I can drive from my house to Morrison in about the same amount of time that it takes me to drive to downtown Denver, but I rarely go. Once a year to a show at Red Rocks, if I'm lucky, but otherwise I've probably had dinner in the almost-mountain town just a handful of times in my life. But my quest for good schnitzel knows no geographic or geological boundaries, so even if Cafe Prague is on the other side of a psychological border that makes Aurora and Centennial feel closer than the nearby town that just happens to have a hogback between me and it, I'll make the westward journey for the promise of some breaded veal.
Cafe Prague offers chicken and pork schnitzels, but it's the Wiener schnitzel I'm after -- the more refined version of the dish and, of course, the one that's more fun to say. The rest of the menu is fairly expansive, with German and Czech choices running from very traditional (sauerbraten) to Colorado classic (trout with lemon dill sauce). There are plenty of dishes that read like a retro cookbook: duck a l'orange, chicken marsala, tournados Oscar -- all names that meant a specific preparation to generations of diners, before chefs started getting fancy and putting together lists of ingredients as menu descriptions.
The restaurant is fairly busy and the host does his best to remain pleasant as he scrambles to clear us a table, despite the fact that we have no reservation. We're eventually seated between a dead ringer for Tony Bennett and two couples whose accents give away their New Jersey roots. The room is hushed compared to clamorous modern restaurants -- those high-ceilinged, concrete or brick caverns. Most of the cozy room is lit in warm gold, but a cool aquamarine glow surrounds the bar area.
An order of Wiener schnitzel at Cafe Prague is a little pricey at $24, but it comes with a soup or salad, mashed potatoes and sweet and sour red cabbage. A basket of warm and crusty rolls is also part of the deal. The soup tonight is liver dumpling, intriguing enough to overrule the salad. It turns out to be a rich beef consomme with one big, semi-submerged sphere -- actually a dumpling made of liver and not, as I has assumed, a dumpling stuffed with liver. Light and airy and even a little spongy, the dumpling comes in somewhere between a pate and mousse in flavor and texture.
After the soup, we nibble on bread and listen intently as the man at the next table, possibly a landlord or apartment renovator, complains about having to install smoke detectors in a building he has just purchased. I'm not generally an eavesdopper; in fact, a bum right ear makes it a supreme act of concentration to simply hear my table mates at most restaurants, but here it's almost unavoidable. Snippets of parents discussing their childrens' college options, discourses on the state of Morrison's public parking (appalling, apparently), and the sounds of celebratory toasts come from all directions.
When the schnitzel arrives though, I tune out the chitchat to concentrate on the plate. The veal is thin and delicate as lace and coated in a tender, golden breading. Alone, the veal is barely detectable -- a whisper of meat beneath a lightly herbed crust. The red cabbage is more sweet than sour, almost a relish that accompanies the meat well. Airy whipped potatoes occupy the remaining sector of the plate.
As at Sobo 151, dark Crusovice Cerne in a big mug seems the right beer for the schnitzel, but unlike Sobo, there's no half-surly, half-joking bar ender or noise from televised hockey. A bottle of Riesling would have been as appropriate. Service is prompt and professional and in many instances the staff seems to know the customers well. It seems the kind of restaurant where those with money go to be treated well; the food is a familiar backdrop rather than the centerpiece.
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In Denver, hip restaurants with big-name chefs attract an in-crowd of young professionals and industry insiders, drawn by the allure of the next big culinary moment and the magic -- and sometimes illusion -- of modernist technique and plating. Older restaurants like Cafe Prague have a similar allure for those regulars who are comfortable being known by the restaurant, and who in turn feel like they're among family. A little money well spent goes a long way toward being a different kind of insider -- the kind who may get a complimentary bottle of wine now and then, or an off-menu special from the chef who knows just what they like. I'd have to order an awful lot of schnitzel over a long period of time before the kitchen would start slipping an extra liver dumpling in my soup, much less an after-dinner drink on the house, so I'm probably better off keeping track of the hockey scores and sloshing my beers at the bar, even if the schnitzel is a little more rustic and made only from pork.