Flavor: German, Northern Italian and other
Ambiance: Nice, like an upscale, German-themed Cracker Barrel
Service: Professional and charming
Stepping inside the Black Forest Restaurant in Skyland, I sensed that this establishment is burdened with a bit of an identity crisis. My Picky Companion and I were greeted warmly by a casually dressed hostess, while waitresses bustled about in traditional German dirndls. The waiters, however, sported some sort of maitre d' costume that was distinctly un-German.
Since we were early, we drifted toward the bar area to wait for our table. Country music played on the stereo, dart boards and mirrored beer signs hung on the walls, and graying ladies sat at the bar smoking Marlboros and working crossword puzzles. The ceiling was high, with exposed beams, and a fire burned in the corner fireplace, surrounded by high-backed leather chairs, giving the country-bar atmosphere a hunter's lodge twist.
There was a fine selection of German ales on tap, including the deliciously hoppy Black Forest Oktoberfest Märzen Bier, brewed especially for the restaurant by the French Broad Brewing Company. The bartender, full of country charm, chatted a bit about the beer selection.
When our table was ready, we were told to sit at our leisure a nice touch in a world full of turn-and-burn restaurants. Our waiter arrived immediately after we took our seats to take our order. When we explained that we were in no hurry, he visibly relaxed, telling us to take our time. I got the feeling that this restaurant is accustomed to handling disgruntled diners who expected everything to happen instantaneously, a feeling that was reaffirmed by the reminder that "good food takes time," printed on every page of the menu.
The menu was all over the place: A handful of German options, a few northern Italian specialties, a short list of steaks and a seafood section containing dishes that seemed to be influenced by both classic French cuisine and southern American fare. The appetizers included such options as shrimp cocktail, "award winning" Oysters Rockefeller and crab cakes. Now, there's nothing German about crab cakes unless you count the fact that a German immigrant developed the recipe for Old Bay Seasoning. In fact, there was only one German option offered as an appetizer, the potato pancakes.
Since we'd been under the impression that this was foremost a German restaurant, we decided to sample the pancakes as well as two entrees from the "German Specialties" section of the menu. Picky Companion ordered the house platter, a combination of jaeger schnitzel (breaded veal cutlet), kassler pippchen (smoked pork chop) and knackwurst (a type of odd-looking sausage). I chose the sauerbraten, an ambiguous cut of beef described as "deeply marinated and braised, then topped with a tangy ginger sauce and sour cream."
The waiter brought a basket of basil bread with a savory cream cheese spread that was a delicious alternative to the typical butter or oil. The bread itself was very good, but unfortunately, it was cold in the middle. In a few minutes we had our appetizer, an extremely generous portion of the starchy German staple, slathered with sour cream and apple sauce. ("Certainly not the South Beach diet," Picky remarked). The dish was straightforward and satisfying, and we finished it in no time.
The entree arrived along with an apology for the delay from our charming waiter, which I found entirely unnecessary but maybe he noticed that we'd had enough time to take a liberal sampling of the beer selection.
Then, in an interesting turn of events, Picky Companion whose family has a strong German heritage loved everything, inhaling his dish while I merely picked at mine. I tried everything on his plate, and found the meat to be overcooked but tasty, especially the smoked pork, which made a subtle, dry tearing sound when I broke off a piece.
My dish, the sauerbraten, practically broke my heart (I have a weakness for braised meat). A little Culinary 101 for readers who may not know: Braising is a cooking technique that involves browning, then slowly, lovingly cooking (typically) meat in liquid until it begins to break down. It's an excellent method for tenderizing particularly tough cuts; you could probably braise a shoe and make it palatable. This meat, however, was as gray and tough as an unbraised shoe.
Everything else on the plate was very good, for the most part. As promised, the sauce was tangy, and the sides of German potato salad, kraut, slaw and spaetzle (sort of a German version of gnocchi) were tasty, though the predominant flavor in three out of the four was vinegar. (Someone in that kitchen, might I add, definitely knows their spaetzle.) I happen to like vinegar, and I imagine that the preparation was faithful to tradition, so it worked for me. At any rate, the fact that there were two different kinds of pickled cabbage on my plate was endearing enough for me to get over my sauerbraten-induced pain for a bit.
As I sat under the watchful eyes of animal heads mounted on the wall above us, my companion devoured his "meat, kraut, and potato combo that's been nourishing Germans for centuries," as it was described on the menu. I glanced at what the other diners were eating, and it seemed like every single person had a plate of very well-done steak in front of them. For this reason, I came to understand the chef's unwillingness to commit to an unfamiliar, all-German cuisine clearly, many customers here desire "safe" and familiar dishes. The approach seems to be paying off, since the dining room was full, and the only plates of German food were on our table.
Upon finishing his meal, my uncharacteristically unpicky companion leaned back in his chair, rested his hands on his full, satisfied belly, and recited a quote sometimes attributed to the German reformer Martin Luther: "Warum rülpset und furzet ihr nicht, hat es euch denn nicht geschmecket?" (Why don't you belch and fart did you not enjoy the meal?)