At the risk of sounding like a food snob, I too often find German cuisine in South Florida to be akin to writer's block: a big, empty space where creativity and inspiration should be.
It's as if our local German-American chefs and restaurateurs invest both hearts and stomachs in dour, pessimistic, Teutonic proverbs: "An old error is always more popular than a new truth" or "Always something new, seldom something good."
These maxims may speak to Germany's stoic, traditional roots, but they don't necessarily translate to its present. As Lothar Tubbesing, chef-owner of Restaurant Lachswehr (one of that nation's oldest restaurants, in Lübeck) writes in the Global Gourmet, "Germany today is not a country on welfare; even the average worker earns enough to spend at least two times a year abroad. He is entitled to 23 working holidays a year. He gets around, sees different countries, and recognizes different tastes in the world of ours. So when he is back home, he wants the light, fancy style of Italian kitchens, but with the goods he knows. He wants the long-lasting French meals to impress his fiancée, but in his favorite restaurant at home. So kitchen tasks are changing constantly."
The Ambry / Bierbrunnen German Pub
3016 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale / 425 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Dinner Monday-Saturday from 5 till 10 p.m.; call 954-771-7342 / Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m.; call 954-462-1008
To that end, Germany's modern chefs approach fine fare the same way as ours; they use regional ingredients but redefine them with global knowledge. The result is decidedly trend-worthy dishes like Joerg Mueller's "Mousse of Three Different Paprikas;" Harald Wohlfarth's "Salad of Asparagus Tips with Slices of Sweetbread;" or Tubbesing's own "Poached Filet of Beef on a Mustard Sabayone with Apple-Celery Puree."
You wouldn't know about this trend from visiting Fort Lauderdale places like The Ambry and Bierbrunnen German Pub, where the fare is best categorized by Cooking with Beer author Lucy Saunders's definition of Oktoberfest: "If a stein is in one hand, a wurst or sausage is in the other." In other words, these two restaurants subscribe to and perpetuate the stereotypical view that Americans hold of German establishments: oompah-band atmosphere and old-country décor where one consumes as much schnitzel and Warsteiner as humanly possible. The Ambry, low-ceilinged with brick archways and faux fireplaces, has more kitsch than a grandmother's apartment. The Bierbrunnen pub, which features pool tables and dart boards, manages to be simultaneously dark and smoky, and open-air. Quite a feat, that.
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That is not to say these restaurants are uniformly lousy or even completely uninspired. I was impressed by the potato pancakes at Bierbrunnen, which were light and fluffy, even when slicked with a premium applesauce or enriched with sour cream. Though the identical items at the Ambry were as thick and hard as Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, the Ambry proved to be the more sophisticated of the two; it serves appetizers such as baked Brie with lingonberry jam. I would have appreciated a bit more fire under the cheese, which wasn't as meltingly rich as it could have been, but the combination of tart-buttery flavors with a generous garnish of apple slices and toasted bread made the dish a worthwhile investment.
Main courses were also a bit more self-aware at the Ambry, ranging from schwabentopf, a filet perched on a skillet of cheese spaetzle and smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce, to filetpfandl etterschlag -- beef, pork, and veal tenderloin blanketed with sautéed mushrooms and onions. Indeed, most of the meat dishes seemed to be variations on a theme: steak, calves' liver, or schnitzel from column A and a combination of toppings -- onions, mushrooms, peppers, bacon, cheese, cream, cognac, what-have-you -- from column B. The cut of the beef medallions and veal was consistent with good quality and timely grill work, though I thought the filet could have been fresher. The accompanying spaetzle, which looked as if it had been forced too many times through a ricer, also should have been less tough and dry, and a dumpling, composed of what appeared to be old rye and pumpernickel bread, was heavy enough to rival poorly done matzo balls.
If I wanted German cuisine basics like herring in cream sauce, schnitzel, and wurst, I'd head to the more casual Bierbrunnen. The herring at the Ambry tasted commercial and mass-produced, while it shone at Bierbrunnen in a yogurt-dill sauce spiked with apples, pickles, and onions. You can get pork or chicken schnitzel at the latter in a variety of ways, including topped with fried eggs or "Hawaii" style with pineapple and Swiss cheese; we opted for a simple schnitzel sandwich and were greatly pleased with the juicy, pounded pork in its crisp coat. The bratwurst and knockwurst bayrische schmakerplatte (sampler platter) at the Ambry, partnered with sauerkraut that had been reheated so often it was starting to disintegrate, were too enthusiastically flavored with spices. By contrast, the currywurst at Bierbrunnen was a delicate example of zesty and not overwhelming sausage-making.
But in the end, despite the various and relative successes with classic German cuisine at both restaurants, I can't help but long for some reinvention -- and by that, I don't mean the teriyaki chicken and Canadian baby-back ribs that the Ambry lists or the Buffalo wings and chips-and-salsa that Bierbrunnen has on its menu. According to an ancient German adage, "A country can be judged by the quality of its proverbs." So too can the cuisine be measured. Which makes it fair to say that when it comes to our local German eateries, "What is the use of running when we are not on the right road?"