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Elbe Empire

golden beers
Christopher Gardner

Elbe Room:Unfiltered golden-hued beers and a whole cast of Bavarian classics star at Palo Alto's Elbe.

Updated elegance and a distinctly Old World accent make Elbe Restaurant an intriguing multicultural neighbor on Palo Alto's University Avenue

By Christina Waters

THE VERY NAME of the river Elbe conjures lilting images of sunny Czechoslovakian valleys and the rye and potato fields of eastern Germany. Making its way from the mountains of Bohemia across the German plain, the Elbe means comfort food, food to fill the heart as well as the belly.

Elbe, the restaurant, which opened last year inside the former Rudyard's at the top of University Avenue, makes perfect sense when you consider the sheer diversity of dining tucked inside this two-block square near the foot of the Stanford campus. From the West Indies to Greece, Italy and France, from Mexico to Japan to Burma and back, this stretch of Palo Alto is a full global graze, so the idea of authentic schnitzel and goulash seems to fit right in.

As an Air Force brat I spent some quality girlhood time traveling--and eating--in southern Germany and Austria. I never met a Wiener schnitzel or a spaetzle I didn't like, and the menu at Elbe obliges with Bavarian classics like Jägerschnitzel, sauerbraten and bratwurst.

But lest you think Elbe is some sort of hofbrau filled with wooden beer kegs and glorified pub grub, let me quickly add that my dining partner and I found the decor here surprisingly elegant. A frankly romantic spot for intimate dinners, Elbe has adorned itself tastefully with lots of white linens, plush tapestried booths and ample brass accents. Expressions like Franziskaner Hilfweissbier (wheat beer to you and me) flowed effortlessly off our waiter's tongue, and he politely added his "Bitte sehrs" after taking each order.

Francese bread and unsalted butter were already in place as we sat down and ordered up what turned out to be foot-high draft glasses of the multi-syllabic wheat beer. Sporting a thick head, the unfiltered golden-hued beer was richly saturated with hops and a hint of cloves in the finish. Beyond beverage, this was food.

We began with two salads, the house salad and a Caeser. In the Austrian-style house version ($4.50), shredded carrots topped with toasted walnuts occupied one section of the plate. Next to a mound of sautéed purple cabbage (terrifically sweet and crunchy), lay a portion of almost-ripe tomatoes. The final quadrant was occupied by green leaf lettuce, all slathered with an excellent tarragon vinaigrette .

My Caesar salad ($6), stressing a creamy anchovy dressing, light on garlic and without much of the usual lemon, was the size of Munich. An entire head of romaine had given its all to this delicious appetizer. Two of us could easily have shared this single salad--and actually, two of us did, since my inquisitive companion couldn't resist my side of the table.

Next came a little house appetizer course that turned out to be the biggest hit of the meal. Goulash, the real thing, spicy, exotic with cinnamony paprika chiles, was produced in two small bowls. Suspended within were bits of lean pork, lots of sweet onions and tomatoes. It was one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth, tasting nothing like the pathetic attempts at "goulash" that have become a '50s cliché. This was more what I'd expected from Elbe, I thought, dipping bits of bread into what remained of the deep crimson broth.

Entrees--mine a platter of visually perfect Wiener schnitzel ($10.50), served with lemon wedge, roasted potatoes and steamed spring vegetables, and my companion's filet of roasted trout ($9), served with boiled potatoes and the same veggies--never quite hit the mark. Underwhelming, unchallenging and, in the case of the trout, overcooked. Even the lemon couldn't wake up the lackluster schnitzel breading, though I did enjoy my roast new potatoes and steamed asparagus. My companion's trout, however attractive in its light glaze of browned butter, was frankly dry and tasteless.

Asking our waiter's guidance in selecting house desserts, we were soon presented with cups of strong coffee, a generous casserole of crème brûlée and a tall parfait goblet filled with enough cream and berries (some fresh, some not) to fill a Viennese konditorei. We'd achieved blood sugar saturation after three spoonfuls of this decadent, old-fashioned dessert, abandoning the custard--whose still-granulated sugar crust lacked crunch.

I'll go back to Elbe for more of that goulash.


Address: 117 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/321-3319
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Fri., 11:30am­2pm; dinner daily 5­10pm; full bar open daily, 2pm­2am
Cuisine: German, European
Ambiance: casual elegance
Service: warm and accommodating

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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