Motivated by a piece I read the other day in The New York Times about the “neue deutsche küche” (new German cuisine), I decided on a recent Saturday night to try out the Spa Brauhaus on the outskirts of Ballston Spa, a restaurant that’s been around for a long time.
Spa Brauhaus Restaurant
WHERE: 200 E. High St., Ballston Spa. Phone 885-4311
HOURS: 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $67.80
MORE INFO: Handicapped accessible. Children’s menu offered. Major credit cards accepted.
Well, if you’re looking for anything new in German food, this isn’t the place. The Spa Brauhaus reminded me in many ways of a place lost in time, perhaps in the 1950s or ’60s, with an eclectic menu that includes some standard German dishes and a lot more choices that aren’t German at all. The specials of the day on the menu had no German dishes, though they did include Hungarian beef goulash with homemade noodles ($17.95) and a chicken cutlet Cordon Bleu ($17.95).
More curious was the menu section called “Continental Dishes,” which leads off with Southern fried chicken for $15.95 and includes a hot roast beef sandwich ($12.95) and baked Virginia ham with a pineapple ring ($15.95). What continent are we talking about?
The Times piece noted that the 2007 Michelin Red Guide awarded nine restaurants in Germany its three-star rating, more than any other European nation except France. It said modern German chefs, notably in sprawling Bavaria, are pursuing updated dishes by lightening up on the cream and butter and incorporating heirloom vegetables and old breeds of livestock in their cuisine.
Don’t expect anything like that at the Spa Brauhaus. Here you find Americanized versions of traditional German fare, heavy, bland and, in my view, uninspired. One gets the sense that these are the same dishes they’ve been serving since opening day, and the bloom is off the rose in the chef’s relationship with his menu.
Still, the place was swarming with patrons and the parking lot full when we arrived around 7 p.m. and it became clear as we listened to the buzz that the Brauhaus has a lot of loyal regulars. This is a place where a lot of people go out for dinner. So why, from a business perspective, mess with success?
The German specialties section of the menu offers three schnitzel dishes, each for $20.95. Rahm schnitzel is a veal cutlet topped with sherry cream sauce, Jaeger schnitzel a veal cutlet topped with mushroom cream sauce and Schnitzel Cordon Bleu a breaded veal cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese and topped with a mushroom cream sauce. We passed on the schnitzel.
I ordered the Spa Brauhaus Famous Sauerbraten ($18.95), which is described as tender slices of marinated beef in a sweet and sour gravy. The beef — slices of pot roast — was tender, but it was very well done with most of the flavor cooked away. If it was marinated, it must have been a quickie, and the gravy was lacking the character one expects from a sweet-and-sour sauce.
The roasted potato that came with the entree was tough, if that’s possible for a potato, and the tureen of soup that was served before dinner was forgettable, vegetables in a flavorless broth. The little loaf of warm bread served on a board with butter pats was light and enjoyable, and the green salad with a tangy house dressing was also good.
My dinner date’s entree choice was the Bavarian schlacht platter ($18.95) a smoked pork chop, a knockwurst (beef sausage) and a bratwurst (pork sausage) with spätzle, the traditional German noodles. The pork chop, like my sauerbraten, was overdone and somewhat tough, but the sausages were nicely done and flavorful.
I chose a side dish of red cabbage and my dinner partner chose sauerkraut. The red cabbage tasted like the kind you buy in a jar.
On a bright note, we enjoyed two appetizers before dinner — potato pancakes with applesauce ($4.95) and bratwurst on sauerkraut ($5.95). The pancakes were delightful, light and crispy and potato flavored with a side of applesauce. The sausage was plump, juicy and flavorful, and the sauerkraut was an appropriate foil.
The Brauhaus menu also offers a seafood section with oldtime dishes like broiled swordfish steak ($19.95) and a fried fillet of sole with tartar sauce ($16.95).
There is a full-service bar and you can get light or dark German beers and a selection of wines.
Service was friendly enough but quite slow. Our tab for two appetizers, entrees and sodas came to $67.80 with tax and tip.
I stopped in at LaGioia’s, the Italian deli on Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady, on a recent rainy Saturday. I was mostly browsing but ended up buying some of the meatballs they make on the premises, along with some imported spaghettini. I brought it home to make spaghetti and meatballs, a comforting dish anytime but especially on a dank and sunless day. LaGioia’s meatballs are especially good. My only disappointment was that they were out of Perecca’s bread. The likelihood of rain brought shoppers out earlier than usual and they scooped up every loaf.