Chef Hans Rockenwagner’s ‘German California cuisine’ is, like, totally wunderbar
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There are some mighty strange spaces around LA that operate successfully as restaurants; I’ve had good meals in a converted car wash and in a place with only 30 seats on five different levels. Given a skilled kitchen and servers, a good experience can be delivered in unlikely buildings. Most diners probably don’t think about or appreciate the difficulties this must cause staff, but I do.
These thoughts were on my mind after a morning’s brunch at 3 Square Café, a quirky little operation on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. The place is owned by famed chef Hans Rockenwagner, who presumably could have his choice of spaces. The one he picked is a bright, modern environment, but it is strangely partitioned; to get from the kitchen to tables only 15 feet away, servers have to go out a doorway, make a u-turn on a patio, then come back in another door, all while bearing plates of food. They get a great deal of exercise to go a very short distance. Other servers are going outside the restaurant and halfway around the building to serve the sidewalk tables, a situation that was almost comically inefficient.
Somehow the staff does make it work, aided by the fact that they have a devoted customer base that keeps coming back for what they call “German California cuisine.” The combination of Northern European and contemporary ideas works, and the fact that they serve breads and pastries from the neighboring Rockenwagner bakery helps. Those arrived automatically at the start of our meal — wonderful pretzel bread and blueberry mini-muffins, a tantalizing promise of delights to come.
We decided to start with deep-fried avocado slices and an order of country toast topped with ricotta cheese, fruit, basil shreds and powdered sugar. The latter was tasty but hard to divide for our table of four — the crust that made that bread so tasty made it hard to cut with a fork. This is an item you should just pick up and eat, even if it means getting powdered sugar on your nose. The avocado hit the spot too, the crust crisp around creamy and fresh-but-firm fruit, with two dipping sauces provided in case we wanted to adulterate nature.
Our party of four ordered a panazella seafood salad, tofu banh mi, German apple pancake and pretzel gruyere burger. The pretzel burger was a creation of chef Rockenwagner, and you can see why it caught on. It was served with crisp fries and the flavors were excellent, though the juicy burger was a bit of a mess to eat. The banh mi was a bit less interesting to me just because tofu doesn’t have the meaty punch to balance the spicy and pickled flavors that dominate the sandwich. The person who ordered it pronounced it one of the best uses of tofu ever, but I’ll stick with the traditional roast pork or lemongrass beef.
The apple pancake was the most traditionally German item of the day, and shows the chef knows not to mess with perfection. This type of pancake is baked in a hot frying pan, which creates a unique cakelike consistency. It was topped with strawberries and crème fraiche that accented the apple, cinnamon and whole wheat flavors, and was delicious.
I was also delighted with the panazella salad, a mix of shrimp, squid and mussels over mixed greens and vegetables with chunks of fresh bread included. Think of those as croutons that haven’t been toasted — that’s the way they make salad in Tuscany, and it’s a traditional Florentine dish. It included both white and fava beans and was a showcase for bright, fresh flavors, as good a salad as I’ve had all year.
The staff managed to get everything out quickly despite having to do ballet-like moves to stay out of each other’s’ way, and our coffees and water never went dry. They know their stuff at 3 Square, both in the front of the house and the kitchen. Our lavish brunch was moderately priced by Abbot Kinney standards — about $25 each with lattes, coffee and a juice drink. It was a reasonable price for a remarkable meal.
3 Square Café & Bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Beer and wine. Vegetarian/vegan options available.
3 Square Café & Bakery, 1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 399-6504, rockenwagner.com