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The dining room at Cafe Berlin was empty when Laura and I walked past. Next door, Dario's had a few tables, and the smell of roasting meat, garlic and red sauce licking out onto the street would ensure that it soon had a few more. A couple of early drinkers were tucked in at the Thin Man's long bar, and at the end of the block, St. Mark's Coffeehouse was jumping, with crowds spilling out onto the patio.
1600 Champa St., Unit 230
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
We took a turn around the block, walking slow, stalling because I have this thing -- bordering almost on a phobia -- about sitting down in an empty restaurant. It's the same with empty movie theaters. I figure that if a place is dead quiet, there's probably a reason. The last time I was alone in a theater, it was for a prime-time showing of Battlefield Earth that did nothing but brutally reinforce a latent evolutionary survival skill. I should have followed my skittish animal instincts and gotten out, like an antelope seeing a still pool of murky water out on the savanna, untouched by any of the local critters, and walking away in search of a more heavily trafficked spot for a drink.
But the rule doesn't always hold true with restaurants. Sure, there was that lonely tamale stand in Albuquerque that looked like it hadn't served a customer in five years -- and for good reason, it turned out. I ate one half of one pork tamale there, and six hours later was begging Laura to call Smilin' Jack Kevorkian to put me out of my misery. But there was also Opal, which was empty but for my table when I was served one of the best meals of my life. There was the Denver Diner, quiet as the grave the first time I sat down for lunch. And I've almost never seen another customer at my favorite 24-hour doughnut shop, but the cream-filleds haven't killed me yet.
We completed our circuit of the block, waited around outside for a couple of minutes, then finally took the plunge. The owner and one of the servers were sitting in front of the bar polishing the silver when we stepped into the long, narrow space. On the left was the empty dining room -- cute and bright and nicely appointed, fully set for the weekend crowds that had yet to materialize -- and a small patio for those who prefer their bratwurst al fresco. On the right were the waiting area, a couple of overflow tables, a short bar (stubby but surprisingly well stocked) and, behind it, a kitchen that was already a riot of activity, with three guys in starched whites, their heads down, busy making good smells. Cabbage steam, the odor of citric bases that will always remind me of home, the acrid stab of sauerkraut and mustard, sweet caramelizing onions -- I felt better about the place already, and confidently told the server (who'd snapped to his post as soon as we'd walked in) that there would be two for dinner.
He asked if we had reservations and flipped open his book. I said no and asked if that was a problem, glancing again at the quiet dining room in case I'd somehow missed a party of thirty tucked away somewhere. He said no, it would probably be okay, provided we thought we could be finished before 7:30. I looked at my watch and laughed. It was 5:20. Yeah, I said, I thought we could manage that, assuming he was joking.
There is one rock-solid guarantee I can make for Cafe Berlin: You will not walk away hungry. Matter of fact, you probably won't walk at all. You'll waddle, maybe stumble, and if you avail yourself of the litre beers they serve -- four Paulaner varieties on tap, plus Warsteiner, brought out in a glass stein the size of a barrel, like something the evil giant would drink in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale -- then being carried out is a distinct possibility.
What looked like such a simple, three-course menu when we sat down, with appetizers, entrees and desserts all in their proper places, ballooned into a Teutonic feast of massive proportions. Soups and salads, breads and sides, all attended by drinks (the aforementioned tap beers, with Rhein, Mosel and Franken region wines dominating the list), came to the table in staggered flights that ended with schnapps and dessert.
The apps started with a traditional würstteller of beef and veal brats, paired with a vicious, house-cured sauerkraut about as subtle as a boot in the teeth; there was also a käseplatte of import cheeses whose lineup changes week to week, sometimes day by day. Laura and I chased down our brats with kartoffelpuffer -- two flat-grilled potato pancakes served with a bowl of chunky homemade applesauce mingled with icy sour cream that gets easier to pronounce in direct proportion to how much Munich lager you've poured down your gullet. Second only to the musical stylings of KMFDM and David Hasselhoff, potato pancakes are Germany's greatest contribution to world culture, and even though our puffers were a little burnt 'round the edges, we devoured them -- Dr. Atkins be damned.
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.
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.
But at Cafe Berlin, there are no small slices of anything; the smallest portion served here is as large as the biggest bit of culinary deco plated up at the high-end houses around town. My small slice of lemon cake weighed about a pound and a half in its Styrofoam container. It was three stories high, as wide as the back of my hand, and -- while delicious -- would have been enough lemon cake to satisfy me for days.
I had the feeling that had we stayed a second longer, even more courses would have appeared -- more pickles, more brats, another round of salads brought down out of the clear blue sky. As we stumbled out onto 17th Avenue at about eight, too stuffed to breathe, we were carrying as much out of the place in to-go boxes as we'd had on our plates. And now the restaurant was full: a dozen diners, regulars all, and every one of them tucking in for the long haul.
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