7097 University Avenue, La Mesa
People often ask me, "Where should I go for a gala brunch that doesn't cost a fortune?" I mumble, "Aaagh, I don't do mornings." And when they ask where to get good home-style German food, the response might be, "Uhh, wangle a dinner invitation?" Now, Chef Axel European Bistro provides a practical answer to both questions.
The Lynnester and Samurai Jim had reported glowingly on Chef Axel's brunches, so a few Sundays later I dragged myself out of bed at some ungodly hour for the trek to La Mesa. (The restaurant is about seven minutes from downtown on 94; take the Massachusetts Avenue exit.)
Before chef Axel took over the restaurant, it was another German eatery, Old Country Restaurant, with good food but cluttered cuckoo-
clock-cozy ambience, with German waitresses in low-cut, push-up dirndl dresses tiptoeing around a deli counter that bisected the room, and shelves of specialty foods imported from the Heimland. You wouldn't recognize it now. It's spare and modern, with well-spaced unclothed tables, white walls hung with modern paintings by German artist Alex Gockel, and miniature planters growing what looks like grass. The deli counter has been pushed to the back wall, and those one-time shelves stacked with instant spaetzle mixes have been banished. The effervescent waiter doesn't wear a dirndl -- the Bavarian costume party is so over.
The hostess (and chef's wife), Helen, greeted Lynne like an old friend. "It's good that you reserved," she said. "Last Sunday, we were so full we had to turn away 28 people!" The brunch is an all-you-can-eat buffet, offering a wide selection of European noshes (many of them from the dinner menu) -- but no regular American breakfast foods, so don't expect eggs, waffles, hotcakes, et al.
Once you're settled, the waiter (a sometime chef named Rhys, pronounced "Reese") brings beverages -- coffee, tea, champagne, mimosas, and/or straight OJ. The champagne isn't expensive, but it's quite drinkable -- certainly better than the plonk sipped at gallery openings.
One central table holds a heated soup tureen and salads, while chafing dishes for hot entrées and sides occupy another table by the window, with desserts in a corner.
The soup, served hot, is a beautiful, creamy potato soup with diced spuds, sliced carrots, and bits of Danish bacon, to which you can add croutons, if you like. It's simultaneously hearty and refined. Try it, and then try to resist filling up on it -- there's plenty more to sample. From the salads, don't miss the cucumber and dill mixture, a refreshing complement to the heavier entrées. You'll also find potato salad (Lynne's favorite); mixed greens flecked with feta cheese in a sweet vinaigrette; slices of pale winter tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella and herbs, and a cold-cut plate that includes German prosciutto (which pairs neatly with the tomato-cheese combo). The sliced breads run to substantial, full-flavored selections like German rye. If you want to make yourself a deli sandwich, the mustards, both grainy and smooth, are over on the hot-dish table.
The covered chafing dishes hold two trays apiece, each with a different item. Some of the contents survive the constant low heat better than others. To my surprise, the schnitzel (pan-fried pork cutlets) not only survived but triumphed -- perhaps because they get snapped up so quickly, they're constantly replaced with fresh batches. The meat was tender and moist, the breading savory, topped with slim slices of lemon. I've never been a great schnitzel fan, but given such an expert version, I began to develop a taste for it.
Another happy surprise was the excellence of the Hungarian goulash. Every German restaurant I've ever been to attempts this specialty, and most fail miserably -- apparently insensible to the (un-German) piquancy of the Hungarian culinary soul. (Strike up the sobbing violins.) Chef Axel is the exception. His sauce is the distinctive rusty red-orange that bespeaks a generous hand with paprika -- and it's genuine Hungarian paprika rather than America's bland coloring agent of the same name. The mixture is thick and rich with the sweetness of cooked-down onions, and the slow-simmered meat is fork-tender.
Another bin holds a medley of sausage pieces, next to a pile of home fries. (I found the latter dry both at brunch and at a subsequent dinner. More about the sausages later.) Unless you arrive at the start of brunch, or keep an eye out for the arrival of a fresh batch, one entrée should perhaps be saved to order at dinner: chicken breast slices in mushroom cream sauce were desiccated by the chafing dish, while Lynne and Jim reported that, at their first brunch, the chicken had been luscious. The supple spaetzle (small, fresh curly noodles) in the adjoining tray were obviously "made from scratch."
Several of the chafing bins hold brunch-only items. Penne carbonara with plenty of Parmesan were simple and delicious. You might want to put them on a separate salad plate so they won't be run over by sauces from other entrées. Fricadellen are miniature meat loaves. Lynne and Jim loved them. I was lukewarm -- a matter of taste and of how full I was getting. This is a lot of food to encounter before noon for someone working the vampire shift.
If your mommy told you, "Eat your vegetables or you won't get dessert," there's a bin with her name on it, labeled "Vegetables." One tray held succulent sautéed mushrooms. Its evil twin contained a veggie medley wilting in the chafing dish. My table spurned the latter. But the chef buys veggies daily from the excellent little farmer's market next door, so don't avoid them at dinner.
Since we'd looked at the veggies, we deserved desserts. Jim came back from the sweets table with three to share. The superstar was the cheesecake -- rich, dense, creamy, not oversweet, lightly streaked with cherry syrup -- a fat bomb, maybe, but not a sugar bomb. ("I'm not a believer in very sweet desserts," says the chef. "That's not the European way. Less frou-frou is better food.") When waiter Rhys saw the strudel on our table, he burst into a paean: "Today, the chef really got the strudel!" he exulted. "It's awesome." But I have to admit that none of my posse has eaten enough strudel to judge its awesomeness. This one has the typical layers of chewy pastry, sprinkled on top with powdered sugar and filled with apples and walnuts. The sweets array also includes warm and sexy cherries jubilee, a good choice for lighter eaters (they're not oversweetened either), and -- a brunch-only item -- giant wedges of dark chocolate cake with a light but moist crumb.
We returned for dinner around 7:00 p.m. on a midweek evening, which is rather late for a restaurant that closes at 8:00. A baby-boomer birthday party of eight was already in place in the dining room, Rhys taking photos as they toasted; chef Axel, a big, friendly guy, stood by smiling. These boomers didn't boom -- it was a quiet, civilized party with never a raised voice, bless 'em -- but they'd already ordered the kitchen's entire remaining supply of the sauerbraten and the braised beef roulades that we had our mouths set for. (I hope they enjoyed our dinners.)
"The potato soup is different from the brunch version," said Lynne. "It's so...busy." It was the same soup, but denser, because this late in the evening it had cooked down, thickening the liquid, and the croutons had been added in the kitchen. "I like this one even better," said Jim. "Really thick and creamy, and the croutons are perfect -- crisp but not so hard they break your teeth." Lynne's from northern Michigan, and the split-pea soup was more to her liking. It was thick and earthy, dotted with bits of delicate Danish bacon and more croutons -- real Midwestern wintertime Mom food. Jim and I both thought it needed something to add more pizzazz, perhaps a smokier artisanal American bacon.
Finding that Burgundian classic, escargots, on a German menu was a surprise. The snails were plentiful (at least a dozen) and skillfully baked to universally tender morsels. The herb butter bathing them was lavish in quantity, but we all yearned for a whole lot more garlic in the mix. If you love "the stinking rose" on your snails, ask for extra garlic.
When we couldn't get the beef dishes we wanted, Rhys recommended that we try the "decadent" gratin of house-made spaetzle with Black Forest ham, mushrooms, and Swiss cheese. I'd secretly wanted it all along. "German restaurants are no place for Atkins dieters," said Jim when it arrived in all its gooey glory. "South Beach dieters either," I murmured, lusting for the carbo-bomb indulgence. It proved decadent indeed. But when you eat with foodies, there's always debate. The onions were cooked quickly at high heat, leaving them crisp-edged and assertive. Jim thought they interfered with the orgy of soft richness, while I welcomed the contrast of their crunchy texture against the pillow of soft pasta.
The menu highlights sausages and schnitzel as house specialties. The sausage plate (just $13) offers any two sausages from a large array, including two sides of your choice. We chose a fresh bratwurst and a fabulous Bavarian veal sausage (bockwurst). Bockwurst has a subtle flavor and a nearly creamy texture that seduced us all, especially when dipped in the spicy whole-grain mustard served in a ramekin. "Usually I hate white sausages," said Lynne. "I won't even taste them. They look too much like tofu dogs." "Yeah," said Jim. "Somebody once brought tofu dogs to a barbecue I was at...worst thing I ever tasted in my life." "But these -- oh!" said Lynne. "Changed my mind...about white sausages. Not about tofu dogs."
Oddly, that evening's schnitzel (which we ordered "hunter style," in mushroom cream sauce) was dryer and less engaging than the brunch version. Schnitzel depends on split-second timing, and in this small kitchen, a single line-cook works at dinner. I guess the huge party that arrived before us probably consumed most of her energy and attention, along with all the beef. One schnitzel variation I'd love to try next time (for the goo minus some carbs) is called "gratin," with a topping of ham and melted Swiss cheese.
Among the sides, "Salad Garnish" combines bites of German potato salad, home fries, the lively cuke-dill salad, beet slices, and a slim half-slice of cottony tomato. I think the sauerkraut must be very good, too, since I hate sauerkraut but actually enjoyed two forkfuls of it. ("Sauerkraut is not supposed to be so sour and vinegary, the way you Americans serve it with hot dogs," the chef told me later. "The more you cook it, the milder it gets, and we cook it several times with prosciutto and bacon before we serve it.") It's soft and not too sauer, and both my friends took to it readily. Red cabbage and "vegetables" are additional side-dish possibilities -- we'd have ordered cabbage as an extra side ($3) had we thought of it.
Jim enjoyed a rare German beer, while Lynne and I began with glasses of the reliable Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc. (If you want to try a German white, the basic lingo is: Kabinetts are dry, Sp...tleses are fruity-dry, and Ausleses are on the sweet side.) Then we both followed the waiter's recommendation of a German Pinot Noir (Affentaler, from Baden -- the chef's original neighborhood), served chilled. A well-aged Côte de Nuits it was not. Young and a bit bumptious, it was an interesting venture, but next time I'll probably go with a Sp...tlese and then a California Syrah.
At dinner, the cheesecake came with the cherries jubilee, and both it and the strudel had side-poufs of unsweetened whipped cream, which Lynne spooned up straight, emitting sighs of pleasure. I spooned it on top of my decaf to create Viennese-style kaffe mit schlag. Along with the sweets, we passed around a $5 shot of Trockenbeerenauslese, Germany's version of France's Sauternes dessert wine. (It's intensely sweet, so a little goes a long way.) Even if you can't pronounce it, just point at it on the list -- it's a treat worth stammering for. It felt like a rare privilege -- the chance to sip this heavenly nectar in a little mom-and-pop in La Mesa. Obviously, chef Axel cares about the important things in life.
ABOUT CHEF AXEL
Axel Dirolf has worked all over the world. He comes from Köln, near the French border (famous for the nearby Baden-Baden spa), which is considered one of Germany's top culinary and wine-growing areas. Even as a child he knew he was headed for the kitchen. "At the age of 12, I cooked my family's Sunday lunch, which is the biggest meal of the week," he says. "At 14, I starting studying my vocation in local kitchens, and by 16, I pretty much earned my money for high school in those kitchens. Then I got offered a nice scholarship for the apprenticeship program in one of the local restaurants, and I did my three years of college and apprenticeship that way.
"Right away after graduation, I worked for the Hilton Corporation.... In St. Moritz in Switzerland [a luxury ski-resort area] I did three winter seasons at Kulm Hotel, a pretty famous hotel, while I did summer seasons at the Corfou Palace Hotel in Greece [another jet-set destination]. I then got an offer from the King Faisal Foundation to work in Riyadh at the Al Khozama Hotel -- its name means 'the flower of the desert' -- in Saudi Arabia. We pretty much supplied food and catering services to all the royal family. We made about one million dollars a month, and you don't sell alcohol over there so you can imagine the luxury of the food.
"Then I went to work for the Sheikh of Qatar for three years, and I met my wife, who's from San Diego. Her parents were working overseas -- they're Filipino but she grew up here. We went back to Switzerland, where eventually I served as the executive chef for the Olympic Training Center in Zurich. We came to San Diego when I was hired by Lufthansa as global quality manager, based here. Eventually I opened my own catering business and meanwhile taught cooking at the San Diego Art Institute. Then, about two and a half years ago, I was looking for a new commercial kitchen for my catering, and I discovered this little place here in La Mesa. Afterwards, I found out that this place has been German under various owners for over 40 years -- there's a pretty big German community around here.
"I wanted to see if I could represent Germany a little bit more the modern way, the way the food is today. All over Europe, we're extremely health-conscious about what we're eating now. Germany's food is 85 percent organic, especially after the mad-cow scare. Turkey and other poultry are replacing a lot of the red meats. Europe in general and Germany in particular have become the front-runners in clean and healthy food. And I'm trying to do the same thing in the wine and beer lists, to bring in a modern consciousness. I've avoided things like St. Pauli Girl and Liebfraumilch. I'm trying to include beers that you can't find everywhere. And the wine list is serious, too, with things you don't commonly see -- we have some really good Sp...tleses...
"Our menu is small; however, it's all fresh. It's very seasonal. I change it sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. For instance, coming now toward the warmer time of year, at lunch I'm going to make a schnitzel salad, and a chicken salad sandwich. We always have a fresh fish -- not frozen -- at lunch and dinner. And I'm looking into getting organic chicken. It is not only healthier, it tastes much better, more like European chickens."