Lovers of German food have been buzzing during the past couple of weeks about the closure of Cafe Heidelberg, landmark German restaurant and market on East Sahara Avenue just east of the Strip.
Observers of such things will have noted that Cafe Heidelberg was, for several years, the sole German restaurant in Las Vegas (yes, except for the Hofbrauhaus, but that has more of the feel of a beer hall, part of the reason it's rightly beloved by our visitors). That changed recently with the opening of Cafe Berlin and the similarly named The Berliner. The latter apparently is a counter-service sandwich shop, but it may not be of much consequence considering that a sign posted on the door on a couple of recent days reported that it was closed because of a nonfunctioning air-conditioner - which, at the very least, management doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to restore.
So that leaves Cafe Berlin, and the inevitable comparisons to the late lamented Cafe Heidelberg. I won't debate the fairness of such comparisons; Cafe Heidelberg had been in business for 40 years, allowing plenty of time for its proprietors to apply the layers of considerable charm it possessed, while Cafe Berlin opened just recently, during a lingering recession.
The final analysis? Cafe Berlin has lots of promise, though it is operating at about a four-decade deficit.
First, don't expect much in the way of Old World schmaltz. The restaurant is in a newish shopping center near Interstate 215 and Decatur Boulevard. The interior is fairly bare-bones, with spare but attractive decor in sleek earth tones, and a few travel posters and pictures of Berlin on the wall.
There's no doubt that the place is authentic. Both of whom we took to be the proprietors spoke with rich Teutonic accents, and one asked if, like apparently a minority of our fellow customers, we understood that Wienerschnitzel is not, after all, a hot dog. Indeed.
As for the food? Well, I'm not going to pretend that it's as good as what Mutti and Oma used to make, but if you are aware that a schnitzel is a cutlet and not a sausage (let's not wish for the wurst), it will no doubt satisfy your craving for German food.
Let's begin with the wurst, as in the Wurstplatte ($15.95), which was just as described - a plate containing knockwurst, bockwurst and beer brats, plus sauerkraut and potatoes. And the only question I had was are these real bratwurst? Delicate and pale, with a touch of nutmeg? The kind that seem most delicious at stands outside Austrian train stations? Yes, and cooked perfectly.
Which is not to disparage the knockwurst and bockwurst, which were very good, even better with a few schmears of the spicy German mustard served with them.
Sauerkraut was a little on the mild side, which may be a nod to American tastes, and the mashed potatoes were the standard German style, pureed beyond any signs of life. (Maybe potato salad would be a better choice here.)
Since I've been dancing around it I'll explain to anyone who's still wondering that Wienerschnitzel is a cutlet cooked in the Vienna style, which is to say lightly breaded and sauteed in butter. The original was veal, but over the past few decades most restaurants in Germany and Austria switched to the more affordable and available pork, and Cafe Berlin clearly states on its menu that that's the case there as well. And it's the case with the other members of the restaurant's Schnitzel Corner, with the exception of the chicken Cordon Bleu. As you may have figured out by now, most of them basically are variations on a Wienerschnitzel theme.
For us it would be Jaeger Schnitzel ($14.95) dubbed "hunter's style" because of the forest-born mushrooms that top it. Cafe Berlin's Jaeger Schnitzel was topped with a delicate but rich creamy gravy and lots of lightly sauteed mushrooms. The cutlet itself was suitably delicate, so the only quibble we had with this one is that it appeared to have been deep-fried instead of pan-fried, which gave it a uniform, almost contentious crispiness. Spaetzle on the side were properly thin shreds of egg dumpling, sauteed just long enough to provide a gentle brownness in spots.
We'd started with a big soft pretzel ($3.99 with mustard, $5 with cheese), which was a little too far along the soft-to-crispy continuum but quite tasty, especially with the delicious Obazter, an herbed butter-and-cheese spread that I've always thought of as a sort of German boursin.
And we ended with apple strudel ($4.95) with a velvety vanilla sauce.
Service was fine - friendly, if a little on the spare side.
Here's something that may surprise you: Cafe Berlin doesn't serve beer, although we were told we're welcome to bring it in.
So no, it's not the Hofbrauhaus. And it's not Cafe Heidelberg. But Cafe Berlin fills its German niche quite nicely.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at firstname.lastname@example.org or 383-0474.