Monday, April 2, 2012

Old World dining

Lenhardt's Restaurant, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1979
 Do you remember your first time in a fine restaurant? Do you remember white linen tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos, gleaming glasswear and silver? Cloth napkins, dishes placed before you with a flourish? How old were you, and what do you remember of the meal?

I began dining with my family in restaurants when I was around eight or nine, I think - the place in St. Charles decked out like an old country inn that served a dozen variety of pancakes on Sunday mornings; the Chinese restaurant in Chicago my dad loved. But my first memory of a really fine restaurant experience wasn't until my family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Although a small city in 1967 when we moved there, Cincinnati had a reputation as a city of culture with a European touch due to its German immigrant heritage. Its symphony and opera were renowned, and for over 40 years, Cincinnati was home to one of the most highly rated French restaurants in the United States - The Maisonette.

My parents couldn't afford to take all six of us to Maisonette, but beginning when I was 12 years old, they took us to Lenhardt's, a venerable Austro-Hungarian restaurant down by the university, housed in a Romanesque brick mansion. It was a long drive into the city from our suburban home, which made it seem even more special.

We ate weiner schnitzel, spaetzle, goulash, and chicken paprikash. I have a vivid memory of waiters delivering baskets of pizelles, wrapped in white napkins, delivered to our table. And above all, the sense of European pomp and refinement - the right fork for each dish, stemware glasses, tablecloths and napkins.

In the 1930s and '40s Hollywood, the film industry welcomed refugees from Eastern Europe, like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. A host of "continental"-style dineries sprang up, run by entrepreneurs like Mike Romanoff - a self-promoter claiming to be deposed Russian royalty.  Cocktails, Chateaubriand, shrimps a la Russe, tournedos Rossini, wiener schnitzel and chicken Kiev were offered with flambeed and cream-topped desserts to finish.

Not much of that remains - Hollywood is more into hip, modern design and snout-to-tail boutique pork than derivative bourgeois frippery. But there's still a taste for European food in Los Angeles - and we enjoyed some recently.

Maximilian's restaurant is located in North Hollywood, in a rather drear stretch of Tujunga Avenue. North Hollywood, long the home of auto-body shops and tire stores, is now a burgeoning arts district, with theatres, galleries, acting studios and coffee shops.  Maximilian's is a veritable compound, with outdoor patios and dining gardens, and a parking lot safely enclosed with spiked steel fences.Chef Lazlo Bossanyi has been cooking here since 2009.

We began with a cocktail - a kir, made with champagne and a touch of pomegranate sirop for me, a glass of Austrian Gruner Veltliner white wine for [The Man I Love.] It came with a basket of crusty bread and a complimentary slice of terrine. It was good, slightly gamy with garlic, studded with sausage and garnished  sliced peppers. The sauce tasted like a roasted pepper relish but could just as easily have been Heinz chili sauce.

The appetizers sounded wonderful - from potato latkes garnished with caviar to baked brie - but we knew that the food was likely to be filling, so we split an appetizer of stuffed cabbage.

Stuffed cabbage - we started eating before I could take the photo
Remind me how much I love stuffed things - stuffed peppers and cabbage seem perfect foods to me, offering vegetable and meat all together. This was delicious, with a mild veal and rice stuffing. It was served with sauerkraut and creme fraiche.

[The Man I Love] was interested in trying the sausages, and at Maximilian's the menu offers three different kinds.

I took my time over the menu. I like wiener schnitzel, but the classic Hungarian chicken paprikash sounded good, and so did an offering of duck leg and breast served with red cabbage. I decided on veal paprikash - a good meaty stew served with homemade dumplings and a side of pickled cabbage salad.

[The Man I Love]'s mother is of Hungarian ancestry, and he remembers her making this simple dish of sliced cukes with onions, sprinkled with paprika and dressed with vinegar that has a touch of sugar. It was good and refreshing to take a fresh puckery bite after the richness of the veal.

Frm L to R - Debreceni, duck and veal sausage
The sausages were pretty amazing. One was a veal sausage, a typical bratwurst. There was a Hungarian-style sausage called Debreceni, deep brick-red and redolent of garlic and paprika. And there was a duck-meat sausage, with a dark, rich gamy flavor. They were served with a dish of mustard and Hungarian-style sauerkraut - sort of half-sour cabbage, less pickly than the kraut you're used to on hot dogs.

You can get sides of potatoes, vegetables, or mushrooms, but what we had was so filling we knew we'd bring some home.

Near the end of the meal, Chef Lazlo made rounds of the dining room and stopped by our table.  A bluff man with a shock of white hair, he reminisced about the past and the movie moguls he'd served in his heyday.

We went home with boxes of food, including an assortment of dessert strudels - the cherry and poppyseed strudel was so good I didn't wait to photograph it.

Will we go again? Certainly - I've got to try the weiner schnitzel!


Anonymous said...

I grew up in a city also known for it's German population, but really had few good German Restaurants. A couple times a month we would go out to eat. Sometimes just for pizza.
My first memory of white table clothes and a maitre'd was on my 13th birthday. My mothers favorite restaurant was a 5 star French restaurant on the other side of town and that is where we went to celebrate my big day. I don't remember the food, but the decor was all red velvet booths and crystal chandeliers. The owner knew my parents and treated me like a princess. It was a long enjoyable meal. I tasted everything on everyone's plate (including my Mother's Grasshopper after dinner). Thanks for bringing this memory back to me 48 years later. ALBUG

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Our big dinners out when I was little were to Chinese places (this was before the Sichuan and other spicy styles became popular here).

Possibly because of lots of kids and not much salary, but I loved it.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

We went out to dinner as a family for special occasions when I was a kid. Some of my favorite memories are of our "good grade card lunches" where we would dress up, go downtown and pick up my dad from work, then head off to the Plaza (Kansas City) for a fancy lunch. One time a man sent special desserts over to our table because he was so surprised that his lunch wasn't spoiled by the fact that two little kids were seated next to him.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I forgot to say that your dinner looks amazing. Makes me want to go make spaetzle!

materfamilias said...

What a great post! I remember being taken to a white linen tablecloth restaurant that specialized in seafood for my 10th birthday and having a Shirley Temple. My family's budget didn't extend to both parents taking me (an extra adult eating PLUS the cost of a babysitter), so it was just Dad and me. I didn't think to feel guilty about that until years later -- at ten, I just savoured the whole experience. . .

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

My mouth is watering!
I'd love to go out to eat with you, and you could certainly make a career out of being a food and travel writer.

My family rarely went to anything fancier than Shakey's pizza when I was a kid, but I do have fond memories of being a young teen and eating special birthday dinners in Seattle's Chinatown.