Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nobody Does Wiener Schnitzel Better…than Actual Germans

Even though about a quarter of the blood coursing through my veins is of Germanic origin according to my elders, Mike and I opted NOT to don our lederhosen and whip up some spaetzle to celebrate the German soccer team’s 3-0 victory over Ecuador on Tuesday. It was not because we had trepidations about turning out inferior bratwurst, but because we just so happen to live within walking distance of The Ambry, a Fort Lauderdale bastion of hearty German cooking and Alpine kitsch.

Expanding the parameters of our World Cup Dinners project proved to be an excellent idea. We had an excuse, no an obligation, to venture out to a restaurant that we have been wanting to try for over a year. We are hoping that France wins one of their upcoming games so that we have a similar obligation to try to well-reputed little French boîte just up the street from The Ambry.

According to their menu, the The Ambry has been owned and operated by the same family since 1981. I could not decide if all knickknacks, steins, antlers and trumpets (yes, trumpets were hanging from the ceiling in the cozy bar area) had been accumulated over that 25 year history, or if they transported the whole collection in one shot back when shoulder pads were just a gleam in Donna Karan’s eye. Regardless, the Alpine lodge-style décor, the rustic brickwork and the division of the long, narrow space into intimate dining rooms made us forget the sultry 90 degree day and transported us to a place where smoked pork, sausages and beef roast are not only appetizing, but absolutely required.

Our waitress was an attentive lady with a rather strong German accent who told us about the beers available on draft. Since we had never heard of most of them, Mike, like the adventurous diner that he is, asked our hausfrau to bring him one of the dark beers “that people seem to like.” I requested a pilsner. All the beers are served in their pre-ordained glasses, designed, I believe, many generations ago, to showcase the unique flavor, aroma and style of each individual brew.

The menu highlights meat in traditional German preparations with quite a few veal dishes listed under “Specialties of the House.” There is also a section of the menu titled, “On the Wild Side,” consisting of gamier choices like venison, rabbit and buffalo. There are several fish dishes, a variety of steaks done both in the sauce-laden style of the house and simply grilled. All entrees include the salad bar which is a fun throwback to the days when lettuce was iceberg, salad dressing was creamy and macaroni salad was king. I made myself a plate of crisp iceberg (not a wilted leaf in sight), fresh cherry tomatoes, sweet and sour German potato and three bean salads and fat slices of carrot that was tastier than I expected. I also helped myself to a fresh slice of crusty German rye. Mike tried a spoonful of the completely-white-in-color macaroni salad because it made him nostalgic for the days before trans fat. He later admitted that foods like that are often best enjoyed in our memories.

By the time our entrees arrived in a prompt though not hurried fashion, the beer, the sounds of the groups speaking German at the two tables near us and the synthesized muzak playing unobtrusively in the background had primed us for the meaty house specialties placed before us. Mike had been dreaming of sausage all day since Germany’s victory in the early game, but being a fan of variety ordered one of The Ambry’s combination plattes, the Bayrische Bauernplatte ($14.95). The bratwurst was lean, but very moist and meaty-tasting. It was paired with a huge grilled smoked pork loin, on the bone, that was at least an inch thick. It had the pink color of a holiday ham, but with a delicate smoky flavor that did not mask the taste of pork. The kraut was puckeringly sour and addictive, and the homefried red potatoes were firm and seasoned simply with salt and pepper. There were no leftovers on Mike’s side of the table.

I was torn between ordering the Schweinebraten (roast pork with dumplings, $14.95) and the Sauerbraten (marinated beef roast with a sweet and sour gravy and spaetzle, $14.95). Our helpful frau’s description of beef roast soaking all day in a vinegary marinade won me over. The three large medallions of beef were meltingly tender and doused in a brown gravy that was, as the menu claimed, “outstanding.” I thoroughly enjoy the tang of so much of this Eastern European fare. I think it serves to provide a contrast to the creamy sauces and heavy meats in the rest of the meal, keeping our palates awake and excited. The red cabbage accompanying my sauerbraten was more sweet than sour and although I like slightly crisper cabbage, the flavor was excellent. I was anxious to try The Ambry’s spaetzle, the thick, homemade noodles typically sautéed in butter. I had it in Vienna years ago while traveling with my mom, and remember it fondly. This spaetzle was fine, but a bit doughy and greasy for my taste.

I asked to see the dessert menu, knowing full well that I would not be eating another bite. I would have loved one of the fruit brandies in the list of after dinner drinks, and I am sure they make a nice liquor-spiked coffee. We will definitely be back for these and maybe even some strudel. I would love to try some of the appetizers like black forest ham with pickle and horseradish or snail and mushroom ragout in garlic butter. The entrees are so varied, and so well-priced that restraint is difficult. Since lack of restraint is our biggest complaint against The Ambry, Mike and I will be happy to raise our steins to German team there anytime.

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