Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bohemian rhapsody

Eastern European delights at homey hideaway

Posted on Thu, Apr 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

'Let the guests consider themselves as travelers about to reach a shared destination together,â?� states one of famed epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's rules for dining. It wasn't until after we drove past a succession of Slovakian-tagged street signs ' Jergo, Stefanik, Moyses, Kuzmany ' then heartily feasted on a slew of Austro-Hungarian, Czech and German delights, that we fully grasped the essence of the gastronome's precept. Bohemian cuisine was somewhat foreign to us, and sharing its bold flavors in intrepid conviviality made reaching that figurative 'shared destinationâ?� all the more enjoyable. In literal terms, that terminus was Chef Hans Café, a Winter Park hideaway serving deftly executed Eastern European comfort staples in a warm setting befitting an Old World matriarch.

Like weary vagabonds, we pored over the ample offerings on the menu; eager anticipation of their arrival provided plenty of time to down a pint of Golden Pheasant ($6.25), a smooth Slovakian lager that nicely complemented the restaurant's heavy fare. And I do mean heavy.

There are some weighty items on the bill of fare, and the scales of taste tipped in favor of the black forest schnitzel ($17.95), a gouda-cloaked pork cutlet breaded, fried and served atop a potato pancake a few notches above your average hash brown. It's a flavor-packed hungry man's meal, to be sure. Potato knodel ($6.95) is a little less substantial, but just as satisfying. Held together by a dollop of sour cream, the quartet of mashed-potato-textured dumplings came with enough sauerkraut bedding to give the dish a country peasant feel. I should mention that their fresh-baked bread (served with a cream-cheese butter seasoned with scallions and paprika) and complimentary cranberry-walnut salads were both signs of great things to come.

The sauce in both the Hungarian goulash ($15.95) and the chicken paprikash ($14.95) was heartily sublime. The burgundy wine'paprika gravy upstaged the goulash's beefy hunks of silken sirloin and pillowy spaetzle; if it's old-country comfort you crave, this is the dish for you. The paprikash is lent a luxurious thickness by the addition of sour cream, and when slathered over a succulent, nicely seasoned chicken breast makes a dish for all palates. Herbaceous rack of lamb's ($23.95) elegance was diminished by undercooking (which was remedied, however) and a side of mint jelly that tasted more like Wrigley's Spearmint Gum Jell-O.

Hearing 'Lullaby and Goodnightâ?� certainly didn't help our slumbrous state at the meal's conclusion, but we soon found ourselves awakened by the arrival of traditional apple strudel ($6.95), a light, flaky pastry and not the thick, dense version I was expecting. A side of crème anglaise was a nice, though not necessary, touch. I enjoyed every forkful of seven-layer cake ($6.95), a wonderful slab of alternating layers of sponge cake and chocolate buttercream punctured by shards of caramelized sugar. Visitors to the restaurant may recognize it as the erstwhile Chef Henry's Café, which also served Eastern European fare. The place has been sold to Stephanie Gadient, a Swiss native who renamed the restaurant after her father Hans.

'Tell me what you eat,â?� said Brillat-Savarin, 'and I will tell you who you are.â?� After my meal at Chef Hans Café, I am sold.

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