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RESTAURANT REVIEW OLD VIENNA : Kitschy but Cozy : It's rated among the top purveyors of authentic German-style food in the region.

March 12, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

German food--based as it is on a culture that for centuries was more successful at raising meats than vegetables--can be heavy and dull and make you realize why everyone makes such a fuss about French cooking. But at its best, German cuisine has a way of leaving diners a sense of appreciation for the good life.

You can find German fare at its finest at Old Vienna in Ventura. The restaurant and its chef, Hans Muhlinghaus, are regarded among the top purveyors of authentic German-style food in Southern California. It is one of the few restaurants with a reputation extending beyond county borders.

Old Vienna is also one of the few restaurants in the county that is not in a shopping mall. Instead, it inhabits a quaint yellow building that looks as if it was once an upscale roadside diner. And the interior of the restaurant--with lots of textures and plenty of knickknacks--looks like a place called Old Vienna. It is a bit kitschy but cozy too, and the bustling waitresses wear authentic, old world dirndl dresses.

Old Vienna offers classic examples of German, Austrian and Hungarian dishes. At a leisurely lunch recently, we sampled a few of these with relish.

Sauerbraten (pot-roasted beef), covered with gravy, had been marinated to a fine sourness, tender enough to eat with a fork. It came with sweet and sour red cabbage and potato pancakes. Although the pancakes were quite dense, almost rubbery, the slight onion flavor and applesauce on the side made them taste delicious.

Even better were the fried potatoes that came with the Wiener schnitzel. This classic dish, practically indistinguishable from the Italian cotoletta Milanese, consisted of a generous veal cutlet, breaded and fried to a homey crispness.

When we returned for dinner on another day, we found once again that the side dishes at Old Vienna--and the soups and salads--are simply terrific. One soup, a hearty potato, had a robust meaty flavor. And a creamy mushroom potage was imbued with the savory flavor of fresh mushrooms. The restaurant makes a delightful vinaigrette, mild and slightly sweet, on a salad that includes plain cold lentils and cabbage on the side. Wine-flavored fresh sauerkraut and potato dumplings couldn't have been better.

Roast duckling Bavarian style was about as good as it comes, moist on the inside and unbelievably crisp (quite salty too) on the outside. It came with a plain, gravy-like lingonberry sauce.

Another nice entree was a tasty, boneless breast of chicken called buhnerbrust, cooked in sherry with tomatoes, mushrooms, pickles, and beets. It was an uncharacteristically delicate dish and quite good.

Problems with a few other entrees might have been due to the fact that we had arrived fairly late in the evening. We found some of the meat dishes on the dry side. These included the smoked pork chop, a roll of beef stuffed with bacon, pickles and onions (a good idea), and the schweinshaxe , a generous hind pork shank roasted, as promised on the menu, "to a crisp." It was like eating a big hunk of fried pork rind.

I liked the Swiss bratwurst, a soft, smooth and appealing sausage with a distinct flavor of fresh herbs. And the hot potato salad served with it was marvelous.

The desserts we tried, apple strudel and hazelnut torte, were just OK. I'm sorry I didn't go for the vanilla ice with hot raspberries.

I noticed some intriguing items on the menu that stated "advance notice only." Dishes such as roast veal shank, or stuffed goose in season, or roast venison--this one stuffed with chestnuts and wild mushrooms and garnished with lingon pears and artichoke bottoms. My hunch is that these are the kinds of dishes that gave Old Vienna its recognition.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Old Vienna Restaurant, 3845 Telegraph Road, Ventura (805) 654-1214. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday Brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Wine and beer. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $60.

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