Viewed from Collins Avenue Treffpunkt Biergarten might appear intimidating. The year-old German seafood-and-steak house squats in the parking lot of the R.K. Sunny Isles Plaza, framed by an extensive strip mall. A large square building, the restaurant features tinted glass walls, which at night look black as a thundercloud, prohibiting potential patrons from seeing whether any other customers are actually in there. Patio seating doesn't appear to be a much better option, the carbon monoxide emissions from passing cars more potent in their own way than nine-percent-alcohol Oktoberfest beer. Not to mention the plethora of barricades that litter the construction-ridden roadway, which make entering the parking lot a quickie test of one's stunt-driving skills. And let's face it: Most of us don't consider German cuisine a life-or-death matter.
Should you choose to persevere, you might think the eatery's interior is a little off-putting, too. Faux gray stone patterns the floor under the hostess stand, giving way to what looks like an army-issue carpet, the color of which reminded me of my husband's face after too many candy apples and upside-down roller coaster rides at the Dade County Youth Fair. With a large-screen TV set blasting news and soccer highlights in German, coupled with a staff and clientele chattering away in that same language, the overall effect is European hotel lobby -- and we're not talking about a five-star hotel.
But if you've managed to get this far, it's well worth your while to stick around.
Just don't order the French onion soup. More like cream of cornstarch, the stuff had a thick, jellylike consistency and a metallic aftertaste. Celery overwhelmed the onions, and even topped with a garlicky piece of toast and melted cheese, the soup was a poor translation. Goulash soup, a Bavarian staple, proved far more inspiring, its paprika-sweet broth enriched with shreds of beef, chunks of potatoes, and chopped onions. Sort of a German chili.
Besides the soups (lobster bisque, bouillon, and traditional liver-dumpling soup are also offered) and salads, only two appetizers are available. Smoked salmon with horseradish sauce was sold out on a recent evening, so we settled for "jumbo shrimps 'Palm Beach,'" an item that turned out to be something of a misnomer. (We'd find this to be a recurring theme.) Eight medium-size crustaceans, alternating with slices of lemon, clung to a goblet containing iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and shredded carrots. A Russian dressing that coated the salad sufficed for cocktail sauce.
Lacking the potatoes, green beans, and egg halves that traditionally garnish the dish, the Biergerten's rendition of salade niaoise was more like a tuna salad -- a scoop of flaked tuna mixed with onions and house vinaigrette on a bed of iceberg lettuce enlivened by black olives, pickled red cabbage, and thin-sliced white radishes. Quite tasty, but the house salad, served to anyone who orders an entree, easily outshone it. A center of crisp iceberg laden with a cream and dill dressing was surrounded by various chilled salads -- carrot, wax beans, cucumber, and sauerkraut -- all marinated in the best German deli tradition.
Not that you really need the extra food. Portions here can be colossal. Geflugel-geschnetzeltes "Zuricher Art", for instance, boneless pieces of chicken breast meat sauteed in white wine and finished with a rich mushroom cream sauce, a dish whose only flaw was too-dry poultry. Or the pfeffer steak mit grunem pfeffer in rahm sauce, a grilled pepper steak that weighs in, according to the the menu, at 250 grams or nine ounces, depending upon what measurement system you (and your country) use.
We passed over the four steak choices (three strip and one filet) for Biergerten-pfanne, the specialty of the house. Served in a skillet whose handle poked up toward the ceiling, a grilled chopped steak not unlike Salisbury was bathed in herb butter and topped with the same mushrooms in cream sauce that blanketed the chicken. The beef was dense, juicy and soft and spiked with cloves of garlic. Home-fried potatoes were sprinkled with caraway seeds, with a slice of bread pudding providing nice contrast. Creamed vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots, and a dollop of sour cream filled in the last empty pie-wedge of pan.
Treffpunkt Biergurten does seafood as well as it does chopped steak. Eight garlic shrimp were browned in a skillet with diced tomatoes and cloves of garlic. Crowned with sour cream, the shrimp were snappy and succulent, though less filling than the other dishes. Fresh fish were a fleshier story. A fragrant fillet of Atlantic salmon, flaky and tender, was a huge serving. Rather than the herb butter and parsley potatoes with which it was supposed to come, the salmon was dressed with the by-now ubiquitous mushrooms.
Despite the amount of red snapper I've consumed in South Florida, I was still entranced by Treffpunkt's version -- and not only because the menu description was completely wrong. Supposedly grilled and then dunked in a white wine sauce and jimmied with capers and fresh herbs, this fillet was actually pan-fried to a beautifully crisp exterior and a moist interior. A wine and cream sauce blanketed the fish, which was decorated with chopped tomatoes, scallions, and cucumber. An excellent preparation, if not quite the dish I thought I was ordering. A choice of home fries, rice pilaf with mushrooms and peas, or baked potato, as well as the aforementioned vegetable medley, accompanied this and all the other entrees.
It seems that the only way to avoid either cream sauce or mushrooms is to order the Bavarian platter for two, an Alps-high pile of meat and potatoes. Twinned pork loins were grease-free and not too salty, with just the right touch of smoky flavors. Leberkue, a kind of spicy meat loaf (it literally means "liver cheese," though it doesn't contain either ingredient), didn't appear as the menu promised, but we'd grown used to culinary surprises; a double slab of pan-fried bacon and two slices of grilled ham took its place. Adding a whiter shade to the plenitude of pink meats were two bratwursts, the pork sausages perfectly grilled and aromatic with caraway and nutmeg. A single knackwurst, a more finely ground sausage composed of beef and pork, was likewise juicy. Underneath the stack of sausages and sliced meats, sauerkraut added tang and texture; home-fried potatoes and fantastically creamy mashed potatoes closed off each end of the platte.
A short but intriguing wine list, all German grapes if not necessarily German vintages (a reisling from France, for example), may tempt you into trying a bottle. Resist. I ordered a Sputlese but was served a much sweeter Auslese, to which I consented, given that there didn't seem to be much choice. Beer is by far the better beverage here, with several old-country brews on tap, including weissbier, a pale, spicy brew made partially from wheat.
The opportunity to sample flan in a German restaurant wasn't particularly enticing, although a dish of rote grotze, a berry pudding, sounded more like it. We refrained, however. The only drawback to the Treffpunkt Biergarten experience is that brewskis and bratwurst do a number on the appetite, leaving one too full for dessert.
Looks like Embers finally has more than one fork in the fire. With the April acquisition of executive chef David Sloane (formerly of Starfish), the reincarnated steak place breaks free from its 1940s past and hurtles toward a New American future. Witness dishes such as pan-roasted mahi-mahi with basmati rice and three curries, rum-orange-glazed yellowtail snapper with smoked corn and black bean salsa, and bourbon-glazed top sirloin with fried onion rings and caramelized carrots. Barbecue and steak-house choices have been relegated to an "Embers Classics" section of the menu.
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Pastry chef David Schindel joins the renaissance, axing retro desserts such as peach melba in favor of red banana-Oreo cheesecake and Southwestern fruit taco. We favor that, too. The new menu debuted May 10.
In this space last week I reported that Oggi Cafe, the petite but premier purveyor of pasta on the 79th Street Causeway, opened a second, 65-seat location just off the Venetian Causeway in Miami Beach.
That was true.
I also made reference to my frustration at the diminutive size of the original Oggi, barely big enough to accommodate three dozen (skinny) diners (if they're careful to keep their elbows to themselves).
That, too, was true.
The operative word in that last sentence, however, is was. The 79th Street Causeway Oggi recently doubled in size, improving the comfort level immensely. And they take credit cards now, too! For particulars, consult our listings.