Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Flashback to Helen, GA: the Hofbrauhaus Restaurant.

Helen is a strange, picturesque town of German design in the Georgia foothills.  The Chattahoochee river like the Rhine bisects the town, pushing a Bavarian-styled Huddle House against tubing outfitters and Rhineland package stores.  Beyond this charming/cheesy tourist vacuum, at the other end of things, is a restaurant/inn called the Hofbrauhaus.  It is here that we ate.
Bar staccato and smoke are the opening impressions of the Hofbrauhaus. A tight-wound staircase ascends from the atrium to the guest rooms, with the restaurant opening straight ahead.  A brooding, wooden interior muffles the proprietress’s greeting, who studies us behind a large registrar book.  She chews the German language with my family as she leads us to our table.  The dining room feels like a hunting lodge, the scenic Chattahoochee river pushing down the mountain in the surrounding windows.
The menu is in German coupled with quipy English translations, and there is much schnitzel and braten and schwein, with some chicken dishes and a local trout.  We opened with pommes frites and found, well, french fries, not much different than those in your freezer, served with Heinz ketchup. Next was a camembert appetizer, arriving in a large foil-wrap with toasts. The rinded, creamy cheese was warm beneath carrots, haricot verts, carmalized onions, apple slices and nuts.  Easily trumping the pommes frites, the baked cheese was a beautiful opener.
My entree was the sauerbraten, a beef round roast served in a brown gravy of buttery beef-consumme, thick with the nuttiness of rue.  A raspberry jam, as juxtaposed as Helen GA herself, puddled in the gravy with two generous potato dumplings. A plate of red cabbage sauerkraut glinted a fermented beet-sweetness to complement the meat. My dish felt authentic, felt like a working-class German meal on that thick, ceramic, farm-buffet plate.
My wife enjoyed her pork tenderloin, and her spaetzles had a wonderful toothy texture that absorbed well the mushroom gravy.  My father-in-law got the jager schnitzel, which he enjoyed while reflecting on his years in Germany.  He and my wife clinked great goblets of heffeweisen beer.  My mother-in-law had some anemic chicken breast, easily the least appealing dish on our table.  A butter-wine gravy tinted the chicken, but there was not much she seemed to enjoy on the dish.  Nor was she impressed with her schorle, a reisling spritzed with soda water.
Dessert, however, was scrumptious.  We shared a cold highball of thick vanilla ice cream layered with raspberries.  The apple strudel was charmed with a conservative sweetness, a delicate balance of smooth cream against firm apples. The coffee was as dark and aromatic as the dining room. 
Service was briefly apologetic to my mother-in-law over the schorle before bringing more seltzer water.  Mixing a light drink is anti-intuitive, unnatural to a restaurateur, especially at the prices Hofbrauhaus charges.  The proprietress lapped our table twice, giving a history of Helen. Unfortunately the spiel was in German and thus lost on me, but I preferred listening to the crackly, trebled recordings of Wagner, Beethoven’s ninth, and German drinking songs.
Overall, the restaurant presented decent, hearty food.  But it served German peasant fare at the prices of refined food.  In fact, the whole town seems to snarl at tourists while simultaneously greeting them, mocking the passer-bys with high prices on anything from parking to food. Economic panthers. The kicker, and the ultimate downturn of events, was that our server included a gratuity on the check, failing to disclose this information.  I found that gesture to be a direct deception, and I read other complaints about this very thing. If you find yourself in Helen Ga, Hofbrauhaus is probably the best option for a German meal, but be prepared to pay more than you should, and watch for an included gratuity.