focusing as much on freshwater fish as on goulash; on aromatic herbs as much as deep-fried schnitzel. And nothing highlights alpine cuisine’s restorative powers like Grüner’s mushroom gratin, a dish Israel calls “the ultimate comfort food.”
“Mushrooms are super-alpine,” says Israel, who was also the culinary mastermind behind the seminal Portland restaurants Zefiro (Mediterranean) and Saucebox (pan-Asian). While looking for a hearty side dish to complement a roast meat entrée, he came across this gratin, which stood out thanks to the addition of caraway. “It was simple, yet intriguing,” he says. It helps, of course, that Oregon’s fecund soil produces some of the world’s best wild and cultivated mushrooms.
The secret to any gratin, Israel says, is the delicate melding of the dish’s disparate elements—in this case, mushrooms, onions, shallots, parsley, crème fraîche, and caraway seeds. When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing—like a table brimming with the flavors of Bavaria, Alto Adige, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Alsace.