WURST CASE SCENARIO
October stands for a lot of things. Crisp apples. Peak foliage. Carved pumpkins. But most important to serious celebrants of food and drink, October signals Oktoberfest, that little-understood but much loved German holiday.
In Munich, where Oktoberfest began as a royal wedding bash 180 years ago, the yearly festival runs for two weeks, ending on the first Sunday in October. This explains why Oktoberfest is celebrated in September--something that's always confused me. You see, though a quarter of the blood that swirls through my veins originated in the land of great beer and bread, I never knew my German oma. She died when my dad was a boy. I grew up in a ethnically bland community where Rotarians turned Oktoberfest into a fund-raising gig, selling bratwurst and Budweiser. Worse yet, in all my travels I've never crossed a German, or even Austrian, border.
This is not to say I've never eaten German food. I have. In American cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York. Not often, but often enough.
So, in honor of my ancestry, and because it's that time of year, I thought I'd test the local waters for German restaurants.
Felsen Haus is first on the agenda, primarily because it's centrally located on Camelback Road in Phoenix. I've heard mixed things about this restaurant. People have told me it's funky, funny and friendly. These same people have urged me to go there and "drink from the boot."
I call ahead to see if the restaurant's new owners have anything planned for Oktoberfest. A young woman answers the phone. When she realizes I'm not talking about Rocktoberfest, she relinquishes the instrument to an older woman. "We have to get a license," the second woman tells me. "We do a beer garden outside in the parking lot. If we don't get the license, we'll do it inside. Of course, every day we have our German food, our German music and over 32 kinds of German beer."
I hang up the phone. It is time to visit Felsen Haus in person.
We enter the restaurant through a back door off the small parking lot. On the night we visit, there is a decidedly unpleasant smell lingering in this rear hallway, and I don't think it's boiled cabbage. As for the dining area, it's dark and dingy. Decoupaged walls juxtapose bikini-clad, navel-baring Bavarian beauties with misty Rhine castles and other travel agency issue. There is no nonsmoking section.
My dining accomplice and I are quickly seated and given menus. I can't resist trying a new beer, so I ask our blonde, pigtailed waitress to recommend one. "I'll bring you one I like," she says. What is it, I ask her. "It's hard to say," says she. "But it's good."
She brings me a large (25 ounces) bottle of Spaten Pils Munich. I end up leaving about half of it, but what I drink, I enjoy. It's a nice German beer, bitter and thirst quenching.
Selecting what to eat is a tougher matter. While considering our options, we are entertained with "live German music." An organist stationed between the bar and dining room pumps out tango-flavored polkas. Right now he's playing "Spanish Eyes." The bumper sticker on his keyboards reads "Shut Up and Dance."
When our waitress buzzes by for the third time to take our order, I settle on the schlachteplatte. In Germany, schlachteplatte means "butcher's platter." There, it commemorates hog-butchering day and is likely to include delicacies like boiled headmeat, black pudding and liver dumplings. Thankfully, at Felsen Haus, it's more like a sampling platter of Americanized German favorites.
My accomplice orders the fleisch roulade. "That's my favorite," our waitress murmurs. Question: Are waiters and waitresses trained to say this to men, because traditionally the man pays the bill? It sure seems to happen a lot.
She scurries off to the kitchen with our order. Within minutes she returns with soup and salad. Goulash soup, that is, and German potato salad. As Bobby Vinton's "My Melody of Love" is rendered with a military backbeat, we examine the food in front of us. I expected my cup of goulash soup to be a hearty tomato/beef/macaroni kind of thing. What I get is thin, red and disappointing. There are no vegetables in it at all. The salad has been smacked on a lettuce leaf without any thought to visual aesthetics. I'm not that keen on how it tastes, either, though my accomplice is satisfied.
We do like the bread that is brought to us. My favorite is the salzstange--a long rye baguette studded with salt and caraway seeds.
The organist launches into another tango. This one's a teaser. Our soup and salad plates are cleared and our dinners delivered as we puzzle it out. The family at a nearby table also struggles to name that tune. They wave down our waitress and ask her what he's playing. "It's a kind of a Spanish song," she says. "He ought to have a program list," the woman suggests.
Our waitress calls over to us, "Do you know this song?" I tell them I think it's "Hernando's Hideaway." The woman looks skeptical, but her husband nods in strong agreement. "Okay," she says, unconvinced. "I guess you're right."
Portions are not as plentiful as anticipated. My schlachteplatte includes sauerbraten, Wiener schnitzel, knackwurst and bratwurst. The sauerbraten, far from Wagnerian in size, is downright petite. Teensy knackwurst and bratwurst look like cocktail sausages. Though our waitress tells my accomplice she's given him two rolled flank steaks instead of just one, it's still a demure dinner.
But that's just quantity. Let's talk quality. The wine and vinegar-marinated sauerbraten is definitely the best thing on my plate. I also like the pink, tight-skinned knackwurst, though its plain flavor needs Bavarian mustard to enliven it. Mashed potatoes with gravy and dark and feisty red cabbage are both good, too. On the down side, the thin, breaded veal cutlet tastes as if fish has been fried in the same oil. And a mini-bratwurst is revoltingly mushy. I wonder if it has been cooked long enough. One thing's for sure: Mustard is not enough to redeem it.
My accomplice's fleisch roulade is very tasty. Cucumber, onion and bacon are tucked inside the rolled-up beef. The flavors blend together, but I like it. Sauerkraut has a fresh, crunchy taste and texture, but noodles with gravy are strictly ordinary.
The couple at the next table turns our way again. The organist is playing a Hawaiian tune. "What's this one?" the woman asks us. We shake our heads. If it's not "Tiny Bubbles," we don't know it.
Desserts are limited at Felsen Haus tonight. Our choice is apple streudel or cheesecake with raspberries. We opt to share a piece of strudel. It comes to us admirably hot, but the apple-raisin pastry tastes stale. Even a Teutonic ignoramus like me knows that German cuisine can reach a much higher form than what's achieved at Felsen Haus. Until they get this place cleaned up, I'll be sure to celebrate Oktoberfest elsewhere.
Like Bavarian Point in East Mesa, for instance.
This clean and charming restaurant is one of the busiest I've seen in months. We arrive early, around six o'clock on a Saturday night, and already it's tough to score a table. They don't take reservations for parties of two, so keep that in mind if you go.
Fortunately, we do not have to wait to be seated. No sooner do we nestle into our booth than a lovely waitress comes over. Again, I desire a beer--it must be part of my genetic code or something. This time our waitress recommends Warsteiner, a German beer on tap. It comes to the table in a huge pilsner glass with a slice of lemon in it. This beer is more hoppy, less bitter than the one at Felsen Haus, but again, I like it.
The chef at Bavarian Point is from Austria, so this menu is even less familiar to us. Our waitress, clad in embroidered jumper, is patient and helpful in answering our questions. With her assistance, we make our choices. There is no organ music at this restaurant, no polka band. Instead, a zither player strums German and Austrian favorites like "Edelweiss." His performance is so flawless, I think the music is canned until I catch a glimpse of him at work, bent over his instrument, near the kitchen doors. There's a choice of salad bar or soup with dinner at Bavarian Point. The soup tonight is cream of pea. A full bowl of it arrives moments after we order. Piping hot, loaded with creamed and whole peas and flavored with ham, this is pea soup that would comfort any expatriate. I adore it.
Meanwhile, my dining accomplice is executing a blitzkrieg on the salad bar. In the last few years I've grown weary and leery of salad bars--haven't we all?--but when I see his plate piled high with interesting goodies, it gives me pause. In particular, a mayonnaised potato salad made with chopped dill pickle is marvelous. Our waitress warns us that the schinkenrolle appetizer will take a while, and it does. It arrives after we've feasted on soup and salad. At this point, the cold rolls of ham stuffed with a mayonnaise mix of peas, carrots, potato and more ham seem redundant. There's no reason to order this Super Bowl party snack, especially after a trip to the salad bar.
By 7 p.m., every table in the restaurant is filled and the staff is stretched to the limit. Our diligent waitress is now jogging back and forth to the kitchen. Only one man is busing tables and he's clearly not enough. Case in point: When our waitress delivers our entrees, our appetizer plates are still in front of us. Out of necessity, I move them so she can plunk down our plates, but it is an awkward moment. After, I must beg her to take the used plates with her. With more support staff, this wouldn't happen.
But we're very happy with our food. Filet goulash stroganoff is delightful. I worried that it would be heavy with cream, but I was wrong. The paprika-spiced sauce is light and augmented by mushrooms, pickle and ham. The pieces of filet are tender and flavorful. Spaetzle is the perfect accompaniment. These twisted bits of dough go great with gravy.
My accomplice tells me he thinks his Zigeunerspiess tastes like Chinese food. He's right. The skewered pork morsels are complemented by julienne green pepper, onion, bacon and mushroom in a brown sauce not unlike something from the wok. Both dishes impress me for their lack of heaviness--a quality I have tended to associate with German food.
In fact, we still have room for dessert, if we can snag our waitress. She remembers us eventually and runs over. Strawberry dumplings sound great, but a thirty-minute wait doesn't. We bag that idea in favor of slices of Black Forest and Princess cakes. The former is lusciously laden with cream and cherries between layers of chocolate cake. The latter is rich with chocolate mousse filling. Frankly, they're just not that special. I see sweat-producing cakes like this in many restaurants. My heart was set on those dumplings.
Bavarian Point is the type of restaurant which could change anyone's mind about German food. It's cooking like this which could make you miss what you never had.
Felsen Haus, 1008 East Camelback, Phoenix, 277-1119. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m., Sunday.
Bavarian Point, 4815 East Main, Mesa, 830-0999. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
chris: this one can go anywhere.
This explains why Oktoberfest is celebrated in September--something that's always confused me.
these go with first review.
"Every day we have our German food, our German music and over 32 kinds of German beer," she tells me.
The dish commemorates hog-butchering day and is likely to include delicacies like boiled headmeat, black pudding and liver dumplings.
Even a Teutonic ignoramus like me knows that German cuisine can reach a much higher form than what's achieved at Felsen Haus.
these go with second. thx, kim
Piping hot, loaded with creamed and whole peas and flavored with ham, this is pea soup that would comfort any expatriate. I adore it.
Bavarian Point is the type of restaurant that could change anyone's mind about German food.
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