Now, on South Beach, we can. Not in the same sitting, mind you, but these two newcomers a bistro and a beer hall have set up shop within a few miles of one another. Each inherits a space held by popular, longtime, recently deceased SoBe eateries (Cafe Maurice takes over the similarly themed L'Entrecote de Paris, on Washington Avenue just south of Fifth Street, while Hofbräu Beerhall is located where Lincoln Road Cafe used to be). The bistro and beer hall are both fairly inexpensive joints, too, with no entrees costing over twenty bucks. And the two are already overflowing with good cheer, good drinks, and ... food.
Hofbräu had the more difficult remodeling task, transforming a former Cuban eatery into a German one. This was accomplished mostly via blue-and-white checkered Hofbräu München flags draped from the rafters, and colorful framed posters from a decade's worth of Oktoberfests brightening white stucco walls. The place looks cleaner and sleeker than before, but nothing like a beer hall. This is probably a good thing we don't want to re-create the atmosphere of old-time Germany too closely now, do we?
Most people sit at the outdoor tables, anyway. Under blue umbrellas. Surrounded by green foliage. Lulled into a pleasant complacency by wursts, beer, and music oom-pah-pahing over the speakers. Even so, this feels even less like a biergarten than the indoors conjures a beer hall. In fact, it seems an awful lot like hanging on Lincoln Road.
The original brewery of this name was founded in 1589 by William V, Duke of Bavaria, but the folks running this operation are not your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's Germans. For one thing they are not exactly über-efficient. Anyone who labors under this ethnic stereotype will be thoroughly disabused of the notion while waiting for a menu. Or the check. Or anything, really. There was a stretch of close to five minutes when not a single restaurant worker neither host, manager, waiter, nor busperson was spotted in the "garden," although there were about 40 people seated out there.
Bavarian pretzels are known to Americans as "soft pretzels," the type sold at ball games, festivals, circuses, and zoos. Here they are dubbed "freshly baked pretzels imported from Munich" meaning brought in frozen and heated in an oven. The regular size is listed as $2.95; the "giant original Oktoberfest pretzel" is $6.50. Actual prices, however, are $12.75 and $18.30 respectively, as the salt on either will create a thirst that a minimum of two ten-ounce beers ($4.95 each) will be required to quench.
I'm not kidding.
The dark brown "dark beer sauce" pooled around an order of schweinebraten (roasted pork shoulder) was likewise overly salinated, enough to necessitate at least a seventeen-ounce (half-liter) beer or lager so add $6.95 to the $16.50 price for this one. Two light but slightly spongy potato dumplings bobbed in the gravy, and on the side was a generous bowl of broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots soaked in butter, black pepper, and "another beer, please!" too much salt. I have no proof that an insidious business plan is at work here, but during numerous visits we were never offered water.
Nor were we offered bread, although two types of rye are listed a la carte on the menu German-style and American. They were out of both by 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening. On a Friday visit German rye was available thin, yeasty, pale brown, and not especially fresh ($1.50). Nothing wrong with those Hofbräu München draft specialties, though original gold lager, a dark dunkel, and hefe weizen, a cloudy wheat beer. The grand size, a comically tall 34-ounce (one liter) mug, seemingly became heavier to lift as I emptied it.
Wursts are the best things here. "Grilled leberkäse," a sausage loaf composed of finely ground and pressed corned beef, bacon, and onions, isn't grilled but browned in a pan (a common biergarten dish actually called strammer max), accompanied, as is tradition, by a scoop of fresh, warm, parsley-and-vinegared potato salad. If you've ever had a fried bologna sandwich what's that? Oh, you're not from Brooklyn? Well, it's like you can imagine fried bologna would be, only the loaf-shaped slices are thicker. The 100-percent-veal bratwurst is probably a safer bet for most folks, grilled and served with red cabbage and mashed potatoes. White sausages made from veal and pork, Münchner weisswurste, brought two plump poached dogs huddled around a black plastic cup of sweet Munich mustard, with a Bavarian pretzel on top.
Cafe Maurice hasn't been around since the 1500s, but it did enjoy a successful eleven-year run in Los Angeles before relocating to South Beach. Owners David Meunier, Jean Michel Collet, and executive chef Maurice Azoulay have left L'Entrecote's laminated bar, back room mural, and mirrors intact. The rest of the walls are lipstick red and covered in variously sized, black-framed photos, paintings, and prints. French tunes mingle in the air along with the soft, graceful accents of the overwhelmingly Gallic clientele. This place feels just like a real Parisian bistro, right down to the laissez-faire attitude of an inattentive wait staff.
The bread doesn't resemble real French bread, though. We were given a basket containing those par-baked, reheat-and-serve-as-fresh-from-the-oven rolls that are soft, warm, and nowhere near as good as a regular old crunchy-crusted baguette.
Chicken soup started us off warmly (as opposed to hotly), a shallow bowl plump with moist morsels of meat and pasta rings in a robust, not fully heated broth. A salad with chévre chaud brought a short cylinder of cold goat cheese atop field greens slicked with textbook dijon vinaigrette. Country pâté was coarse but tasty, and one of the only items on the menu that requires any culinary skill to prepare.
I have written in the past of having been the only instructor in the esteemed history of the French Culinary Institute in New York who didn't speak French. So help me: What is the translation for "boring selections?" Of the dozen or so entrees, about half are composed of grilled chicken breast surrounded by one sauce or another. Other options are grilled salmon, grilled lamb chops, grilled steak, a few pastas, shepherd's pie (?), and bonne nuit Irene. Prep time in this kitchen must mean turning on the fryer and grill. I understand that the point is to keep the fare really basic, but can't they make a terrine or two, or roast a chicken, or at least broil a leek?
Steak-frites is the best thing we tried, an assertively seasoned strip steak (not rib eye as the menu suggests) sided by a gooseneck of white cognac-pepper sauce and skinny Mickey D-like sticks, but crisper. A breaded chicken cutlet came too darkly coated outside and pinkly undercooked within. Mashed potatoes were soft and milky, but not nearly warm enough. The pasta tubes in our penne Provençal came tossed with too complicated a tangle of mushrooms, tomatoes, asparagus stalks, and all sorts of dried herbs. Noodles were not just overcooked, but then singed brown, presumably when sautéed with the accompaniments.
They don't exactly knock themselves out on dessert here either. On a Friday evening, the choice was tiramisu or ... tiramisu. You'd think if they were offering just one option they'd at least make it a French one. Another visit brought crême brùlée and "le flottante," the latter turning out to be not liqueur-sprinkled sponge cake with jam and nuts, as the name would imply, but rather oeufs à la neige, which are whipped, sweetened egg whites poached in milk and pooled in custard. Both desserts satisfied, but neither exhibited the warmth of having been freshly prepared. Since baking doesn't seem to be this chef's forte, it might not be a bad idea to offer a small plate of French cheeses. I've heard it said that a few worthwhile samples of such reportedly get imported here from there. At least they pour some wines from France, and the concise list is kept affordable (glasses starting at four dollars, bottles at fifteen dollars).
Cafe Maurice's finer attributes become apparent later at night (it is open until 5:00 a.m.), when a vibrant cabaret scene is likely to break out, with singing, swaying, and dancing to Gypsyish music. Like at Hofbräu Beerhall, food quality is something of an afterthought.
Hofbräu Beerhall Miami, 943 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-538-8066. Open for lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.
Cafe Maurice, 419 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-674-1277. Open for dinner daily 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.