Unless you're a grizzly bear emerging from hibernation, early spring might seem a strange time to seek out German food.
I was hoping to sample the new German eatery in Bellevue while the days were still cold enough for bulky sweaters. I didn't only because it didn't yet have a liquor license. I figured that beer was part of the draw at a place called Zum Biergarten (“to the beer garden”).
With the snow beginning to melt and March approaching, I decided I could wait no longer. Happily, the fare I found at Zum Biergarten on recent visits was fit for any season.
Otto Helbig cooked at Edelweiss in Bellevue for most of its 12-year run. Fans of that restaurant will recognize many of the dishes at Zum Biergarten, the casual 75-seat eatery the German-born chef opened in October with his Nebraska-born wife. Though the menu is heavy with hearty German classics, they're prepared with welcome lightness and balance.
“People think that German food always has to be heavy,” Helbig said. “We hope to change that.”
Sure, there's schnitzel, house-made bratwurst, roast pork, fried chicken, potato salad, spaetzle, yeast rolls and an array of 10-ounce or larger burgers. But silky sauces stand in for thick gravies. Burgers are made from house-ground sirloin. Lean pork schnitzels are thinly pounded, lightly breaded, crisply fried and well-drained.
Sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables show up at critical moments, adding perk and zest. And Herr Helbig doesn't use a cup of cream when a thimble-full will do.
Zum Biergarten hopes to secure its liquor license in about two weeks. Until then, start with the apfelsaftschorle. Equal parts sweet apple juice and stark club soda, it's a succinct summary of German sensibility.
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UPDATE (June 4, 2010): The restaurant has its liquor license and now serves wine, beer (including eight German brands) and German spirits like Jagermeister and Rumple Minze.
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Don't overlook the house-made yeast rolls served with most dinners and specials. The pale, flour-dusted rolls I tried were fresh, warm, heavy for their size and very filling. They had a soft, even crumb and a delicate sweetness that reminded me of good potato bread.
And be sure to add a salad, which at Zum Biergarten is more like a sampler of four veggie sides, mounded in neat piles on a single plate. The one I had involved shredded carrots marinated in a subtle orange dressing; leafy green lettuce cut into wide ribbons and tossed with a light vinaigrette; thick slices of boiled potato tossed in rendered bacon fat with chives; and tart, salty, near-pickled green beans infused with onions.
The four-way salad is included with the Tour of Germany, a weekend lunch special that's being added to the regular menu this month. The platter I tried was superb and shareable: a pork cutlet, breaded and pan-fried and served over Bavarian cabbage (wide ribbons of green cabbage in a caraway-flecked white-wine sauce with just a touch of cream and sweetness); a sweet and earthy house-made bratwurst with punchy sauerkraut; a terrific Zigeuner schnitzel (breaded pork topped with a paprika-tomato sauce with bell peppers and onions); slices of tender pork roast with a flavorful mushroom sauce; thick rounds of homestyle potatoes fried with onions; and a few orange slices.
A la carte side dishes were also quite good. The spaetzle, soft squiggles of not-quite-noodle-not-quite-dumpling, were served with a silky, peppery beef gravy that tasted best when it was steaming hot. Shredded red cabbage was studded with apple and imbued with a sweet-tart-cinnamon flavor that reminded me of my mother's watermelon-rind pickles.
Hungarian goulash -- a big bowl for $4.50 -- had large cubes of roast beef and pork; sliced mushrooms, bell peppers and onions; and thick half-moons of starchy potato in a dark red-orange gravy with a pleasant kick of black pepper and sharp paprika. It was a beanless European take on chili.
Desserts made by Helbig's wife, Lisa, also showed a sense of restraint.
Apple strudel smelled heavenly and was served warm with ice cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. The pastry – thick as a mattress pad on bottom and thin as a bedsheet on top -- was wrapped loosely around a mound of not-too-sweet, cinnamon-dusted apples. A few bites near the center were buffeted by butter.
And a Black Forest cake was not as dense or dark as the name might imply. It was actually rather light and fluffy: two layers of soft, medium red-brown chocolate cake (imbued with sweet cherry juice and sour cherry liqueur) frosted with a cherry-flavored whipped cream and topped with a maraschino cherry.
There's a tiny counter near the register with a few stools and a TV tuned to soccer. Some servers wear blousy white German-style tops. And there will be beer and a beer garden on the patio soon. But Zum Biergarten feels more like a casual family-friendly restaurant than the kitschy German bar its name might suggest.
The space, long ago home to a Pizza Hut, has been neatly disguised with beige and mottled maroon paint, swag drapes that make the best of the trapezoidal windows, clean wood floors and doily-topped tables with comfortable chairs.
A few dishes from a weeknight supper lacked the refinement of everything else we tried: I thought the fried half chicken needed more seasoning and a crisper skin. Home-style potatoes had a few burned bits. The sauce on the Bavarian cabbage this particular night was not as light as intended.
Service was pleasant if not exactly anticipatory: We had to ask for the promised dinner rolls, boxes for leftovers and the bill.
Other quibbles were few: The current menu (which Helbig said is being expanded and rewritten this month) could use more explanation. I balked a little at the $2 charge for an extra plate to share my $19 Tour of Germany. And I wish there were more smaller-portion options. It's a lot of food, and things like crisp schnitzel and gravy-soaked spaetzle don't work all that well as leftovers.
Substantial portions were one reason I ran out of room to try the mushroom-topped Jaeger schnitzel or the pineapple-and-Swiss-topped Hawaiian schnitzel, the potato cakes with applesauce and sour cream, the carrot cake and honey-soaked Bee Sting cake and the kraut-topped bratwurst burger.
But at least now I know I needn't wait for beer -- or for sweater season -- to return.
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