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European Bistro, 2530 West Camelback, Phoenix, 249-1123. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The conversation flagged at the table next to us, as the couple turned their full attention to polishing off dinner. At meal's end, the fellow put down his fork and delivered a grunt of pleasure. "That was real good," he commented, pointing to his clean plate, as his partner nodded in agreement. Then he surveyed the dining room. "You know," he told her, "New Times could really help this place."
Honestly, I wasn't eavesdropping. My wife and I simply couldn't avoid overhearing every word the pair uttered. That's because there wasn't any restaurant clatter to distract us--we four were European Bistro's only customers.
It shouldn't be that way. The German fare is delicious, as good as it gets in the Valley's relatively weak German league. The price is right, too, with lots of dishes going for 12 bucks or less. And the servers are friendly and eager to please.
But if an artist tried to capture the scene at European Bistro, no doubt he'd paint a still life. On each of my three visits, the place was dismally empty. If you listened carefully, I thought, you might hear the sound of the proprietor's investment going down the drain after just a few months.
So what's the problem? You can sum it up in three words: location, location, location.
For some reason, Eduard Stemerowitz, the new-to-America chef/owner who doesn't speak English, opted to exhibit his talents at an unpromising west-side address that last housed a Sizzler franchise. This bleak section of West Camelback Road, just off the Black Canyon Freeway, will never be mistaken for Restaurant Row. Maybe something got lost or misinterpreted in translation during lease negotiations. Or maybe he misjudged the potential impact of his kitchen skills. But even Julia Child would have a hard time operating a venture called "European Bistro" in this spot. If there's any pent-up demand for sauerbraten, schweinebraten or schnitzel in this part of town, I'm not aware of it.
Inside, the new owners have done a lot to overcome the sterile, utilitarian, chain-restaurant layout. The harsh, boxy interior is softened by white lace curtains and romantic lighting. An astonishing array of knickknacks, curios and collectibles rings the room on shelves running just below the ceiling: beer steins, copper molds, pitchers. Elsewhere, there's an old treadle sewing machine, a vintage stove, horseshoes, yokes and cuckoo clocks. Awards and certificates from the homeland, attesting to the chef's culinary prowess, are also on display.
I can attest to his prowess, too. Herring fans will savor the salted herring appetizer, two hefty filleted slabs bathed in a homemade sour-cream sauce, garnished with hard-boiled egg, tomato and onion, and served with boiled potatoes. (Remember, German cuisine is not for the appetite-challenged.) The appetizer plate for two will force most couples to loosen their belts. It's an undainty spread featuring silky marinated salmon, prosciutto, ham and shrimp in cream sauce, freshened with kiwi, cantaloupe, olives, Cornichons and sliced egg topped with a colorful dollop of red and yellow fish roe. If you're determined to save most of your belly room for the main dish, try taking the edge off your hunger with the excellent goulash soup, a hearty, beefy broth that sports homemade flair.
The Old Country entrees won't surprise you with their novelty, but familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. Rinderroulade is deftly prepared: beef rolled around pickles, onions and bacon, moistened with a fragrant brown sauce. Spatzle--light, doughy homemade noodles--and a mix of fresh winter veggies (including Brussels sprouts) complete the platter. Sauerbraten is another tasty source of animal protein, tender braised beef in a pungent, lip-smacking sour dark gravy. Two massive bread dumplings provide heavy support. Diners who clean their plates won't need any midnight refrigerator or pantry raids to help them make it through the night. This dish will hold you until morning.
The scent of stuffed cabbage always transports me back to my childhood. On special winter Fridays, my mother would labor all day preparing this treat, my favorite dish. European Bistro's version is a respectable facsimile. You get two enormous rolls, each big enough to be mistaken for a doorstop, doused in a rich tomato gravy that's just begging to be soaked up with the rye bread sitting on the table. How the restaurant can make a profit charging $7 for this entree is a mystery I'm happy to leave unsolved.
The kitchen knows its way around Wiener schnitzel, two ample veal medallions breaded, then crisply fried. Tart, vinegary, German-style potato salad furnishes just the right accompaniment. And if you prefer your animal protein as pork, the kassler rippchen, an oversize slice of smoked pork loin teamed with a mound of sauerkraut, hits all the right buttons. If there were such a thing as German soul food, this would be it.
You can eat lighter, if you prefer. Puff pastry stuffed with vegetables in cream sauce is a tasty meat alternative. So is the cheese-covered spatzle, a kid-friendly option. Naturally, you can wash down everything with several German brews on tap.