Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frozen in Time - Not that there's anything wrong with it....

Our goal of attending one of the Northern Virginia Magazine Top 50 Restaurants the first Saturday of each month continued last night as we took the hour long ride to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Located in a charmingly reclaimed Amtrak train depot is The Bavarian Chef, where chef Chef Jerome Thalwitz attempt to transport you from this historic Civil War town to Germany. Cynthia and I agreed that it was an interesting departure from what many would call "modern" dining. It is likely there is no sous vide immersion unit nor canister of liquid nitrogen in this kitchen. The chef is probably not foaming asparagus essence or conjuring up desserts made from ingredients that probably shouldn't be there anyway. No, this is hearty, old world food, served in generous portions in an environment the feels authentic and by a staff that knows their stuff. Here are our individual thoughts.

Al - First Impressions

As a kid in Trenton, NJ, my parents occasionally took me to a German restaurant called the Old Heidelberg. I remember this being pretty exotic and very different from the typical pizzerias or Italian restaurants we went to more frequently. Dark wood, low light, big meat filled plates and lots of side dishes that, as a kid, I avoided. Except for the applesauce, I always ate the applesauce. I haven't been back to Trenton in a long time so I looked up the Old Heidelberg and it's gone. In many ways, I think I've rediscovered it in, of all places, Fredericksburg.
The main entrance of the restaurant delivers you into a club-like bar space dominated by the two sets of beer taps which drew me like a bee to honey. There were about 8 bar seats and a few small tables so if you arrive early or want to linger after dinner, this looks to be a nice place to do it. More about the beer later.

The restaurant has several rooms, divided in a way that each of them felt cozy. The room we were seating in had a fire going adding again to that "club" atmosphere. High ceilings, dark wood and muted light took me back to the Old Heidelberg. 

Cyn - First Impressions
As a kid in New Britain, Connecticut, my parents never took me to a German restaurant - my grandparents having been waylaid by the Germans on their exodus from the Ukraine and 'placed' in a concentration camp for a time - it must have been quite a wait as my mother was born there and was three when she arrived stateside.  It wasn't verbotten to dine Bavarian style or mention Germany, but it wasn't exactly encouraged either.  So my first German restaurant experience wasn't until mid high school, when I was invited to a party at the East Side Restaurant

East Side, as I remember it, was a family run restaurant, as most were in my town.  In a residential neighborhood and frequented by regulars, from their website, it doesn't appear much has changed in the 25 years since I was last there.  This brings me to The Bavarian Chef, a restaurant clearly caught in the same time warp. 

Al - First Course
I knew the mains were going to be big, so my plan was to skip a first course and leave room for dessert. Then I saw the Hungarian Goulash Soup on the menu. Out went the plan and I knew I was in for a very full meal. Turns out it was a good choice. The soup was everything a good goulash should be; meaty, spicy, full of carrots, potatoes and onion and served piping hot - a simple but critical point a lot of restaurants miss when serving soup. I can honestly say this dish was excellent and I think they should bottle it and sell it in my local Wegmans. First course - home run. Cynthia's first course was a traditional German cucumber salad, which I tasted and liked a lot, but I'll let her say more about it.

Let's not forget the beer. There were pilsners, lagers, dunkels, weiss beers and even a maibock, all German, on tap. There was also a decent selection of bottled German beers. I wanted to sample them all. I settled first on a Ettal Dunkel. In German, dunkel simply means dark. Dunkels are usually moderate in alcohol content and can be from a deep mahogany to coppery reddish in color. This particular brew paired perfectly with the goulash.

Cyn - First Course
Having perused the offerings, everything from pate to soup, I decided on a cucumber dill salad - which turned out to be delightfully refreshing, both creamy and sharp at the same time, with the perfect amount of bite left to the cukes and just enough enough dill to let you know it's there, but not enough to evoke a pickle memory.  The obligatory basket o'bread appeared before the apps, with a small crock of whipped butter.  Thin sliced rye with raisins (stale), a caraway clothed bread stick and a sweet roll reminiscent of a Parker House roll rounded out the offering.  Nothing exciting, but we're not here for excitement, we're here for tradition.

The wine selections were heavy on sweeter whites in the Riesling family, a nice pour of Gewurztraminer for me, as I just adore saying the word.  Ever since David Rosengarten introduced it to me on one of his episode's of Taste ---this before chefs had to be pretty or mean, with nails, makeup and good hair. David is pretty fabulous, in my book, and was the epitome of a cool dude with palette to spare, back in the day.  But I digress.....

Al -  Main Course
The mains were very typically German. Lots of meat (pork, beef and a few chicken dishes). There were a number of specials and one in particular seemed completely appropriate. Schweinhaxen or ham hock is particularly popular in Bavaria. So,when in the Bavarian Chef restaurant, do as the Bavarian do! I didn't quite know what I was in for. What arrived at the table looked like enough food for several people (as it turns out, I ate about half and brought the rest home). Buried below a small mountain of string thin onion straws was a ham hock braised to a tender perfection. Think ribs where the meat pulls off the bone leaving it starkly clean. Same here. As good as that was, the very best part was under all of that. Partially hidden by the monstrous hock was a spicy sausage stuffing that I wanted to suck up with a straw.  

Each main was accompanied by two sides from a list of about 10 choices all of which were served in unlimited portions. I picked spatezle and carrots. The spatezle, unfortunately, was dry and bland. It tasted as if it might have been under the heat lamps a little too long. The carrots were interestingly sweet, served mixed with what I thought were apples or parsnips (hard to tell) and in a kind of thickened sauce. We had two other sides, but I'll leave them to Cyn.

(Cyn's two cents on the carrots:  here's what I think they did - opened a can of pears in heavy syrup and dumped it into a stock pot, added water and baby carrots from a bag, simmered until the pears all but dissolved and the baby carrots were tender.  The carrots had a really nice carrot-y flavor, but the sauce they were in was wayyy too sweet in a cloying sort of way.)

With my main, I asked for a Hofbrau dunkel and was disappointed to find they were out of it. Having been to THE Hofbrau House in Munich, I had wanted to see if the export version was as good as the local beer there. Instead, I tried a Hofbrau maibock. Maibocks, are usually a springtime beers and are most typically served in May. I've had other maibocks before and found this one good but unremarkable. Should have stuck with the Ettal.

Cyn - Main Course
Jager Schnitzel.  Thin sliced veal, lightly breaded and fried, topped with a mushroom, bacon and cream sauce.  It was good, an over sized portion, tons of mushrooms and mushroom flavor, with such ultra 70's garnish, any self-respecting chef of today would blush.  A bi-colored dendrobium orchid to the left, a sprig of kale topped with a slice of cantaloupe (with rind) topped with a slice of beet with a hole in the center clearly made with a implement used solely for this purpose, into which a green olive from a jar (yes, you know the one) inserted into the middle, on the opposite side from the orchid.  I kid you not.  On top of the schnitzel - a slice of lemon with a piped topping of cream, sprinkled with paprika. Could I make this stuff up?  To be fair, the flavors were there and the food came out piping hot and served with a smile and a true wish for us to enjoy our meal.  But really, orchids, and beets and piped cream?  Oh my!

Two sides were included with each meal, I chose the potato salad and the red cabbage, both of which were perfectly lovely.  The potatoes had a nice tooth to them, the hint of bacon and sugar in perfect balance with the vinegar.  They were garnished with chopped red pepper.  ?  The red cabbage was silky and again in perfect balance, sweet and sour.  Garnished with sliced green onion.  Again I say, ?.

Al - The Bottom Line
In the end, we skipped dessert. Our server brought over the dessert tray and explained the pretty broad array of options. As you can imagine, we were both pretty stuffed at this point and nothing on the tray screamed out as "must have" and "forget how full you'll feel after".

So, what is my verdict? The good news for me is that The Bavarian Chef was everything it purported itself to be. It served traditional, authentic and reliably good food. I truly enjoyed the goulash, schweinhaxen and especially the sausage stuffing. The portions are beyond generous and if you consider that you will likely go home with enough food to put together another complete meal, the value is fair. The server was pleasant and took time to explain the menu items in detail (and she knew her stuff). The beer selection is good, even though I didn't particularly care for the maibock. However, it's not the kind of place I see myself going again unless I just have to have a big German meal. At the end of the meal I realized I had not been surprised once, nor had I been served anything very different from what I had experienced in other good German restaurants. Is that a bad thing? No, not at all. If you're looking for a good, traditional and authentic German meal. this may be your place. 

Cyn - The Bottom Line
Dessert.  They make everything in house.  There were at least five cheesecakes to choose from, sacher torte and apple strudel, carrot cake, black forest and some interesting sounding nut ball thing with coconut, nuts and ice cream.  I'm sure I'm missing a dessert or three.  Cheesecakes looked good, as did the other cakes.  Apple strudel was pretty sad looking, about an inch of pretty anemic looking pie crust with a dry apple filling.  Nut thing was clearly a ball of shortening with aforementioned inclusions mixed in - not a pretty sight on the tray.  Had we not seen the dessert tray, we definitely would have ordered the strudel or the torte.  

Overall, if you're looking to go back to 1974, this is your place.  The food is good, the service friendly and welcoming, the beer cold.  Would I go back?  No, I've already been, thank you.  But if you haven't been, and aren't on a diet, get thee to the Bavarian Chef.  

The Bavarian Chef on Urbanspoon


  1. Al: Sorry the beer was a dissappointment, but really, you drank a spring beer in winter? What were you thinking? ;)


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