Dark Beer Über Alles
It's not so surprising that South Florida has few German restaurants. Despite a significant Jewish population with ancestral roots in northern Europe, nostalgia goes only so far. There's little need down here, after all, for carb-heavy, hearty fare to fuel the peasant population through long, frigid winters. And it's undeniable that the majority of Germany's traditional favorite dishes are either coated with starches, thickened by them, or accompanied by them. Those who've spent much time in Germany also know even in cosmopolitan Berlin it's easier to score hard drugs than to find an interesting green salad that's not just an afterthought (and is not liberally sprinkled with canned corn kernels, just to keep up that carb quotient).
Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like most of the Cuban restaurant meals I've had here. Add the joint Cuban/German predilection for pork and the two cuisines have much in common. And German cooks are, for sure, fond of using any pig parts, anywhere. When I first moved to Miami, a new Cuban acquaintance assured me that in her family, Thanksgiving's main challenge centered on how many pork products could be sneaked into the turkey stuffing. But my friend's relatives seemed like vegetarians compared with the chefs I encountered on my first trip to Bavaria.
As usual, I'd mastered enough of the language of the country I was visiting to negotiate any normal meal. But until my noncarnivore partner nearly barfed after one bite of a tuna-salad sandwich from a somewhat hip place, it hadn't occurred to me I'd need to learn how to explain, in German: "My friend does not eat meat of any kind, including pork. So she would like her tuna without ham and bacon in it, not even these fairly small chunks." (The first response to requests for hog-free food was always a puzzled: "But there are only little pieces.")
At Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in the Gables, the tuna sandwich contains no pork, not even tiny slivers, according to a server. And I'd trust the servers not to steer me wrong. In their lederhosen, they are an accommodating, gemütlich bunch (though during my visits none broke into impromptu folk dances on the sturdy benches, as promised on F&F's Website). Unfortunately I couldn't test the tuna sandwich during a recent Saturday lunch because those budget-priced specials are available only on weekdays, even though the menu says they're offered "daily."
The suggested sandwich substitute was wonderful -- Holstein schnitzel (wiener schnitzel topped with a poached egg and anchovy fillets). At the Bierhaus, as in much of Germany, the three thin cutlets were pork instead of the veal used in the original Viennese version. But unlike many of the schnitzels I've suffered through in both Germany and the U.S.A., the meat here was properly pounded till tender, as opposed to pulverized; delicately breaded rather than entombed in thick crumbs; and sautéed merely till done, not till dry. Accompaniments were a rather refreshing potato salad (vinegary, not mayo-gloppy), plus a small splotch of sweet red berry preserve -- like cranberry sauce, but not tart -- that was so effective in waking up the good but unsauced meat that I wished there had been twice as much.
The chef/owner of Fritz & Franz is Harald Neuweg, proprietor of two previous restaurants at the same location. Most recent was Da Capo, an upscale eatery whose name sounded Italian but whose menu included smoked Norwegian salmon pizza, Cajun crawfish bisque, mango-glazed salmon ... and wiener schnitzel. This Floribbean/Creole/MediterrAustrian experiment lasted all of nine months. Before that the room was Satchmo's, best known for live blues music. Live music (Monday and Friday) is a carryover at the current casual indoor/ outdoor space, as is Satchmo's beloved big burger (renamed Bierhaus Burger). But Neuweg himself remains best known as proprietor of the old Mozart Stube, and the same traditional German food is what the Bierhaus serves up, though in a more youth-oriented, sports-bar ambiance.
From a list of "Bavarian tapas" (sounds peculiarly trendy but tastes comfortingly like classic German main dishes, though smaller portions and sans starch sides), a stück bratwurst proved to be the same veal sausage served in the entrée called Original Bavarian Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut und Röstkartoffel, as well as the main-dish sausage sampler. In the tapas incarnation, however, it was just a single brat without the potatoes. And it was possibly the best brat I've had anywhere, savory on its own and even better with a dab of the sinus-clearing mustard found on the Bierhaus's long wooden picnic tables. An application of this mustard also transformed a Bayerische Bier Brezel from just a soft, large pretzel into a capital E experience.
The marinated herring tapas consisted of sour cream sauce surrounding bite-size pieces of brined matjes herring fillets, salty but beautifully firm in a way that vinegar-softened pickled herring never is. The so-called "Apres Ski" Gulasch Suppe, though, crossed the sodium-overdose line with fewer redeeming qualities; the strongly paprika-spiked broth lacked sufficient body, and tastes of tomato and bouillon predominated over rich beefiness.
Among entrées, the Bierhaus offers one special each night, and it's worth going on a Wednesday for Haxen Abend, a roasted pork shank roughly the size of Everglades National Park. The monster was frankly not nearly as moist as the lechon asado roasts I've had in dozens of Miami Cuban eateries, but roasting on the bone plus a thick layer of crackling made the meat most flavorful. And for fans of schnitzels (either Holstein or plain wiener), Tuesday is two-for-one night.
Newly added to the menu (and at $16.95, the most expensive item) is Bierhaus steak au poivre. It was a bit disappointing. The steak was ordered very, very rare but arrived medium-well-done. Replaced rapidly with no argument, the second try came rare enough but was full of gristle, tendons, and other fibrous matter; it was literally impossible to find even a small piece free of unchewable stuff. At least an intense peppery sauce made the tendons tasty.
Beer-battered fish (grouper the night we tried it) was baked rather than deep-fried, rendering it lighter than usual -- practically diet food. But for more rigorous dieters, or anyone who wants something crunchier than a French fry with their meal, three traditional German marinated-vegetable salads were terrific: thinly sliced gurken (cucumber), shredded karrotten (carrot), and kraut (white cabbage). Whereas marinades in most German restaurants -- in Germany as well as America -- contain too much sugar or too much vinegar, the Bierhaus's was ideally balanced, allowing the veggies' individual flavors to come through. This made taste-testing via a mixed salatteller fun, though salads are also sold separately.
For dessert I'd been anticipating the Salzburger nockerl pictured on F&F's Website. Sadly, this signature Salzburg confection, bathtub of baked meringue, wasn't on the menu. But Vienna's famous/infamous Sacher torte was. Some say only the Demel pastry shop in Vienna makes this chocolate-apricot cake correctly. Some say only the Hotel Sacher does. I say that Fritz & Franz did a pretty darn good Hotel Sacher-type torte (meaning the apricot preserves were between the cake's layers; Demel sneaks it up under the chocolate ganache icing). It was properly dense, and only a little too sweet.
Finally don't forget this universal truth: Beer is food. And this is the Gables, not South Beach, where the body police will soon be conducting abs inspections at the causeway. So throw an XXX-large T-shirt over that bustier and drink dinner. The house-draft Warsteiner was actually a bit lightweight; even the dark pilsener had neither enough hops bite nor malt body. But bottled Kostritzer schwarzbier (black beer) had a pronounced flowery bouquet and an elegantly dry, hoppy finish. And Franziskaner weissbier dark was well worth an extra two bucks per bottle. The amber wheat beer had complex, almost winelike acidity; intense fruit; holiday spiciness (with clove aromas predominating); strong hops sharpness; luscious malty sweetness; a dense creamy head; and all-around oomph. No wonder Bavarians annually down roughly 240 liters of beer per person.
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