My Hungarian stepfather was a fussy eater. He wasn't a gourmet. He was just following -- rigidly, as he did almost everything -- dietary restrictions imposed by various bodily ailments and psychological quirks.
He had a weak stomach, he said, so he couldn't eat garlic, onions or cabbage. Heart problems precluded anything fatty. This meant cheese, cream and butter -- but he also ate vast quantities of beef, like almost all dieters in those innocent days. His diet was saltless. During the war, he'd escaped the Nazis in a fishing boat, eaten lobster daily and developed an aversion to it. He was, in fact, pretty queasy about seafood in general. My mother was a phenomenal cook, and working around these prohibitions drove her crazy, though she still managed somehow to produce delicious meals. (I think she sneaked in salt, garlic and butter when he wasn't looking.)
My father was also a huge embarrassment in restaurants, where he demanded salad with no dressing, meat with no sauce and plain boiled potatoes, then complained that the food was tasteless. But there was one place where he invariably relaxed: the Black Bear Inn in Lyons.
The building, a rambling collection of dark, oak-beamed rooms, looked like a Tyrolean inn. The owner greeted him in German and coddled him shamelessly, alternately accommodating his whims and coaxing him into some dietary indulgence or other. Expansive and at home, savoring his nice, fatty Wiener schnitzel, Pater became the best company imaginable. Through the early '70s, visits to the Black Bear Inn were a major family treat.
In 1977, Hans and Annalies Wyppler bought the restaurant. They renovated it, built a large kitchen, lightened the smoke-darkened rooms and upgraded the menu -- substituting the traditional veal for the pork the previous owners had used in their Wiener schnitzel, for example. But they maintained the restaurant's traditions.
"We get a lot of homesick Europeans," says Annalies, "a lot of people visiting from Europe. Sometimes our local customers bring in European relatives who don't speak English and ask if we can help them out.
"We are here for a quarter of a century, and now we know grandparents, parents and children. We always want people to come home to us."
Both Hans and Annalies had studied hotel management in Europe -- Hans in Munich and Annalies in Zurich -- before buying the Black Bear Inn. They'd also worked in Denver for twelve years. Hans spent part of that time at the Denver Club downtown, then became executive chef at the Denver Country Club. Annalies was the first female maître d' in Denver. She worked at the Petroleum Club, where women were not permitted to eat lunch, although -- properly escorted -- they were allowed to visit for dinner.
As my husband and I settled at our table on the pleasant flagstaff patio, rimmed with boxes of red geraniums, it was impossible not to think about dining there so many years ago with Pater. Our server, Heidemarie, told us she'd been at the Black Bear Inn for 25 years herself. I asked her how to pronounce spatzle, since I'd had one of those brief, meaningless arguments about it with a friend the day before. "Shpetzleh," she said, slowly and obligingly.
According to Annalies, Heidemarie is one of three employees who've been at the restaurant over two decades; another part-timer has worked there for fifteen years. Although the Wypplers don't want a formal and starchy place, they do insist that their waitstaff give good service. "Serve from the left; remove from the right," says Annalies. "These days, they just reach over the table."
The Black Bear's menu is still Swiss-Bavarian, with a nod to France. Entree prices can be high, ranging from $25 to $36 for Chateaubriand, but there's a reasonable wine list and a good selection of beers and mixed drinks.
My shrimp bisque, garnished with mint leaves and chive flowers, had the deep, rich flavor of long-simmered stock and a delicious hint of sweet in the saltiness. Bill's baked Camembert, however, seemed bland -- insufficiently pungent, insufficiently runny. And the lingonberry sauce accompanying it could have been more tart.
But then came the main dishes -- and some serious eating. My crab cakes fell to succulent pieces at the touch of the fork, and the smoked trout accompanying them provided both taste and textural contrast -- although the dish would have worked better, I thought, if the trout pieces had been smaller and thinner. Most chefs nowadays serve their salmon translucent in the center, a trend beloved by foodies but disliked by a lot of regular diners concerned about the real or imagined perils of raw fish; Bill's salmon was cooked just through and served in a creamy, lemony dill sauce, accompanied by saffron rice. Both entrees were served with carrots and string beans almondine, fresh, bright in color and perfectly cooked. As for the disputed spatzle -- squiggly little noodles -- they were tender and pleasant.
But we'd forgotten something. "We can't leave without tasting the schnitzel," Bill pointed out, "even if we have to take most of it home."
Of the two schnitzels available, we asked for the traditional Wiener schnitzel, a thin slice of veal, floured, egged, breaded and fried, served with German fried potatoes and a wedge of lemon. There's no way of evaluating food this nostalgia-laden: It was purely and simply as I'd remembered Wiener schnitzel from my teenage visits to Austria with my mother, and I loved it.
For dessert we shared -- what else? -- apple strudel and a slice of sachertorte. The sachertorte is the most traditional of Viennese desserts: Pastry chefs have battled over recipes; there have been lawsuits over the authenticity of various versions. The cake on Bill's plate was made at the Old Heidelberg Bakery in Colorado Springs, according to Annalies. There was raspberry rather than apricot jam between the chocolate layers, and a thin layer of marzipan underlay the glossy chocolate glaze -- anathema to the orthodox perhaps, but far too delicious to quibble over.
The apple strudel, on the other hand, was entirely authentic. The dough for this dessert is supposed to be hand-pulled over a table until it's so thin you can read a newspaper through it. It's then brushed with melted butter, scattered with buttered breadcrumbs (I think the Black Bear substitutes ground almonds), filled with apple slices and a scattering of raisins, rolled up, curved into a C-shape and baked. This goes on daily at the Black Bear Inn, and the resulting strudel is served with a generous dollop of rich whipped cream.
I think Pater would approve.
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