"Is good, the goose?" asked the waiter at Knoll's Black Forest Inn.
The answer was jawohl, it was very good, thanks, and so was the duck, the veal, the venison, the Spatzle, the red cabbage, the beer, the service--and everything else at the 25-year-old German restaurant.
Your basic oom-pah-pah, homespun kill-'em-with-heaping-plates-of-heavy-food-and-cheerful-accordion-music German restaurant this is not. Also, hip it is not. Rather, it furnishes nicely prepared and presented traditional German food in the well-heeled comfort of a country club that caters to an older crowd: paneled "library" dining room, an intentionally bright, airy "Florida" room full of rattan furniture, pastel banquettes and hanging philodendron so well tended and polished they look fake. Outside, there's a lovely patio, leafy, private.
So what if the waiters and waitresses and hostess wear costumes that make them look like escapees from the set of "The Sound of Music"? When somebody's serving you decent food, you lose your sense of irony.
Grappling with the restaurant's menu is as much work as deciphering those endless German philosophy texts of college years. There's the regular menu of appetizers, salads and entrees-- Wiener schnitzel, Rinderroulad, Sauerbraten, Bratwurst, and so on, then a Xeroxed menu of specials that are varieties on those themes-- Schnitzel a la Holstein, for instance, which is interpreted here as veal cutlet with fried egg, anchovies, capers, caviar and lox.
Then there's another menu offering "modern German cuisine," newly invented lighter dishes meant to dispel the heavy image of German food, each offering menus told first in German (on the nouvelle, or, I should say, neue menu, for example, Seezungefilet in der Krauterkruste auf Ratatouille), then translated (filet of sole in fresh herbs on ratatouille), Lammfilet mit Champignonomus auf Krautersauce Wirsingroulade mit Tomaten gefuellt (tenderloin of lamb with pureed champignons, savoy cabbage stuffed with cherry tomatoes), and so on. Then there are the specials the waiter announces.
After the Angst of decision-making, the food arrives, worth the Sturm und Drang. My chronically prudent dinner guest tried a neue dish--veal medallions with peaches and brandy, accompanied by the all-too-familiar sight of fanned-out midget veggies. It was a nice, light, well-executed dish, but give me the juicy, dark meat and rich, crisp skin of a duckling any day. Knoll's was a wonderful specimen, generous, meaty, tender, needing no yucky sweet sauce to bring it out, just a simple slice of baked apple on which sat a dollop of intense lingonberry jam. Give me also the Spatzle, which was as light as, well, good Spatzle, and their sweet/sour, buttery/applesaucy red cabbage.
Dinners come with soup or salad, both perfectly all right--but it would be a shame to miss trying the appetizers because of them. The pickled herring was the best anywhere. Instead of the bite-sized chunks endemic to the supermarket bottled variety and most restaurants, here were two big, cross-cut chunks of the whole fish, marinated into oniony softness.
Bread came in the form of soft pretzels, not as tasty as they might have been, but nice if for no other reason than that they reflected interest and care in the kitchen. Then, of course, beer, in strange and wonderful variety, served in tall, tall glasses, each with a shape peculiar to the variety and brand of beer it contained. Still later, there was German chocolate cake, natch, and strudel, accompanied by good, strong coffee (espresso and cappuccino also available).
To the restaurant's credit, we sat and ate and talked for hours.
Knoll's Black Forest Inn, 2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 395-2212. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$70.