It takes some
linguistic flair to maneuver the schnitzels and spaetzles on the menu at SoBro’s German-accented Liter House. People who can confidently request the frikadellen hamburger or inquire about the blutwurst with an enviable Teutonic twang have an advantage over the unschooled (or someone who short-sightedly chose French as her high school foreign language and can therefore barely order un Orangina). But once correctly pronounced—and delivered on heavy white plates in an equally unfancy dining room of painted concrete-block walls—this far-fetched food seems right at home. In Indiana, of all places.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Our state food is basically a breaded pork tenderloin,” says Liter House co-owner Eddie Sahm. And you don’t have to be Albert Einstein or Heidi Klum to detect the German influence—that the breaded pork tenderloin is basically a Hoosier schnitzel.
Sahm, who had traveled a bit in Germany and always been interested in his Western European heritage, wondered why there weren’t more local restaurants celebrating the country’s rustic, haus-made cuisine, especially in a market that shares so much of its culinary DNA. He was inspired enough to open Liter House in July, taking over Bent Rail Brewery’s desirable location that backs up to the Monon Trail, partnering with his father, prolific Indy-area restaurateur Ed Sahm, and brewer Scott Ellis. “The food I had in Germany was all very honest,” Sahm says. “It wasn’t over-the-top, but the flavors were big, and they didn’t back down from butter, meat, or fried food.”
You can taste that unapologetically bold objective in a smoked half-chicken posed on a plate busy with roasted fingerling potatoes and apples, pickled red cabbage, and a generous drizzle of beer-based butter sauce that pulls some flavor out of the dense meat. Like most of the dishes at Liter House, this is a full-fork experience, loaded with flavors designed to be tasted together, in one bite.
Likewise, roasted trout arrives with braised escarole and red-onion confit. Breaded sauerkraut balls dipped in mustard aioli are like jumbo hushpuppies with a tart, fermented-cabbage core. The cornwurst appetizer, a plate of panko-crusted mini corndogs filled with creamy pulled pork (actually deep-fried rillettes), is the warm and crunchy essence of Indiana State Fair food. Texas brisket transforms into a rich, ancho-spiked smoked beef goulash that trades the standard macaroni for the squiggly egg noodle, spaetzle—a brilliant switcheroo.
But the star of the menu, pork schnitzel, is a double stack of cutlets, thickly breaded and aggressively salted. The night I ate it, between sips of a mercifully refreshing copper-mug mule made with Cardinal Spirits Bramble vodka, the fried discs were arranged over sturdy cheese grits, doused with chunky red-eye gravy, and draped with a picture-perfect soft egg on top.
Some dishes get lost in translation, like the frikadellen burger. Inspired by the Western European flattened meatball, it gets over-compacted and tough beneath a crosshatch of bacon. And yes, the blutwurst—traditional blood sausage made in collaboration with Smoking Goose—is not for everyone, though the irony, ashy notes are as lovely and complex as a black sausage can be.
5301 Winthrop Ave., 463-221-2800
Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–midnight, Sun. 9 a.m.–10 p.m.
Robust German-inspired food
Knife-and-fork bratwurst and currywurst dressed with elaborate condiments
Starters $5–$10, mains $13–$24, beers $6 (half-liter)–$11 (liter)
People who have tracked head chef John Adams from Bluebeard to Plow & Anchor to Marrow to Salt on Mass will recognize some signature moves. His Jackson Pollock–style plating, with layers of sauces, creams, and chutneys applied in colorful swipes and dollops, has found a fresh canvas, along with Adams’s proclivity for world cuisine reimagined as comfort food (his tandoori fried chicken and paneer mac and cheese from the original Marrow menu are still on my list of last-meal requests). Adams is joined in the kitchen by fellow head chef Blake Ellis, a veteran of Repeal and Tinker Street, and house baker Erica Logan. Steve Simon, formerly of The Vanguard and LongBranch, commands the cocktail program, while general manager Lindsay Slone, a trained sommelier and Tinker Street alum, oversees the front of the house.
It’s no wonder Sahm was able to assemble such a dream team. He has a knack for running restaurants with fun, over-the-top personalities. In Nora, his Big Lug Canteen and Sahm’s Ale House draw beer-sloshing, poutine-eating crowds. The two restaurants sit on property that abuts the Monon Trail, 5 miles north of this slip of SoBro real estate where Sahm plans to build out Liter House like a branded all-weather compound, until it hugs the trail. As I write this, the barbecue pit, biergarten, and 40-seat rooftop dining area were yet to materialize. A pair of nicely dressed ladies carefully maneuvering the construction-zone parking lot laughed gamely as they rounded the corner of the building and debated over where the entrance might be. “Well, they’re still trying to figure everything out,” one of them said.
It does seem like Liter House has a lot of moving pieces. Shortly after opening, it started serving brunch, luring folks out of bed with dishes like almond-streusel French toast. Children’s menus and lunch specials were added post–opening night, and its Instagram account hinted at a secret menu of “random tinctures and what nots” from the kitchen, available upon request. Several weeks in, it started taking reservations to eliminate the evening backup of waitlisted diners scrambling from the bar to the host stand, hoisting beer steins so comically large they look like Mario Bros. props. And the restaurant introduced a monthly beer dinner series called Too Many Cooks that showcases the kitchen’s deep talent well.
One night, I noticed that the two chefs, Adams and Ellis, were standing outside the door to the kitchen, surveying the lay of the busy dining area as if they were trying to take the temperature of the room. If they are still trying to figure everything out, just as those two ladies navigating the construction thought, that’s fine, too. Some of us could use a little more time to work on our German pronunciation.