Old Europe, Thankfully, Takes You Back
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Old Europe was the first restaurant I dined in when I moved to Washington 30 years ago this fall. A friend who helped me drive here from Atlanta had spent his teenage years as a military brat in Germany and longed for sauerbraten, so we checked out Old Europe.
Three decades later, Old Europe looks the same as I remember it from 1976. Serving Washingtonians for nearly six decades, Old Europe could be the rathskeller (a basement restaurant in the city hall) or stiftskeller (a restaurant in a monastery) of any small German town, in ambience and menu.
The main dining room is dimly lit with a gentle pink glow emanating from the soffit that runs its length. The tables and chairs are plain, with pink tablecloths topped by white tablecloths and pink napkins. There isn't an inch of wall space left undecorated.
Hand-painted coats of arms of noble families and regions of Europe ring the space like a frieze. Other crests cover the recessed lighting in the ceiling. Huge old beer steins are displayed on small shelves in front of the painted crests. Oil paintings in gilt frames -- of alpine valleys and jovial monks, small children playing and crusty old men, most with cigarettes hanging from their lips -- line the walls.
Antlers large and small are interspersed among the paintings; models of ancient ships hang from the ceiling; and there is a marvelous large Black Forest cuckoo clock on the back wall. An upright piano stands near the coat rack at the front door, and a piano player performs Thursday through Sunday nights.
Over the years, the Washington dining scene has been transformed from classic French to trendsetting (think Jose Andres and the small plates movement), but Old Europe has stayed much the same. And that's the glory of it.
The current owner, Karl Herold, came to this country from Germany in 1960 to work in the kitchen for Old Europe's founders, the Lichtenstein family. He took over from them in the 1970s, and now his son, Alex, is helping to carry on the family business. But Karl Herold isn't retired, he is still stopping at tables to greet regular and first-time diners.
There is still an asparagus festival every spring (and nary a spear is on the menu out of season), and Oktoberfest (which started last week and continues through the end of next month) is celebrated. It is followed soon after by the game menu of venison, duck, goose, wild boar and "lots of other things that run around," as Alex Herold put it -- that is available through late winter.
The extensive wine list is mostly German and represents the breadth of that country's production. Most bottles cost $20 to $35.
Then there's the beer. There are a half-dozen German beers on draft -- including a black lager, a bock beer and a pilsner -- available by the stein (10 ounces), half-liter and liter. There are more than a dozen European beers, mostly German, by the bottle.
Beer seems to be a major draw for the young professionals who eschew the latest Thai or fusion upstart for this amiable German restaurant.
The cooking is downright old-fashioned, in the best sort of way. Although traditional German food can be leaden, Old Europe's kitchen stays with the tried-and-true without getting bogged down in grease. But don't expect light and airy. After all, Germany is the land of potato dumplings, potato pancakes, home-fried potatoes and bits of dough (spaetzle) browned in butter.
Potato pancakes are hearty and served with chunky home-style applesauce. A cold cucumber and potato soup was disappointingly bland, but a mushroom soup was earthy and filling.
Schnitzel -- slices of meat pounded thin, coated with breadcrumbs and fried golden brown -- is the centerpiece of Old Europe's menu. You can have it wiener style -- slices of veal served plain with a wedge of lemon; as Jagerschnitzel (hunter style), with mushrooms; or Old Europe-style, which includes both chicken and veal cutlets and lots of cream sauce and mushrooms. Any way you take it, the schnitzel is cooked perfectly and made to order; from the dining room, you can hear the meat being pounded in the kitchen.
The pork sausage is meaty and flavorful without being fatty, and the veal goulash is tender chunks of veal braised with green peppers, onions and paprika. The menu includes favorites such as sauerbraten (slices of sweet and sour marinated beef), roasted pork hocks, smoked pork loin, salmon and rainbow trout.
I would go to Old Europe just for its side dishes: the tasty cucumber salad topped with sour cream, the perfectly round and silken potato dumplings, the sauerkraut cooked in wine but retaining a bit of crispness to the cabbage, the velvety red cabbage, the not-too-tart potato salad and the wonderful spaetzle.
The breads and most of the desserts come from Arlington's Heidelberg Pastry Shop; only the apple strudel is made in-house. It's a lovely way to end the meal.