Flavor: Spatzen, schnitzel and strudel
Ambiance: As relentlessly Germanic as the Epcot pavilion
I am not an especially good menu planner. While I admire those prescient cooks who can size up the meat counter on a Monday and somehow know they'll want pad Thai on Wednesday, my stomach doesn't usually settle on a craving till I've entered some medically classifiable state of hunger. I blame my inability to cook largely on my impulsive appetite: I spent my formative cooking years in a tiny Southern town where even a quick trip to the nearest Jitney Jungle took the better part of an hour, so a sudden yearning for quesadillas was best fed by yet another visit to Applebees.
That said, I know exactly what I'm having for dinner come December: A plateful of Bavarian Lodge's perfectly-pounded schnitzel, accompanied by a slice of chewy brown bread. The Germans pretty much invented winter -- if coming up with the mercury thermometer to measure its severity counts -- so it makes sense that their cuisine matches the season. But there's nothing rational about the deliciousness of the dishes at the Bavarian Lodge, which exceed every expectation most Americans have for onion-smothered meat and doughy, boiled spaetzle. The food is resolutely wonderful, and well-deserving of a spot on anyone's culinary calendar.
I'm not sure why Dieter Homburg, the practiced chef behind Bavarian Brathaus in Carthage, decided to transform Woodfin's Hunter's Lodge into a celebration of Deutschland's best at the start of summer, when overbearing heat and humidity don't put most folks in the mood for rib-sticking sausages and pickled vegetables. Perhaps he thought he'd use the schnitzel off-season to rehearse for the coming winter crowds. As a recent dinner proved, he's ready for them.
I never dined at Hunter's Lodge, a Southern-style family eatery that knocked $1 off the checks of patrons who presented their church worship bulletins. But from the looks of Bavarian, the building was born to be a German restaurant. The low-ceilinged interior is framed by walls of malt-brown logs that look like what Hansel and Gretel's father might have used to build their haus. To amplify the German vibe, Homburg has hung husky steins from the ceiling and chosen a soundtrack of happy Alpine tunes. He occasionally mutes the music so he can take his place behind a barrel organ, equipped with rolls for "Happy Birthday" and rollicking German favorites.
Homburg obviously likes his native country. But he saves his most ardent passion for Himalayan salt, an ingredient he so adores he's devoted the first page of Bavarian's menu to its miraculous properties. According to Homburg's write-up, pink-hued Himalayan rock salt will make you smarter, improve your sex life and keep you forever young. He isn't the only one to fall under the spell of the 500-million-year-old crystals -- superstar chef David Burke has constructed an entire wall of his Las Vegas restaurant from the stuff, claiming the unpolluted salt, long locked into the earth, is as good for building and bathing as it is for seasoning.
For seasoning, it's wunderbar. Homburg's obsession with the mineral-rich salt makes sense when considered over a plate of his superlative potato pancakes -- fat, grated potatoes encrusted with the magical salt and fried into golden coins. The pancakes are served alongside a mound of cool sour cream that harmonizes with the vibrant salt. Salt is also used generously to prepare the brook trout entrée, a hefty double-filet serving of fish that's enlivened by a salty breading and light herb-butter sauce.
The Bach Forelle Mullerin bears little resemblance to the delicate mountain trout on most local menus. Homburg clearly has no compunctions about poking and prodding the terrifically fresh ingredients he uses to produce food that tastes fully of tradition. The best dishes at Bavarian are those that most obviously display the chef's handiwork, like the succulent, house-made bratwurst.
Bavarian Lodge offers seven flavors of bratwurst, including garlic, spinach and turkey (which isn't exactly a flavor, but perhaps something's lost in the menu translation). The three best versions -- curry, cheese and King Ludwig's, which is apparently the German equivalent of "atomic," fill out the sampler offered as an appetizer. While the presentation falls short of appealing -- inch-long segments of the crumbly brats are plopped onto a platter soaked with sausage grease -- the taste is enough to make a diner join the recorded chorus of yodelers. The currywurst, a German street-cart staple, is an especially good blend of grilled meat and punchy seasoning.
Other appetizers include a too-creamy herring salad with too little fish and a smoky goulash that's so satisfyingly meaty it could serve as the National Beef Association's signature dish. Although the soup earns its deep red color from tomatoes and paprika, it wrings every bit of savory flavor from the included rich broth and hunks of beef. While the menu prompts diners to ask about a soup of the day, our capable server assured us goulash was the soup of every day.
All dinners are served with a basket of crusty homemade bread and a scoop of Vienna salad, a mélange of chopped sweet tomatoes and acidic vinegar. Each entrée also includes a selection of sides, although that selection is made by the chef. "NO substitutions," the menu announces, echoing Homburg's confident control of what comes into his kitchen and what leaves it. "Our dinners are authentic Bavarian German and come with items that are made to complement each other."
The chill of winter, when it comes, might have a hard time chilling the atmosphere: The Bavarian's dining room is a warm and friendly place manned by a server who brings unopened bottles of the four available beers to each table, rather than a beer list.
What may end up scaring off some diners are Bavarian's prices: Every dinner entree is $19.99. That makes for an expensive meal by Asheville standards, even though the portions are large.
But I'm persuaded I got my money's worth from the sauerbraten, which, while slightly overcooked, meshed perfectly with a spicy mustard. And I likely would have paid more for the Braumeister schnitzel, an admirably thin but flavorful slice of juicy veal topped with savory sautéed mushrooms and dark beer.
The Bavarian Lodge has nine schnitzels on its menu, and I'm not sure I can wait until winter to try another.