Made to order
"This is a German restaurant. You will have fun if you just follow orders."
The guy who said this was on stage, dressed in lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders). With a squeezebox in his hands, he unsuccessfully prodded diners to rise from their seats, stand up by their tables, and waddle, chirp, and flutter on command in a prance known as the chicken dance. He was part of a two-piece band that occupied the tiny stage and performed German and Swiss folk songs using an array of instruments: accordion, sax, clarinet, bass, tambourine, and a hot-orange guitar that looked as if it were commandeered off the back of Angus Young from AC/DC. Maybe that's where they got the lederhosen. They sang, squeezed, yodeled, and generally tried to get people in the dining room to do things they wouldn't normally do unless they were well greased with German beer.
But this is what Bavarian Grill is all about. Owner Juergen Mahneke stops by each table and says hello to his guests. Just before strolling to the next group of diners, he growls, "have a great time," which is the slogan on Bavarian Grill's to-go menu. And there are lots of opportunities here to have a thrilling blowout. In addition to a couple of yodelers, Bavarian Grill has a puzzle table where you can slosh brew and piece together images of beer steins, German scenery, pretzels, and piglets; a mock ski lodge with a fireplace and skis and antlers on the walls; a train that chugs around the dining-room perimeter near the ceiling through model Bavarian villages and holes burrowed in the walls; and a biergarten. (Sample each of BG's 50-plus German beers and become a member of the Stein Club. Among the benefits of membership are a personalized ceramic stein, German bier videos, and free use of the restaurant's bier book library.)
This kitsch collection must generate an awful lot of Bavarian exhilaration, because it's nearly impossible to get seated in the dining room on weekends, though this most likely isn't because of the food or service. On one visit, we were told our table would be ready momentarily and were invited to grab stools at the bar next to the biergarten. Mahneke gave us a coded plastic-coated Bavarian post card to place on the bar so that we could be tracked when a table opened. This promised bit of brevity stretched into an hour and two tall glasses of hefe-weizen. I waved my postcard frantically each time I saw the man pass by, convinced he had left his Bavarian postcard decoder in his other trousers. On a second visit, we were ignored after being seated for some 15 minutes in a lightly populated section of the dining room. The wait prompted a daring plunge at the wine list. So we ordered a bottle of German red wine from Bavarian Grill's appreciable list of German selections: a Dornfelder-Pinot Noir blend from the region of Rheinpfalz. (We figured it would be a fair match for the seared strip-steak we had ordered, a disappointing ribbon of charred meat that was tough, fatty, gristly, and sparsely flavored.) The wine was served cold, not lightly chilled as the label suggested. But this may have been a blessing. The wine had little of the aromatic red fruit on the nose that you might expect, and it washed the palate with a sharp steminess virtually stripped of fruit. It made me yearn for a brew.
Other things elevated the experience, however. Schwabische maultaschen uberbacken--pasta pockets filled with ground veal, spinach, and sauteed onions--tasted far better than the words sound. Poached in beef broth, the pillows were firm and tender with a moist, tasty nucleus. Plus, the melted Swiss cheese topping had a provocative piercing sharpness. Pochierte geraucherete huhnerbrust--smoked poached chicken breast--was succulent and flavored with just the right level of smoke, while the milky white-wine sauce added freshness. A companion to many of the dishes here, the mixed salad looked like little piles of colorful kindling: clumps of shredded carrot, crispy marinated cucumbers, a wad of pulpy green beans, and mushy but richly flavored vinaigrette-soaked tomato slices. Sauerkraut was a real disappointment: limp and tired, as if it came from a can. But the chunky, herbed potato salad that does duty with German sausages (a choice of two from five kinds) was smooth, creamy, moist, and flush with flavor and a flash of tang. Of the two links, smoked bratwurst and nurnberger, the latter was tastier, if a little dry. The brat wasn't smoky enough.
The smoked filet of trout with creamy horseradish also needed more smog savor. The bland fish was blasted with a searing horseradish sauce. Another swimmer that sunk into a dull pool of flavorlessness was the poached salmon in creamy dill sauce. Limp spinach that tasted as if it had been frozen garnished the weakly flavored, slightly dry fish. The side of smooth, moist yellow new potatoes, cluttered with parsley, was better. The split-pea soup was too smooth. Bigger chunks of meat and coarser stock would have made the difference.
But back to the lederhosen twins: They eventually did get the chicken dance off its duff, so to speak. But only after a hefty woman from Santa Rosa, California, obeyed a command to step onstage and led the restaurant in this poultry jig. At Bavarian Grill, for an optimal dining experience, it's best to follow orders.
"What does that mean to you?" asked our server. She posed the question after one of my dining companions ordered her sliced New York strip steak in a peppercorn demi-glace medium rare. And it encapsulates the engaging simplicity of Franki's Li'l Europe, an East Dallas restaurant proffering Eastern European fare. How many servers would think to ask such a question? How many would care to ensure that both diner and kitchen were reading from the same page? When it arrived, the tender, rich meat was prepared precisely to the medium-rare hue requested. And most of the food in this cozy neighborhood spot follows suit.
Though the meat was slightly overcooked, chicken paprikash--pieces of bird in a zesty tomato sauce spiked with paprika and dashed with sour cream--was satisfying yet edged with raciness. A side of hearty spatzel, firm wound threads of dumpling-like pasta, gave the plate a palatable cushion.
Franki's has no set menu. Fare is scrawled in marker on two erasable boards that are hauled from table to table as diners are seated. Servers move over the list, pronouncing each dish and explaining its intricacies. The dining room, with its simple chairs and square green tables, is clean and uncluttered. Maybe too much so. Evening ambiance might benefit from a little softness--tablecloths, perhaps. Here, too, the dining room holds a tiny stage where an accordion player performed on one visit, and a train chugs around the perimeter of the dining room. Co-owner Gabriela Kovacic boasts that Franki's train is longer than Bavarian Grill's, though that might be because a car was seemingly added to carry a help-wanted placard. "Our customers make the best employees," it reads.
But the best surprises are tucked in the menu--cevapcici, for instance, the national dish of the former Yugoslavia. These little skinless sausage fingers sculpted from beef, pork, lamb, parsley, and onions are that country's answer to burgers. The moist, charred logs of meat come with ivar, a mild Serbian relish made with grilled bell peppers and eggplant.
Red bean soup with vegetables was less successful. The viscous, hearty pottage with kidney beans in a chicken stock just didn't have much taste.
Spicy cognac pate also missed the mark. Its structure and texture were loose and spongy and lacked the tight coarseness of country pate. Plus, its potent surge of pepper tended to clobber the natural gamy sweetness and derail the thing off its culinary tracks. The German combo was better. Slices of moist, chewy smoked pork loin shared a plate with homemade bratwurst, a lean, moist log woven with veal, a touch of pork, and a gust of fennel. A side of housemade applesauce adroitly balanced between sweetness and tang. A tangle of delicately supple, crisp sauerkraut flirted with sharpness without dropping off-pitch on sour notes.
Opened some 11 years ago by Franki (who hails from Slovenia) and Gabriela Kovacic, Franki's Li'l Europe is a homey hangout without stiff pretenses or hokeyness. This makes for comfort that is out of the ordinary.
Bavarian Grill. 221 West Parker Road, Plano, (972) 881-0705. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Stein hour 4 p.m.-7 p.m. $$
Franki's Li'l Europe. 362 Casa Linda Plaza, (214) 320-0426. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and for dinner 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. $$
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