I’m not an expert on German cuisine. I am, however, enough of a snob to giggle a bit when I write “German cuisine.” German food conjures images of various sausages and pickled cabbage—neither the fare which whets my appetite nor sets my critic’s pen in motion. But so often people love a story about a snob’s comeuppance—and, well, this is mine.
I have to give a heartfelt recommendation to The German Cafe. My journey there is quite amusing, starting with the phone call in to check the restaurant’s hours.
“Do you open at 5 p.m.?”
“No. 5:30. Do not come before then.”
If I’d heard that from an Indian restaurant, I might have been a bit nonplussed. In this case, the directness had a certain Teutonic charm which I couldn’t resist.
No place in the Cotton Exchange makes better use of their natural décor than The German Cafe. The wood beam ceilings and brick interior lend a certain credibility; the naturalness of it almost made me forget that the waitresses were dressed in what appear ed to be homemade dirndl, like the St. Pauli Girl costumes.
I don’t spend a lot of time reviewing drinks, but Germans do beer right. Diners most certainly shouldn’t miss out on a Spaten. It’s good to get away from heavily watered domestic pilsners.
Ordering an appetizer to share, the potato pancakes come with a crispy outer rim and a tender center. There are few wrong ways to eat them. Americans have long known how delicious potatoes combined with oil can be; these are no different. I eschewed the applesauce and sour cream for the simple pleasures of salt and pepper.
Salads here are fine, though I can’t recommend this spot for my vegetarian friends. Even the salad comes with a slice of sausage on top. The balsamic vinaigrette, though a touch tart, likely has its defenders. Otherwise the vegetables taste crisp and fresh. No complaints here.
Rouladen und Knödel—though, I’m painfully unfamiliar with the German language—feature strips of tender roast beef, wrapped around a pickle. Served with mustard, onions, bacon and sauerkraut, it’s topped with an enticing dumpling to boot.
The supple beef and the flavorful gravy does not overpower the other ingredients. The stone-ground mustard, vastly superior to that god-awful bright yellow stuff, lends a bite to the dish. And bacon is just awesome no matter what.
I’d like to compliment The German Cafe on its minimalist approach to vinegar. Unlike the briny, shredded white cabbage we often pass as sauerkraut, the genuine German variety is red and subtle. It’s washed several times to remove the sharpest elements of the pickling process, leaving a softer, palatable dish, much more preferred over the bold flavors of its competition. For others who have been turned off canned versions or the kind served from hot-dog vendors, try The German Cafe’s before making up your minds for good.
Not to be missed is the pfeffer steak. Grilled to a perfect rare with sauteed red peppers, mushrooms and onions then served with both German potato salad and the aforementioned sauerkraut, it is one of the better beef dishes I’ve had in quite some time. The sirloin itself cuts as though it were made of butter. The chef brings out the inherent spiciness of the red pepper, counterbalanced by the sweetness of caramelized onion and the earthiness of mushrooms. It creates an interesting set of flavors, marginally different with each bite.
The jager schnitzel, a pork dish with onion, pepper, and mushroom sauce, underwhelms. It lacks vibrance the beef dishes so greatly put to use. Though not bad, it’s merely a touch bland and forgettable.
Really, though, the strudels at the cafe cannot be beat and often become the real reason people have returned to the Wilmington hallmark for over 25 years. A traditional German pastry, available in two flavors and three sizes, is well worth the trip. The apple, while tasty, evokes thoughts of autumn—a dichotomy to an 85-degree evening. The brighter, more vibrant cherry, on the other hand, pleasantly ends any meal. The pastry is more than adequately flaky and sustains the fruit filling nicely. The balance is well preserved, with an excess of neither. The German Cafe might become one of my favorite secluded dessert spots, regardless of dinner.
The food is hearty all around. I’m looking forward to revisiting when the temperature drops a couple dozen degrees. Hearty German fare will taste even better in fall and winter.
All and all, I’ve learned a lesson about judging cultural dining habits blindly. If The German Cafe is any indication, I have a bit to learn about the value of unfamiliar cuisine. Thankfully, I’m quite eager to learn.
The German Cafe
316 Nutt Street,
The Cotton Exchange
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Bottom line: Hearty food and beer—and don’t forget the strudel!