It lacks the baronial atmosphere and strapping portions of many German restaurants, but Cafe Berlin offers as much gemutlichkeit as sauerkraut in the two modern dining rooms that make up this recently opened Capitol Hill eatery.
Greeting you at the door might be a motherly hostess, perhaps two, to not only seat you and bid you "guten appetit" (with a German accent, no less), but also to offer advice on which homemade dessert to select from among those on display near the entrance. Younger members of the staff, who serve as waiters, have had a bit of trouble pronouncing items on the menu -- and they've been forgetful and few in number on occasion as well -- but their oversights are gracefully covered by the efficient women who preside over this cozy, softly lit, modestly appointed restaurant.
No meal should begin without a berliner weisse, a refreshingly tart, slightly fizzy mixture of beer and a splash of raspberry syrup. The bar also serves two decent German wines -- a Mosel and a Rhine -- by the glass, and carries a variety of German beers and interesting cordials, such as kirschwasser, a cherry-flavored brandy.
But the initial pleasantness with which diners are greeted doesn't always carry over into the meal itself. In fact, one's expectations might be dashed rather abruptly with the arrival of a bread basket highlighting nothing more special than packaged pumpernickel and tasteless french bread (a pity, considering the wonderful country breads Germany is known for). And there's something curious about a German chef consistently serving poor sauerkraut.
While the fare in general is heavy and not particularly imaginative, a number of dishes have proved to be admirably authentic versions of those found in many a German eatery. Among the best was a Tuesday "schlachtplatte" consisting of three kinds of sausage (the only disappointment being a sausage of spongy white veal) and a thin slice of pork loin on a bed of sauerkraut. Indeed, the daily specials (priced at $7.95) are among the best values on the menu.
Entrees feature a representative sampling of German specialties, including a lightly breaded wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten (marinated, thinly sliced pot roast). Rounding out the menu are sandwich selections of roast beef, bratwurst, corned beef and Westphalian ham, among others, as well as appetizers of soups and salads.
For variety, opt for the German mixed salad, a sampling of four side dishes; if the cubed tomatoes and carrot-raisin salad are standard, the paper-thin cucumber slices, dressed in a tangy, sweet vinaigrette, and the soothing, homey potato salad are delightful inclusions.
The same chef that turns out heavy, grainy potato dumplings or a tough, undistinguished steak with sauteed onions (zwiebelrostbraten) can also prepare an impressively smooth and rich liver dumpling, a hearty, paprika-rich beef goulash, and spaetzle (boiled egg dumplings) as good as can be had. Indeed, it is often an accompaniment of spaetzle, fried potatoes, red cabbage, or cucumber salad that distinguishes a meal or rescues a less than wonderful dish of, for instance, veal ragout.
Desserts, which vary from day to day, often appear more tempting than they taste. A rose-colored fruit soup, also listed as an appetizer, was no more than peaches in a light, vaguely sweetened syrup, and the apple pie was heavy and tasteless. By all means, hold out for the black forest cherry torte, with its dense fudgy base supporting several layers of chocolate cake and gobs of slightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh cherries. It was a wonderful example of what Cafe Berlin is capable of doing with a German classic.