Want to see magnificent castles? Go to Eastern Europe. Want to visit the battlefields of World War II? Go to Eastern Europe. Want to study the uneasy transition from communism to a free-market economy? Go to Eastern Europe.
Want to eat gourmet food? Don't go to Eastern Europe.
From the Rhine to the Dnieper, from the Baltic to the Balkans, you can eat hearty. You can eat homey. You can even eat reasonably healthfully--if you go easy on the dairy and fried stuff. But you almost certainly can't eat anything that will drive you into a gastronomic frenzy.
Compare this regional cuisine to others around the globe. In western Europe, French cuisine is more delicate and subtle, while Italian specialties are more vigorous and complex. Asian fare more artfully blends flavors and textures. Middle Eastern platters come perfumed with exotic spices. Mexican dishes pack a zesty chile punch.
Eastern European food? Well, at least you can count on it to be filling. That's because its three basic food groups seem to be meat, cabbage and potatoes.
To me, a meal centered on schnitzels, sauerkraut and roasted spuds is like a vacation centered on Yuma: You can have a good time, but, in the back of your mind, you know you can have a better time elsewhere.
Not all people share my prejudices. If they did, the husband-and-wife proprietors of Mueller's Black Forest Inn, who for 15 years ran a sandwich shop in Scottsdale, would never have invested their capital in a new German restaurant. Nor could the Serbian owners of Europe at Night have thrived these past 18 years in the East Valley.
There's a cheery look and amicable feel to Mueller's that puts customers immediately at ease. Maybe it's the piped-in "Merry Widow" waltzes; maybe it's the homey, white-lace cafe curtains along the windows and Teutonic-looking wooden beams running across the ceiling; maybe it's the waitress in the peasant dirndl; maybe it's the pretty, rough-woven linen tablecloths. Whatever it is, this place resonates with warm congeniality, or what the Germans call gemYtlichkeit.
The appetizer list is mercifully short--only three items. (I say "mercifully" because you're as likely to leave a German restaurant hungry as you are to leave a Las Vegas casino rich.) I'm not quite sure what either the escargots or the baked Camembert are doing among the starters, except perhaps lending a touch of French class. Much more fitting is the wonderful herring in sour cream, goosed up with apples and onions. Herring in cream sauce is an acquired taste that I long ago acquired. I wish, however, I could have mopped up the sauce with something better than the commercial-tasting rye bread Mueller's puts out.
Meals start off with a soup of the day, which frequently turns out to be a thick navy bean. Perked up by bits of smoked meat, it's a hearty, rib-sticking broth. I don't know how much I'd look forward to it in August, but the soup works just right on chilly evenings in February.
The entrees cover the four major Fleisch groups: beef, pork, veal and fish. (Germans aren't big on poultry.) Most platters fall into the $12-to-$15 range.
The best of them is the Altburger tspfle, a house special fashioned from an ample portion of pork tenderloin simmered in a rich mushroom gravy. It is served with a tasty spaetzle, small doughy dumplings on which the chef sprinkles a bit of cheese. And the kitchen does an inventive job with the accompanying salad, too. Instead of the usual snoozy greenery, diners are treated to a mix of cold green beans, cucumbers and butter lettuce.
Wiener schnitzel is deftly done to traditional specifications, a thin slice of tender, breaded veal crisply sauteed in butter, paired with roasted potatoes.
The sauerbraten, however, is much less impressive, mostly because there seems to be so little of it. We got only three small pieces of beef, hardly enough to satisfy the Anglo-Saxon lust for red meat. The side of tart red cabbage, good as it is, didn't solve the problem.
The lachsfilet is a worthy main-dish alternative for folks not interested in meat. It's salmon steamed in foil, which turns the fish moist and flaky. Then the fish is topped with cucumbers and a fistful of fragrant dill. As with all the entrees, you can't go wrong washing it down with one of the three German beers on tap.
German desserts don't get the respect they deserve. At their best, these cakes and pastries can rival any sweets on the planet. Commendably, Mueller's makes its own, delivering first-rate efforts with both the chocolatey, cherry-studded Black Forest cake and the thick apple strudel.
I'm not sure Mueller's can rearrange my own dining-out navigational charts: Generally, I'm attracted to more exotic ethnic ports. But I can't deny that this charming bit of Deutschland in Scottsdale has ways of making me eat.
Europe at Night, 9303 East Apache Trail, Mesa, 9861927. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5p.m. to close.
Europe at Night--what a wonderfully mysterious, seductive name for a restaurant. And as I made my way there, what an image it conjured up: I pictured a dark, smoky cafe, filled with a bright, cosmopolitan crowd babbling in several European tongues. In the background, a zither player would be plucking out the mournful Balkan melodies of the proprietors' homeland. Meanwhile, the steaming scents of native specialties would start kicking my appetite into high gear.
Reality put an end to my reveries. This is no cafe. It's a cavernous, brightly lighted, ornate restaurant, divided into two dining areas, done up in deep, nightclub red: carpets, draperies, vinyl booths, tablecloths. A huge, elaborate crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the nonsmoking room. Instead of a zither player with a cigarette dangling from his lip, there's a country-western band strumming old favorites for enthusiastic, two-stepping couples.
About the only ethnic touch is the picture of Nikola Tesla hanging just inside the entrance. He's the Serbian electrical engineer who invented the alternating-current induction motor. "We are proud of him," reads the inscription underneath.
The menu, too, has only a few ethnic touches. This place should probably be called Mesa at Night. That would more accurately describe most of the fare, which leans toward deep-fried appetizers like onion rings and potato skins and all-American entrees like Southern-fried chicken, prime rib and shrimp scampi. However, a few Slavic dishes have managed to push their way onto the list. "We are proud of them" could be inscribed beneath these platters, too.
Meals all come with homemade soups, and every model tastes like someone's mother is back in the kitchen, stirring huge pots with a ladle. Clam chowder isn't exactly an Old World specialty, but Europe at Night puts out a rich, briny version. Navy bean is comforting and filling, while the turkey-dumpling soup clearly has benefited from an actual encounter with a turkey. Fresh biscuits make good soup-dunking material.
Most of the home-country delights--chevaps, pork chops and shish kebab--show up on the Gypsy Platter for Two ($28). But it makes just as much financial sense to order each of them as individual entrees, since they're all under ten bucks in that form.
And, of course, you get more of each when you order that way. That will especially please the lucky person who makes the Yugoslavian chevaps his dinner choice. It's the best dish here: an aromatic mix of seasoned ground beef, pork and lamb shaped into pinky-size pellets and garnished with chopped onions.
I'm not too sure what turns Europe at Night's broiled pork chops into a Gypsy specialty. Maybe they came here on a caravan. Whatever the secret is, it works. The two meaty, juicy chops are worth a trip to Mesa, especially once you factor in the friendly $8.95 tag. They go best teamed with the excellent, thick mashed potatoes, a much better side than the ho-hum French fries.
Compared with the pork chops, the shish kebab isn't nearly as successful. The skewered cubes of beef and pork simply aren't as tender and gristle-free as they ought to be.
For a more satisfying dose of animal protein, come here on a night when the kitchen whips up the roast-lamb special. You get an impressive amount of moist, flavorful chunks of lamb, fragrantly complemented by homemade sauerkraut and scented with bay leaves.
Chicken Kiev is available anytime, and it's done right: a rolled-up chicken breast stuffed with herbed butter. Watch out when you stick your fork in: The butter spurts out just like it's supposed to. A zesty rice pilaf goes well with the poultry.
Desserts come from a supplier, but at least the proprietors chose a good one. Both the German chocolate cake and the walnut cream cake taste as if they came from a bakery, not a cafeteria commissary.
Europe at Night is so far out in the far East Valley that it's practically in the Central time zone. But the place is undeniably comfy, friendly and cheap. That it's also probably the only place on the planet where you can eat chevaps while listening to a country-western trio croon "I Can't Stop Loving You" gives it a certain novelty appeal, as well.
Mueller's Black Forest Inn:
Herring in creamsauce
Black Forest cake
Europe at Night:
Walnut cream cake