Atmosphere: Comfortably formal. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Price range: $6.95 to $11.50 Reservations: A good idea Friday and Saturday. Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard. Special facilities: street parking only; accessible to the handicapped; no boosters or high chairs; cocktail menu; coupons for half-priced dinners appear in local advertisements.
The Austro-Hungarian empire gave the world some inspired music as well as some inspired cooking. The Blue Danube, an 8-month-old restaurant in Bethesda, offers its patrons a taste of both. Although you may resist the charm of the Hungarian violins and Strauss waltzes wafting through the dining room, you won't be able to resist Blue Danube's wonderful way with food.
We tried. Service was erratic during the first part of our meal, and we felt somewhat put off by that. By the end of our meal, however, we were thoroughly taken with Blue Danube because the food was so good.
A comfortable place, Blue Danube's old-world character is a far cry from the slick packaged ambience of many local restaurants. Lace curtains cover the windows and small crystal chandeliers hang over candlelit tables covered with white tablecloths and blue placemats. Traditional paintings and Hungarian folk art hang on the walls.
The menu appears long at first and is a bit confusing because there are several ways to order the same dishes. Simplest and least expensive is to clip Blue Danube's frequently published half-price cupon from a local advertiser and use it for one of the four house specialties, each regularly $7.95 to $9.95. A simple steak or pork chop platter, including salad, can be had for $6.95.
But if you plan to sample some of the delicious-looking strudel that graces a table at the entrance, you might as well order a complete dinner -- appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage -- $9.75.
Although the menu does not state it, children can order house specialities at half-price, and platters are so large that even our two hungry 10-year-olds would have been satisfied sharing one. But we could not convince them that they would be happier people if they sampled a half-price specialty like beef goulash or chicken paprikash. Unfamiliar names put them off, and each of them ordered a junior T-bone steak, served with several vegetables and salad.
Our older daughter requested loin schnitzel, the pork platter, at $6.95, and we ordered dinners of chicken paprikash and stuffed cabbage rolls to sample what the kitchen says it does best.
Our first hint that we were on to something good came with the appetizers. My husband's pate -- really more like a scoop of chopped liver than a pate -- was fresh, light and delicately seasoned. My cup of lentil soup, clearly homemade, also provided a light, flavorful beginning.
Only the salads were disappointing. The dressing was diluted by improperly dried greens.
The entrees were wonderful. Each platter was served with potatoes and perfectly cooked peas and carrots, in addition to servings of sauerkraut and red cabbage. I felt sorry for our daughters with their plain T-bone steaks. They could have been enjoying the hearty flavor of my chicken, tenderly cooked in a sour cream sauce laced with piquant Hugarian paprika. It was complemented perfectly by deliciously light spaetzle.
My husband's cabbage rolls were also fine.A combination of pork, beef, rice and seasonings comprised the filling, and flavors melded beautifully in what was obviously careful cooking. The rolls were served with an equally delicious sausage.
Our daughter's schnitzel dinner brought her two large pork chops, with perfect crusts and sauteed to greaseless crispness. This would be a perfect dinner to split between two younger children who still are wary of sophisticated sauces.
For dessert we split among us one order of crepes apricot and two apple strudels which, like our entrees, were large enough to share. The crepes were so good that I suspect the dinner crepes offered with meat fillings (palachintas) are delicious as well.
The strudel, made on the premises, was flaky and delicious, and had the perfect degree of sweetness to end the meal.