Ben, my German friend and I arrived on the last day of 2018 in rainy Esslingen am Neckar, a gorgeous little German town on the banks of the Neckar River, a short drive from the city of Stuttgard. Having managed to survive the ravages of World War II, Esslingen offers a peek into German history: over 200 centuries-old, beautifully preserved half-timbered houses, surrounded by hillside vineyards that echo the town’s winemaking past. In fact, Esslingen is quite well known for a kind of sparkling wine named sekt, which can be sampled at the Kessler Wines tasting room right in the center. Esslingen is a gorgeous place to walk around, with the babbling river passing in picturesque canals and the charming bridges that cross them offering plenty of eye candy in every direction. Altogether, not a bad place to wake up on the first morning of the new year.
One of my favorite moments in Esslingen was our stop at Kielmeyes Besen, initially just to escape the rain and maybe cheers with a round of beers (or sekt) before checking into our hotel. This is one of those great, no-fuss, genuine eateries always packed with locals, with a limited menu of Swabian specialties, but all of those done right. It has the air of having been around for a while, a popular watering hole that doesn’t change too much from one year to the next. We were lucky enough to have arrived at the kitchen’s last call on a day where almost nothing else was open. My only regret? Not taking it a little bit easier with the continental breakfast at our Stuttgart hotel that morning. I would have loved to have been hungry enough to sample at least one or two more things on the menu, among them the restaurant’s more traditional version of the maultasche I had already tried the night before. Nevertheless, the feeling of the place definitely came through in the short time we spent there, serving as a wonderful beginning to a very eventful 24 hours in Esslingen am Neckar.
My friend ordered the Flädlesuppe and insisted that I try it. A bowl arrived with a profoundly flavorful broth and some tight little coils of rolled up and sliced pancake submerged inside. I really enjoyed the firm but smooth texture of the German crêpe, which took the place of pasta here. They were slightly caramelized and charred on the outside, which added a nice layer of flavor to the soup, which already had that slow-cooked, home-made charm from the broth. Fresh parsley contributed a nice touch of color as well.
To share, Ben and I ordered a flagship dish of Swabian cuisine: Heckengäu lentils with spätzle and saitenwürstle sausage. Seemingly simple, these lentils were brilliant. The fine beads were like caviar, with an elegant rounded texture and incredibly satisfying when held together by the dark roux of thickened lentil broth. They were seasoned with some kind of smoked pork (bacon?) and herbs like bay leaf or thyme, along with a touch of vinegar, the combination of which reminded me of American barbecue. The lentils were served with airy light spätzle, clearly homemade and freshly cooked, sprinkled with breadcrumbs, which added a kind of sandy texture and a nutty, toasted taste to the dish. Two links of saitenwürstle (something like a Vienna sausage) were lain over the top. These were also fantastic and so different from the rubbery canned crap you get at supermarkets in the US. They were smooth and slightly elastic with the natural casing snapping seductively when sliced into. There was a slightly-salty-slightly-sweet porcine zest, with a touch of smoke. This was a dish that I genuinely enjoyed and was hard-pressed to share, even if not too hungry. It’s the kind of dish that can create an appetite where there wasn’t one before, especially when paired to a frosty pint of local beer.