Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: The German Cafe (Paoli, Indiana).

In the following review, Shane Campbell recounts his wonderful experience at The German Cafe in Paoli, Indiana. Mr. and Mrs. Curmudgeon visited a week later, and fully endorse Shane's fine review. Previously, Shane reviewed the Louis Le Fran├žais/Starlight Dist/NABC beer dinner on March 1 and the Eight Beer Fantasy at Majid's.


One Sunday afternoon recently, sitting at the bar in Bank Street Brewhouse, I overheard a couple of regulars talking about setting up a meet at a German restaurant in Paoli.

Say what? I must have misunderstood.

I've been in Paoli many, many times, and while I know a few places that one can find decent food there – okay, one really: the golf club -- I recalled no German restaurants in this tiny burg. I was told it was called The German Cafe, and it was getting big love from another regular (not present that Sunday), whose opinion about German food was respected. A trip to the German Cafe was in the offing. I wanted in.

As you know, coordinating a time when everyone is available is about as easy as training beagle puppies to herd grasshoppers. After exchanging several e-mails and waiting two more Sundays, it seemed likely that this rendezvous would not happen soon. At first, it was Thunder, then Derby. Next it would be Mother's Day. So to assuage my kraut craving, I coordinated my own trip with my best girl Friday (Donna) and on Saturday we drove an easy thirty miles northwest to Paoli.

The German Cafe is a small cottage painted light blue and white with a tidy deck out front. It sits up on the hillside just east of town on State Rd 37 across from the Wal-Mart. I mention this because if you ask for directions in this bucolic county, the Wal-Mart is the landmark of choice.

It was late morning as we stepped out from under a sun-drenched Saturday sky and into the cafe to the jaunty sound of jingling bells tied to the door. As we removed our sunglasses we were met by a bit of old world charm. The restaurant is a collection of small rooms decorated in lace and white table linens. We found out later it can seat forty-four inside. The front room is the largest and can seat as many as twenty. The first thing that caught my eye was a shelf with beer just opposite the door. We stood conspicuously at the entry for a moment wondering whether this was a “seat yourselves” situation or “wait to be seated” scenario. There was a young couple already seated to our left in the main room and the sound of quiet conversation told us that there were other diners in the room, farther back to the left of the beer shelf.

For me, the beer is always the landmark of choice.

A woman with sandy blonde hair wearing an apron bustled into the room from the kitchen. She was headed towards the back room with the quiet conversation but paused and threw us a friendly smile. I stepped away from the shelf, where I had been looking at the bottles of German beer. She said hello. I heard no accent and was mildly disappointed. The story was that the German Cafe was owned by a German couple. Maybe later we would meet an owner.

We both said hi, and Donna said we were the only two. The woman glanced around at the nearly empty room and asked us to please sit anywhere we liked. I could see into at least two other smaller rooms. The brightly lit front room where we stood appeared comfortable and at first glance seemed to have many things to look at, including the beer shelf. We chose to sit in the corner of the main room across from the other couple.

We had no sooner taken our seats than the woman hurried back in. She invited us to look at the laminated lunch menus laid out at each place setting and asked if we would like to hear the specials. I told her we were not local but were very excited to try the restaurant, of which we had only recently heard. She smiled as if slightly embarrassed and said, yes a German restaurant in Paoli was unexpected, and yet she had not chosen this spot at random. She said this while making a gesture akin to throwing a dart at a board. I was too surprised by her admission that she was the owner to follow up on this right away.

As she described the specials, speaking the German words, it became obvious that she is German. Her English is so good, and with nearly perfect American phrasing, that I thought she must have lived in this country for decades. Her name is Ramona Muenzer, and on the day of our visit, her waitress had not shown up for work. Frau Muenzer wore a happy face, but we could tell she was not best pleased.

The specials were a Schnitzel Normandy (covered with mixed vegetables) with a salad, and a wurst plate with three different sausages and a choice of two sides. There was a third special, available only on selected weekends: Nuernberger sausages, served with two sides. These she described as six finger-length links, sweet and slightly spicy like small bratwursts. Her enthusiasm for this infrequent special won me over immediately, and I let her suggest my sides of kraut and potato salad.

Then she asked if I was interested in the beer options. I was. I had already looked over the shelf containing eight different bottled beers. Five were Weihenstephaner (Hefe & Kristal Weissbier, Doppel Bock, Pilsner and Original Premium). The others were Erdinger Dark Wheat, Hofbrau Dunkel, and Jever Pilsner. As she brought a copy of the beer menu, the young man at the table next to us said that the Doppel Bock was excellent -- if I liked a dark beer.

I had already dismissed the Doppel Bock, as I knew it would be stronger than I wanted. I intended to drink two or three bottles and selecting the Doppel would cut that down to two for sure. However, before I could say this aloud Ramona praised the selection and placed the menu in front of me. I glanced at it and saw the Doppel was the strongest of the beers at 7.5%.

The young man offered that the beer, while dark, was not heavy at all, a sentiment Ramona echoed. I was pleased that the young man was recommending a beer to me, but still I hesitated. Just as I started to explain that it was the alcohol content that I objected to, not the taste or heaviness, the young man said I could have a taste of his if I wasn't sure.

Oh, hell; I laughed and said to Ramona that I would have a whole bottle to taste. Donna volunteered to drive if necessary, and we were all in happy accord that I would be drinking the Doppel Bock. Chad and Katey told us that they also were not local. They had just noticed the restaurant as they were driving by.

In fact, they are from Illinois and had spent the previous night in Indianapolis. I asked where they were heading and they smiled at each other and admitted that they didn't know, having just started a seven day driving trip in an open-top Jeep with their only agenda being to find wineries and interesting historical sites along their journey. They both had notebooks open next to them, and said they were writing a travel blog ( detailing the trip. Damn they were cute! Chad is a coal miner from the Illinois sticks and Katey is from the Chicago suburbs, just finishing a degree in music therapy. They were both twenty-fourish. Oh, to be young again!

We were discussing possible options when their food arrived. Katey had already received her salad, and it looked like she had chosen the sausage plate entree. Chad had the schnitzel with vegetables and a large bowl of flat noodles with mushroom gravy. Ramona arrived with my beer and a glass, and I asked if she could sit with us when she had time as both couples wanted to hear her story. She again mentioned that her waitress had not shown up, but with only a few other diners to assist, she would be happy to come and sit when she could.

Our food soon came. Donna had ordered the schnitzel “Wiener Art” sandwich without sides, and its monstrous size made her glad she had not ordered sides. To be truthful, there were very few German sides she would eat anyway. My sausages had a delicate flavor that became truly fantastic when covered with the spicy brown mustard. The kraut and the potato salad both were the best I've ever had.

I've eaten at Erika's and the Gasthaus in Louisville. I've sought out German restaurants in areas with large German communities in Wisconsin, Texas, and even Jasper, Indiana. I've even had a few meals in Germany. While I can't ever remember having any bad meals at a German restaurant, I certainly know that I've never had a better one than I had in the German Cafe in Paoli that Saturday.

While we were eating, Ramona came back, sat down and began to tell us her story. This is what she said.

Ramona, her husband Bernd and their two children lived near Wurzburg, Germany, until about three years ago. She worked for the US Department of Defense for a long time, explaining her exceptional English. She mentioned working in the hotel trade, which I took to mean that she was employed by the billeting facilities at a large Army base located near there. Bernd worked in assisted care for the elderly, and also had owned a couple of small pubs in the past. As the era of US Army bases in Germany drew down, Ramona was faced with losing her DOD job unless she moved to another base in the far south of the country.

Ramona said she and Bernd had become acquainted with a woman who visited Germany often, and who also happened to live in the West Baden/French Lick area. This woman, a small business owner, often complained of the lack of German restaurants in the area. Ramona and her husband were convinced to come over for a visit; she joked that their American acquaintance only drove them as far as Paoli, Bedford, and West Baden, and they never really knew how close they were to larger centers of population. I got the impression that in retrospect, she might have considered locating closer to Louisville, Bloomington, Jasper, or even Indianapolis had she been more familiar with the area.

She said their restaurant had been open for about two years now and that they had been making slow but steady improvements all along. She talked about Indiana laws prohibiting a beer garden, although the new deck area served well. We discussed her beer selection and she said they chose the beer because it was what she and Bernd liked to drink in Germany. They were thinking of expanding the beer selection, but were unsure the locals would drink other styles.

I mentioned that her approval rating was an impressive 95% on Urbanspoon and she assured me that it was in fact 97%, as one of her regular customers had just told her. I mentioned that the Mayor of Jasper had been seen eating here, and she replied that even more impressively, the German Club of Jasper had recently dined with her, and the owners of the famous Schitzelbank restaurant in Jasper had been coming to The German Cafe in Paoli to eat regularly.

As we were talking, the tardy waitress came in. Ramona congratulated her for finally showing up, and the young woman tried to put a glad face on it by saying better late than never. Ramona's smile in return appeared to take quite a lot of effort, and she told the girl there was a lot of work to do. This interplay was close up and quite amusing. I had to turn away to keep from laughing. I imagined the waitress would be receiving the sharp end of Ramona's tongue soon after we departed. I suspect there are many things Ramona has had to become accustomed to since moving to Paoli.

We’re thrilled that she did, and we’ll be returning soon to try out the dinner menu. Ramona says that the goulash and the red cabbage are widely acknowledged as the most authentic to be had locally by her German customers. I don't intend to take her word for it.

Our lunch came to $25. I was too full to try any dessert and Donna took half her schnitzel sandwich home with her. The true measure of how much I enjoyed my meal was the fact that I realized I had not even considered ordering another beer. The Doppel Bock I had was quite tasty, but the food was so good that I didn’t need another. I plan to have the hoppy Pils next time. Besides, I need to practice my German: Ein Bier, Bitte!

The charming Chad and Katey were great company. I'm sure they had a great adventure. I intend to follow their journey on their blog spot.

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