Imagine, in the heart of historic Glendale, there's a place hidden off a strip of well-weathered antique shops seemingly culled from a romantic movie script. This is what fantasies are made of: a 100-year-old home that's been restored to a turn-of-the-century European style, glimmering with polished wood floors and hidden behind a tiny garden. Heavy sconces frame the mustard-tone walls, elaborate paintings adorn every available space, lace curtains flutter from cheerful windows, and at night, there's live music performed by a graceful guitarist in a flowing black dress.
The food at Hoffman's at 57th is equally otherworldly. It's Austrian. That means fanciful-sounding things like rehrucken, kalbskotelett natur, truthahn roulade, and grill teller mit Austrian speck knodel. I ask my server to pronounce them for me and they roll off her tongue like velvet; she says them a few times more because she can tell how much it delights me.
The service is so endearing, it seems almost surreal in this age of massive corporate feed-us-and-throw-us-out operations. At Hoffman's, they encourage us to linger. They bring me marvelous desserts one evening as an apology that the dining room is a little warm. And everyone who works in the place -- except the chef, who's busy feeding a surprisingly large crowd for such an out-of-the-way place as this -- stops by the table to see if my party is having a wonderful time. Even the guests are characters: By the time my group leaves, we've come to know the diners at the other tables around us, and bid them farewell like old friends.
I feel like I'm dining in a Grimm's Fairy Tale, and this one has a very happy ending.
Had I not known about the people behind the operation, I would have been shocked to find such a captivating place far out in the West Valley -- or anywhere in our evolving but still lamentably ethnically challenged burg. They are Brett and Rose Hoffman, owners of the lovely little Haus Murphy's just up the block. Haus Murphy's has been serving luscious German food since 1996 out of another old building, this one constructed in 1895. The property is part of the Glendale Historical Society, and was the set for the movie Murphy's Romance, starring James Garner and Sally Field (the famous soda fountain in the film is still on-site). I've always been happy with the Haus' hearty fare like hackbraten (German pork meatloaf with cabbage), holstein schnitzel (pork chop topped with fried egg, anchovies and capers), and excellent sausages with fried potatoes and sauerkraut. And what's not to love about a place that features live music from costumed accordion and tuba players?
It may seem odd to put two German-influenced restaurants within walking distance of each other, but the new Hoffman's is aiming for a more upscale clientele. There's no "cook" in this kitchen, but a chef de cuisine, John du Toit, formerly of the Arizona Biltmore. Instead of a casual pub, the new place is an elegant installation, complete with a wine room and the serving of amuses at dinner (those complimentary little hors d'oeuvre things that fancy chefs like to send out). We sit on silk upholstered chairs at white-cloth-draped tables laden with fresh flowers and candles; classical favorites ripple in the background.
My dining companion is a little suspicious as I explain what we'll be eating tonight. We'll be choosing from Hoffman's special summer menu, which in any other language would mean light bites like soups, salads, pastas, fish and such. Not here, though, where entrees focus on sturdy meats like veal chop, pork tenderloin and venison, paired with hefty things like dumplings, spaetzle noodles, gravy and heavy cream sauces. One evening's soup is chilled apple -- sort of like applesauce in a martini glass -- but another soup is Alfredo-thick four cheese. He can't eat like that in 110-degree temperatures, he whimpers, but as we work our way through the wickedly wonderful menu, he discovers that, oh yes, he can.
I covet every single appetizer, some with such creativity and quality they rival our fanciest Scottsdale operations. Pan-seared sea scallops are dramatic with spinach potato cake and confit of fennel; baked Brie en croûte is high-class stuff with imported cheese baked gooey warm in sweet pastry with tart lingonberries (think cranberries). These are no sports bar stuffed mushrooms, as we savor fresh spinach, smoked chicken, spicy Italian sausage and Emmenthaler cream sauce (a buttery, nutty cheese from Switzerland). There's no stinting with quality in the antipasto, either, lavish with shaved Italian prosciutto, marinated artichokes, Kalamata olives, aged salami, roasted red peppers and organic greens. A "57th salad" is elevated beyond typical dinner filler stuff, too, tumbled with marinated cucumbers, radish root, croutons and butter lettuce in a vigorous yogurt vinaigrette (the dressing is homemade daily, my server explains proudly, as is everything in the restaurant except pasta).
I've never been to Austria, and I never would have guessed this was the fancy kind of stuff they were eating. Two appetizers are purely fabulous, reason alone for diners from every corner of the Valley to make Glendale a regular destination. Pears -- imported petite fruits peeled and poached to exquisite firmness -- are jewels of mellow sweetness. Dollops of creamy thick goat cheese served alongside bring a tart contrast, the spread spiked with shreds of smoky prosciutto. Fresh herbs and lemon vinaigrette touched with lavender make the plate a masterpiece. And another starter of goat cheese soufflé is so stunning I scrape up every last morsel of the generous serving. The flan-like round comes warm, topped with braised mushrooms on a bed of fresh salty spinach drizzled in white wine.
Diners at the table next to us ask about the dishes that have my companion and me in such bliss, and suddenly, the whole room is sharing stories about the most memorable Hoffman creations they've had. One table swears by the from-scratch bread pudding, another adores the soups, while another adores the osso buco, the braised veal shank in stewed tomatoes with mushroom risotto and Marsala glaze.
Hoffman's offers a full Italian menu alongside its Austrian fare, and it's pleasing -- bruschetta with fresh roasted garlic purée and sweet yellow tomato medley, or lobster and shrimp diavolo over lemon fettuccine with crushed Italian peppers, roasted aglio elefante (elephant garlic) and white wine butter sauce. At any other restaurant, they'd be the stars of the show. But I can't resist those fun-sounding Viennese dishes, heavy as they may be in the hot summer.
That rehrucken turns out to be medallions of venison loin, apple smoked for tenderness and grilled medium-well to remove much of the common gamy flavor. It's an interesting arrangement, served atop crispy sun-dried tomato spaetzle with soft-poached bok choy and wild mushroom ragout. I like its aggressive flavors just fine, but more delicate taste buds will do better with kalbskotelett natur, a juicy oven-roasted veal chop with poached asparagus and potatoes. One neighboring table of new friends suggests I try the truthahn roulade, and it's an excellent recommendation, bringing pan-seared turkey stuffed with creamy Camembert and lingonberries over crunchy butter lettuce and toasted walnuts. We make short work, too, of grill teller mit Austrian speck knodel, a mixed grill of succulent veal, pork and beef tenderloin filets with wilted savoy cabbage, Emmenthaler cream and a tennis-ball-size dumpling rich with bacon.
As we fill up on all the fine food, we've got to admit, it is getting kind of hot in the small dining room. One party moves to another table directly beneath the single ceiling fan, but my group has nowhere to go. That's Arizona summer for us, our server smiles, adding that heat is part of the reason for the restaurant's current crazy hours (this is a fairy tale experience, with Hoffman's only open two days a week for lunch, and three nights for dinner).
Then our server returns, grinning widely. She's prepared a special dessert for us, her own recipe for keeping cool. It's a martini glass filled with ice cubes, and topped with a poof of whipped cream. We're lapping it up, loving it and laughing, and then she returns with another dish. This time it's sorbet, tart beyond belief with margarita and blackberry flavors.
Charming Hoffman's. It's all entirely picture perfect.