When I first pull into the nondescript group of shops at 1300 East Bay Drive in Largo, I think perhaps that I’m being punked. As my eyes scan the signs looking for German Bistro 2 in the intimate plaza, I encounter a Thai restaurant, a Polish deli, a Cuban cafe and a Latin American bodega. Talk about “we are the world” — all in one small Largo plaza; it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a food critic setup complete with fake restaurant facades.
But if German Bistro 2 is not exactly nestled in the Alps near Berchtesgaden, it doesn’t matter. I’m easily able to substitute my own mental picture because Irena Seidl’s food is the real deal. Memories of my time in Bavaria flood back; this is food that sticks to your ribs.
As soon as you settle at the table, a bowl of tart cole slaw arrives with crisp green cabbage, shredded and full of flavor with the bit of horseradish that makes your taste buds zing. There’s also a basket of sliced warm bread accompanied by soft chive butter. Then, because there’s no liquor license and Irena is European, beer or wine is de rigueur, so alcohol is on the house. I do wish, however, that they’d find a way to offer Riesling instead of Chardonnay because it’s the obvious match for most of the food.
An appetizer of three enormous potato pancakes, made from finely grated spuds, is not to be missed. These are not crisp Passover latkes made from potato shreds, but rather a firm soft interior with a golden brown surface that makes for a great start. Be sure to add huge dollops of applesauce and sour cream garnishes, just because. I can hear yodeling and an oom pah band in my mind and in the background, which adds to the festive atmosphere.
The entrees are for the most part yummy variations on three themes: schnitzel (thin pounded, breaded pick-a-protein — veal, pork, or chicken), wurst (German sausages of varying meats and spices), and braten (roasted meat of various derivations). Seemingly lurking around every plate is a variation of tasty brown gravy that might add mushrooms, extra carrots, or vinegar and end up dripping down one of the accompaniments.
All the entrees come with two sides that are available in bottomless portions, and they are delightful. The portions are so generous that it’s hard to imagine having seconds without exploding, but the offer is there.
The tennis ball-sized Bavarian style bread dumpling is both surprisingly light and full of flavor from herbs and perhaps some nutmeg. And it’s bathed in one of Irena’s delicious brown gravy variations.
Warm potato salad is a quintessential example of the German variation on this ubiquitous dish: sliced warm potatoes with just enough resistance to the tooth, almost creamy, and nicely balanced with just the right amount of tart vinegar.
Or the sweet and sour red cabbage (one of the great German sides) that’s as soft and comforting as the coleslaw is crunchy and piquant. The sauerkraut, even though it’s served in its own bowl, has a smokiness that tastes of contact with some delicious pork product on the way to the plate. Then there’s the wonderful spaetzle, those tiny flour and egg dumplings that are later pan-fried and topped with omnipresent gravy.
When it’s time for dessert, I have a disorienting flashback. It was Black Forest cherry cake, or schwartzvalderkirschetorte, which first ignited my passion for great food. I was young and wide-eyed on my first trip to Europe and the sweets had taken my palate by storm. The lush combo of dark chocolate cake moist with cherry brandy and dark fruit, oozing and balanced by light whipped cream filling, had my head swimming and remains firmly embedded in my mind. Unfortunately, when I returned to the USA not only could I not find examples of the cake, I couldn’t even find a recipe that re-created what was scorched in my memory.
Over time I pieced together sections of several recipes in order to create the ideal cake that so captured my imagination. I haven’t made that cake in years, but I still remember it vividly. German Bistro’s version is that cake, spot on, and easily big enough to share.
The strudel is less successful, as the attempt to serve it warm with ice cream, while a path paved with good intentions, robs any crispness from the strudel dough. The warm chunky apples with a few raisins and a distinct hit of cinnamon marry well with the ice cream, but any crunch from the dough is gone. For me, the trade-off isn’t worth it.
Still, a trip to German Bistro 2 is like a home-cooked meal on a Bavarian holiday, without a flight to Munich. And that, dear readers, ist wunderbar.
NEXT WEEK: Fire Bar and Grill
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