BRAU HAUS: Enjoy the rathskeller atmosphere.
When it comes to consumables of the German variety, it’s safe to say beer is what most folks would go for.
After that, probably white wine. A nice, crisp Gewurtztraminer or a Riesling.
Food, though … unless you grew up in a region with a strong German immigrant history, the idea of German food can be kind of intimidating. All those wursts, and schnitzel — which we can’t quit thinking sounds like some kind of pastry, thanks to that “Sound of Music” song, and not at all like what it actually is, which is a breaded and fried piece of veal.
Heavy stuff, German food is. Gutbusting, if you’re not careful.
Which probably explains why we’d never tried it until a recent trip to the Hot Springs Brau Haus. We went with a dining companion who’s descended from German stock, though, so we hoped his relative expertise would help us judge the place fairly.
The Brau Haus has to be doing something right. It’s been part of downtown Hot Springs’ Central Avenue strip for a decade now, and it’s apparently been well reviewed here and in publications that specialize in ethnic food.
So we must have gone on an off night.
We spent a pleasant enough half hour at the bar before we were seated. Companion chose a Franziskaner Hefe Weisse from the list of German beers, but we were disappointed to find that there was only one German wine available by the glass. Still, we’re not used to having more than one or two choices period at places that give beer top billing, so we were happy enough to be able to order something that wasn’t merlot.
Our visit came on the heels of St. Patrick’s Day and a major race at Oaklawn, and we heard the bartender say the Brau Haus had been packed all week. That, and the Brau Haus’ ads quoting favorable reviews in other publications, makes us think maybe we just hit the place on a bad night. But we can’t help thinking that the crowd simply wasn’t that big — certainly not enough to affect the service, which it apparently did.
We waited too long for our waitress’ first appearance after we sat down, we waited too long for our appetizer to appear after we’d ordered it, and we really waited too long with empty glasses midway through our meal (we were drinking wine and beer, too, not the free-refill stuff). We’re generally pretty easygoing diners, and all of this we’ve experienced before without a noticeable rise in blood pressure. But our waitress so clearly wanted to turn our table even though we were continuing to run up our bill that the act of ordering dessert felt downright rebellious.
Enough about the service. It’s likely that on another night, things would have been different.
Appetizer choices at the Brau Haus include some you’d find anywhere, like cheese sticks and fried mushrooms, but we started with an order of frikadellen bites ($4.95). The menu described them as little meat patties, and that’s exactly what they were — roughly ice-cube-size pieces of ground beef and spices. Of the three sauce choices we went with the gypsy, a mix of tomatoes, onions and bell peppers.
We liked the flavor of this dish from the start, but we were caught a little off guard by the fact that it was served cold — not not-hot-anymore cold, but straight-from-the-fridge cold. Then we ate a slice from the outer edge of the bowl, and discovered that no, in fact frikadellen is meant to be served hot, but in our case the trip from freezer to microwave to table had been, well, a bit rushed. As we said, though, the flavor was good, and we liked the sauce, so we stuck with the outer pieces and made do.
For the main course, our companion chose the Big Brau Haus platter ($12.95): bratwurst, knackwurst and a piece of roasted pork in brown gravy, with a side of red cabbage. The sausages were delicious, he said, but the pork was nondescript.
Our personal taste preferences steered us away from the schnitzels and the wursts, so we ordered the sauerbraten ($11.95), roast beef marinated in spices for several days and smothered in a brown vinegar-based gravy. Like we said, we’d never had German food before, so it’s impossible for us to say how this sauerbraten stacked up to the Platonic ideal of sauerbraten. The beef itself was about as tender as it’s possible for beef to get. We never even thought about picking up our knife. The predominant marinating spice seemed to be cloves — a very strong flavor, especially if it’s not your favorite. The gravy, used so liberally it put the Southern term “smothered” to shame, had a very strong vinegar base that kept catching us by surprise. Fully half our plate was covered with plain egg noodles, though, so it was possible to dilute the flavors by mixing in a little pasta here and there.
On to dessert. We chose the apple strudel, this being a German restaurant and all. The bottom of the pastry was stuck to the saucer and impossible to cut through with a fork.
One bright note we haven’t mentioned yet — the Itinerant Locals, a tuba/accordion duo that provided the dinnertime entertainment. No generic polka music this: We spent half our meal trying to remember the names of the ’80s-retro songs that peppered their set list. Had we stuck with beer and brats, it would have made for an all-around decent evening.
801 Central Ave., Hot Springs
Go for the Rathskeller ambiance, the huge selection of German beer and the sausages. Skip dessert.
3-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 3-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday 3-9 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar, moderate prices, credit cards accepted.