Writing in his Metamorphoses, Ovid claimed that time devours everything. He could have invented the governing motto for the restaurant industry, because it is hardly news to anyone that, as a vocation and business proposition, restaurants are dicey at best. Indeed, most financial pundits will tell you they're about as safe as buggy-whip businesses were in the era of automobiles -- to be shunned. There are too many imponderable facets, their reasoning goes, and simple quality control is no easy guarantee for success. Certainly in our own fickle Miami the restaurants come and go like the women talking of Michelangelo in T.S. Eliot's most famous poem. The mortality rate -- of good, bad, and middling restaurants -- is pandemic in proportion and unpredictable in direction. In a city where businesses and private investors alike seem monetarily stretched, or worse, bottomed out, danger lurks at every turn of the Floridian fast track. The graves of Dade County restaurants closed in the past couple of years could fill Arlington Cemetery.
But a purgatorial hiatus between life and death exists for restaurateurs. Consider the example of Elisabeth Yamanoha. Her name is familiar to fans of the fine German restaurant she founded in downtown Miami during the early Eighties, Zum Alten Fritz. (Yamanoha named it after her old German uncle of the same name.) During the Ronnie-and-Nancy decade this was the German restaurant in the city, one of the few places to serve authentic, Austro-Germanic home-style cuisine, and its popularity was such that Yamanoha (or, as she's known to friends and acquaintances, Eli) expanded her shrine to Deutsches dining and culture to include homemade micro-brews, such as the incomparably fizzy Weizenbier Bavarians often drink (a wedge of lemon added) with breakfast. It was an ambitious, and utterly captivating, project, but all too short-lived. After eight years, a tidal wave of debts mounted and Eli's dream sank last September, when landlords seized Zum Alten Fritz from her. The restaurant remains open, though under new -- and undistinguished -- management.
In the aftermath, a former employee of Zum Alten Fritz, Marina Schoenbauer, solicited her former boss's help to undertake a new beer-and-wine bar in Miami Beach. Schoenbauer would be the titular owner, Yamanoha the manager and cook. The fruit of their labors is Dab Haus Restaurant & Kneipe, one of the least affected and most winning small eateries in this county. Open since this past April, Dab Haus doesn't displace memories of Eli's previous niche, but the warmth of her personality, and above all, the temperature-raising nourishment of her cooking, remain as delightful as ever. Best of all, this trip to the Fatherland costs no more than a few bucks. Wundershon!
Unassumingly positioned on the southwest corner of Alton Road and 9th Street, Dab Haus is also one of the funkiest bars you could ever wish to visit. For instance, listen to the music: A jukebox plays an ear-opening combination of German pop singles, American country music (from Reba McIntyre to Johnny Cash to k.d. lang), Seventies schlock (Carly Simon), and pre-Seventies schlock ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco" by -- who else? -- Tony Bennett). On the other side of the bar a commemorative CD of that angelic Berlin tease, Marlene Dietrich, rests beside cassettes of middle-of-the-road U.S. pop music. A set of drums near the front of the nine-table dining area suggests the occasional impromptu live performance. (When they can get away from the kitchen, claims Eli, a former music student, they play and sing there.) And believe it or not, there's Karaoke at Dab Haus.
Decoration and memorabilia, in keeping with the neighborhood bar trappings of this Haus, are unexceptionable. Apart from the porcelain sake containers and cups (Dab Haus serves Germany's Dab beer, wine, port, sherry, and sake), the most delightful design detail is the video collection of films by local chronicler Mel Kiser, whose seminal work, Last Night at the S&S Diner, is prominently displayed. The Austrian word for this place would be gemutlich (cozy).
Another truly bizarro aspect of Dab Haus is the menu. Side by side with German and Austrian dishes of traditional derivation (bratwurst and wienerschnitzel, for instance) are Spanish tapas (gambas al ajillo) and "Cuban-style" sandwiches. The quirkiness is both objectionable to purists and delectable for lovers of Miami, a melting pot if ever there was one. This is no-frills cuisine, prepared to order by Eli with great affection, care, and, when required, expertise. So small and intimate is this setting, though, that when you order a schnitzel while sipping a brew, you may hear the loud whacks of the cook pounding the scallop to its proper slenderness in the kitchen. Plainness never emerged so satisfying -- or authentic -- in context.
Germany is a cold-weather country, and German food is heavy-limbed like one of Richard Wagner's giants, Fafner or Fasolt, toiling for profit in Valhalla. Miami Beach, in the boiling cauldron of summer, may not be the requisite environment for its consumption. But Dab Haus's blue-ribbon preparation of food overrides such persnickety provisos.
Garlic soup ($2.50) may be more Spanish than German of origin -- and needs an extra pinch of salt to taste the full benefits of the garlic -- but it's an invigorating broth. When available as a daily soup (for the same price) the same can be said of Eli's beef-based goulash soup, generously flavored with enough sliced green peppers and ground black pepper to put hairs on your chest -- and arms and fingers, too. Other appetizer-style dishes include an iron skillet laden with tender, sauteed garlic shrimp ($5.50), and a mixed sausage appetizer platter ($7) with veal bratwurst, veal curry sausage, Leberkaese (a veal loaf), and meatballs served with a Berlin-style curry sauce. (The sauce tastes too similar to our own barbecue sauce to impress; German mustard makes a finer alternative dressing.)
Dab Haus's classically German dinners are limited though telling. Sauerbraten, that Teutonic marinated pot roast singing with vinegar, herbs, and cloves, is beautifully rendered here: the beef is high-quality and almost devoid of fat, with a satisfyingly thickened gravy that entirely avoids lumpiness or overpowering pungency. Each dinner platter is served with sliced cucumbers (or other vegetables) and thick-cut home fries. Red-meat lovers can also choose the typical beef Rouladen, rolled with onions, pickles, and bacon. Others can savor knoedel ($6.50) -- dumplings with mushroom gravy.
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And what about the schnitzels? Dab Haus officially offers five -- breaded pork Schweineschnitzel ($7.50), mushroom-sauced pork Jaegerschnitzel ($8.50), cream-sauced Rahmschnitzel ($9), chicken Huehnerschnitzel ($7.50), and the evergreen Wiener variety ($12). Each is trimmed, seasoned, and sauteed magnificently, the breaded versions especially noteworthy in their absence of greasy residues and becoming tenderness; the crusts are surpassingly crisp. I asked the manageress if she could serve me a veal Holstein, a wienerschnitzel with fried egg and anchovy, and she promptly complied. Service of this order is a definite boon.
There are four desserts, three that recall the great days of the European continent, one that brings to mind the era of Calle Ocho. The marble cake ($2), served with a dollop of whipped cream, is said to be baked by Eli's mother, Maria. The warm crepes -- or Palatschinken ($4.50) -- are marvelous, doused with sherry and chocolate syrup, filled with apricot preserves, and topped with whipped cream; they're more than a match for the more familiar chocolate-and-walnut Hungarian recipe. Austrian Eiskaffee ($3.50), vanilla ice cream topped with espresso coffee and cinnamon, is also available. And finally, Cuban guava and cream cheese rounds off what must be the most wacko Austrian-German menu I -- and I dare say anybody -- has encountered on the eating path. Some things work but cannot be explained, but in this regard, Elisabeth Yamanoha's German food is primus inter pares.
And yet, as Ovid contended in the same work mentioned above: "The cause is hidden, but the result is well known." Or in the case of the enchanting Dab Haus, deserves to be.
DAB HAUS RESTAURANT & KNEIPE 852 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 534-9557. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. Closed Monday.