Cement with a side of cabbage.
That's the way most of the world sees German cuisine, the fat, jolly cousin of the food family. We're talking heavy, heavy, heavy here: potatoes and dumplings and thick, greasy sausages and--ach du lieber!--next thing you know, you're laying down a foundation for a house.
But as with most foreign imports, there are a lot of misconceptions about German food in this country, mostly because familiarity breeds cash. The public knows potatoes and dumplings and thick, greasy sausages, and that's what they get. The fact is, Germany has a lot more to offer--sophisticated soups, unusual dried-fruit desserts and an unparalleled way with game meats. What's weird about Germany, though, is that even Germans tend to believe that their cuisine comes up lacking--travelers who ask for restaurant recommendations there are often steered toward places that serve Middle Eastern or French food.
Certainly no one in Denver sends out-of-towners to German restaurants--in part because there are so few of them, and the better ones are nestled in the mountain resort areas. Looking to change all that is Aki von Mende, a German-born restaurateur whose Cafe Berlin opened two months ago on 17th Avenue where Foucher's Creole Cafe used to fry up a mean chicken. Von Mende and his brother own Sundance restaurant in Nederland, and von Mende solo had the Grotto, a fish-and-chips joint in Seattle, for years. "Denver seemed to be ready for a German restaurant," he says. "My brother and I have talked about it for so long, we finally decided it was time." They could be right--with so much pasta floating around this city, a little schnitzel couldn't hurt, especially not the way von Mende and his band of merry women make it.
In the tiny kitchen partially visible from the two white dining rooms decorated with huge, bright paintings and little else, von Mende, his daughter Brie--"she's my right-hand man," he says proudly--and the sometime-pastry chef/full-time waitress Tanya Zacchini serve up quite an assortment of traditional, tried-and-true German offerings. What keeps these dishes from being compared to cinderblocks, though, is the light touch with the gravies, the attention to detail and the emphasis on seasonings rather than lard for flavoring.
The marjoram in the house-specialty split-pea soup ($2.50) was a fine example. If the base was made from bacon, the meat was used sparingly, because this staple--lentils and peas are the stock soup ingredients in Germany--had none of the usual pork undertones, despite the few bits of ham floating around. It did, however, have peas aplenty--and lots of the marjoram, which gave it a more sophisticated quality than the standard peasant dish. But we still welcomed the homey tones of the applesauce that came with the appetizer potato pancakes ($3.95). The three pancakes themselves were light and crisply fried on the outside, partly mashed and partly grated on the inside, with not a greasy stain in sight. The applesauce, made on the premises from Granny Smiths, was truly special--chunky but soft and just sweet enough to counteract the accompanying sour cream. Sadly, the too-sharp bite of the herring ($3.95) in a red-wine sauce clued us to the fact that it had been made recently and needed time to mellow.
Enough hours had been invested in the sauerbraten ($11.95). Two frisbees of roasted beef (the name means "sour roast") soaked in the time-honored duo of vinegar and wine had been slow-cooked into submission and then covered with a gravy of the marinade and the meat's juices. The side dishes of--what else?--spatzle and red cabbage met our expectations of authenticity: The spatzle had been lightly fried with parsley after boiling, and the cabbage was caramelized around the edges from a healthy shaking of sugar.
More cabbage cropped up next to the tender chicken frikasee ($10.95) as a side of sauerkraut--one of the most recognizably German foods even though it was invented in China about 2,000 years ago. Cafe Berlin's sauerkraut had been rinsed of its brine and drained to dryness, but it still wasn't too dry. It had been put in a separate dish to keep it from tainting the creamy frikasee sauce that was studded with capers--which are not recognizably German but are often used in the northern, sea-accessible areas of the country. The capers' piquancy kept the butter sauce from becoming too rich and added needed flavor, since the German version of this French dish contains no vegetables.
Of course, no German meal would be complete without an apple strudel ($2.50). Cafe Berlin does its namesake proud with an inch-thick slice of pastry dough wrapped many times around gooey, chewy apples and walnuts--the signature way Berliners like their strudel.
The kitchen was out of strudel at the ultrafriendly Helga's, but it had more than enough meats. This Aurora deli-turned-restaurant has been dishing up some of the best wurst around for a little more than four years; the owners, Herbert Huber and his sister Helga Bruntsch, were born in Chicago but raised in Germany. "Our parents wanted us to get our education in Germany," Huber says. "It was pretty awesome there, but competitive. Our family has been in the business for ten generations and had restaurants in the Rhineland-Pfalz area, but that's a tough market." Denver proved more promising--after two years of carving cold cuts, Helga's became a full-service restaurant, taking over the post-office space next door and turning it into a child's Bavarian dream. And nowhere are children more welcome. Huber keeps the prices low, the portions enormous and the atmosphere cafeteria-casual to attract neighborhood families.
The food too often follows the cafeteria theme, although more so with the cooked items than with the fresh, top-quality meats. We sampled a platter of them in the German fingertip sandwiches ($5.95), slices of bread topped with a German bologna, a couple of wursts and smoked salmon--a nod to the fact that Rhineland used to be a major producer of the fish in the days before over-harvesting. One thing that never seems depleted is Germany's supply of potatoes, which we encountered at Helga's in a hearty soup ($1.55 a bowl); the tubers had been diced and creamed into comfort status.
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Back at the deli counter, we were happy with the pungent veal bratwurst on the Rhineland platter ($13.95) and disappointed with both the dry wiener schnitzel (I couldn't prove it, but it seemed like pork, not veal) and the kassler rippschen, a smoked center-cut pork chop that tasted like so much ham. The gravy on the side had the consistency of glue, and the red cabbage looked like bits of newspaper floating in a puddle. Even the German potato salad, a deli standby, was bland and past its prime.
The kitchen was more alert with the pork loin dinner ($10.95), rolls of tenderloin wrapped around prunes and swathed in a tart reduction of the fruit with pork juices. The sauerkraut that came with it was marvelous--filled with bits of salty ham and a nice touch of caraway seeds--but the spatzle was bloated with water.
We had looked forward to a strudel smoothing things over but wound up happily munching two beautiful desserts (all of which are $2.50) that Helga's buys from Kirschner's German bakery in Colorado Springs. One was a spongy Black Forest cake, the other a hazelnut torte. Both were coated with icings that--in keeping with Germany's indifference to overly sweet sweets--hardly seemed to contain sugar, they were so so thin and light.
Not at all the sort of thing that could pave a driveway.