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Next, a trough bowl of spatzle -- soft egg noodles that were more like tiny dumplings or perfectly cooked risotto in size and texture. They came piled under a mellow, almost faintingly delicate Swiss-cheese-and-cream sauce studded with woody slivers of shiitake mushroom, and while the thoroughly Japanese fungi were a strikingly odd departure on a menu that's 99 percent old-school Euro, they worked. In contrast to less muscular continental 'shrooms (black trumpets, say, or hedgehogs), the shiitakes had a deep, earthy flavor that gave the gentle sauce a solid leg to stand on, and their stiffness added a textural bite and counterpoint to the huge pile of squishy pseudo-noodles. When the applesauce and sour cream were gone, Laura and I mounded up the last of the kartoffelpuffer (which, if I type it again, will give my spellchecker an aneurysm) with the last of the spatzle, then used the scraps to mop up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl.
We were full, and dinner hadn't really gotten going yet. Our table was cleared, silver was reset, and salads were brought out. For Laura, gurkensalat, thin-sliced cucumbers tossed in a thick and dill-heavy sour-cream dressing that had the fingerprints of a stout Russian babushka all over it. For me, a mercifully plain green salad with the house-special mustard vinaigrette. Our server -- who knew the menu backward and forward and no matter what you ordered would assure you it was an excellent choice, a specialty of the house, or part of his own dinner just an hour before -- was very proud of this dressing, reminding me (twice) that it was his favorite and (twice) that the staff made it fresh every morning. After one taste I decided that the staff must spend a lot of time drinking raw kerosene, because the vinaigrette was as bracing as a shot of moonshine and powerful enough to strip the enamel off my teeth.
Things like that should be expected at a German restaurant, though, since these are not a people known for their subtlety. So I steeled myself for the cream of broccoli soup. My mother makes a German-style cream of broccoli soup for the holidays that takes three days, roughly 300 pounds of broccoli, more heavy cream than any dozen people should be exposed to in a lifetime and, when finished, tastes like nothing so much as a hundred years of comfort in one small bowl. But at Cafe Berlin, comfort comes in smothering sauces, potatoes cooked in every way a potato can be cooked, and in the crushing volume of food brought to you when you thought you'd stopped in for just a quick little something. Here the soup was the lightest, brightest thing on the menu, tasting only of its four main ingredients: broccoli, cream, black pepper and celery salt. And when a warm cream soup is the lightest thing on the board, that's really saying something.
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Another remove, another round of beers (dark doppelbock this time), another set of fresh silver, and then the entrees. Of the seven varieties of schnitzel on the menu, we went with the paprikaschnitzel, a huge veal cutlet, butter-soft and beaten to within an inch of its life, covered in a smoky-sweet, high-grade paprika cream sauce with a deep heat that was like taking in a nose-full of cherry wood smoke from a fire burning far away. On the side came potatoes -- fried this time -- and asparagus fresh off the grill.
An order of sauerbraten brought five medallions of thick-sliced, slow-marinated beef soaked down in a smooth stock gravy with an end note of gingersnap. Fat potato dumplings and a hungry man's portion of cool (but slightly stiff) vinegar-brined red cabbage threatened to spill over the sides of the plate onto the formerly white tablecloth that already showed all the marks of the war Laura and I had fought with the maximum depth of our appetites. We picked and we sampled, we pushed things around to make it look like we'd eaten more than we had, but our grandmothers would have been very unhappy, because there was just no way in hell we were going to clean our plates. We tried -- and valiantly, I think -- but in the end, Cafe Berlin's hospitality got the better of us, and we had to ask for to-go boxes.
Besides, it was 7:30, and the place was starting to fill up. It took a few minutes to get the attention of our server -- who was running through the same marathon of courses we'd just completed, but now trying to juggle a half-dozen tables, each in a different stage of gluttony -- and once we did, he seemed sad that we weren't staying for dessert.
"Lemon cake," he said. "It's great. Very fresh."
"No," I said. "Thanks, but we're stuffed." I looked at Laura and her eyes glazed over in horror.
"God, no. I couldn't eat another bite."
"Come on," he taunted. "You sure? I've already had three slices today."
This went on until finally I said I'd take a slice to go.
"A small slice," I insisted, and he nodded, disappearing into the kitchen.