Restaurant Reviews :
by Robert Rich, February 2003, for MV Voice
For Lovers of Meat and Beer
Hardy Steiner opened Hardy's Bavaria a decade ago, after cooking at Dinah's Shack in Palo Alto for 27 years. Dinah's Shack served classic American meat & potatoes. Much of "American food" finds its roots in Germany, from where Steiner immigrated.
When Dinah's Shack closed, Steiner opened a restaurant that featured the food of his homeland. Hardy's Bavaria became one of the few restaurants in the area to serve traditional German and Austrian food.
Hardy retired last year and sold the restaurant, which keeps his name and maintains the same menu. I tried Hardy's several times for lunch in the past, and I enjoyed it. I have travelled through Germany, and Hardy's represented good traditional cuisine with a large and varied menu.
I was curious to find if ownership changes would affect the food. Alas, I came to feel that the quality has slipped a bit.
Visiting Hardy's twice in the last month, I gained some insight into the spirit that keeps people returning. Hardy's fills a vanishing niche, serving simple generous meals in an unpretentious environment, with a well stocked bar.
Hardy's provides an excellent place for Silicon Valley lunches. The informal atmosphere, good beer, and menu full of appealing appetizers and heavy temptations create an iconoclastic comfort zone, a sanctuary far removed from work but close enough for a quick escape.
With charmingly slow service, a shy and occasionally grumpy bartender (who also happens to be the new owner,) oompapa music, pine furniture and country kitch decor, Hardy's harkens back to a time when restaurants weren't designed by architects nor efficiency experts, yet it satisfies an old-world hankering for solid carnivorous food.
A Slow-paced Dinner
Service seemed glitchy on the night we came for dinner. Although the restaurant was less than half full, we had to wait five minutes before the manager could find time to seat us. Our waiter was friendly and helpful, but he seemed a bit swamped in the understaffed room.
A basket of re-heated bread arrived at our table, somewhat dry, with packets of butter. I ordered a pint of Weltenburger Kloster dark ale ($4.50), whose toasted malty freshness more than compensated for the stale bread.
My wife ordered a glass of spezi ($2.75), a light blend of cola and lemonade. Another refreshing non-alcoholic drink, apple schorle ($2.75) features apple juice thinned with seltzer water.
We started our dinner with an appetizer of smoked salmon ($8.95), served with potato pancakes and lingonberries. The thick salmon filet tasted fresh and heavily smoked. It sat atop a pool of sweet dill dressing, with a pile of baby greens splashed with balsamic vinagrette, three small potato pancakes and a dollop of sweet-tart preserved lingonberries.
While I enjoyed the salmon, the pancakes carried a flavor of unfresh griddle grease reminiscent of Denny's, and the dill sauce tasted like packaged honey-mustard dressing with dill added. I noted later that our dinner salad carried the same dressing, minus the dill.
The salmon appetizer would easily suffice for a meal. Hardy's doesn't skimp. Furthermore, each of our large main courses came with soup and salad, arriving separately to pace the meal. The beef and lentil soup had a soothing rich flavor, perfect for cold winter nights.
Meat and Gravy
My wife ordered estragon grillhendl ($14.95), lightly marinated grilled chicken breast on a bed of spatzle, with a bit of brown gravy on top. The spatzle (fresh noodles made by dropping batter into boiling water) had pleasant firm light texture, and the chicken was moist, but overall the dish tasted bland.
Curious to try a country style game dish, I ordered reh schnitzel "Hubertus" ($18.95), two large filets of venison topped with a teaspoon of lingonberries and doused in mushroom gravy. The thick brown sauce resembled the gravy on the chicken, but with shiitake and button mushrooms added. Spatzle helped absorb the flavors.
The venison was cooked medium rare, dark red and juicy in the center, with an intense ferric flavor that would have benefitted from a more generous helping of lingonberries. I usually find that venison pairs best with strong sweet-sour-spicy flavors. In Germany I enjoyed it with apple chutney. The mushroom gravy tasted simplistic by comparison.
The best part of our meal was dessert ($4.25 each). Hardy's makes an excellent apple strudel, not too sweet, with crisp flaky crust, raisins and tart green apples. The rum topf featured preserved cherries (and plums?) soaked in rum on a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
For those inclined to after-dinner drinks, I recommend Hardy's house made apple or cranberry schnapps ($2.75), which aren't on the menu. A secret among loyal customers, these taste crisp and sweet with natural fruit extraction and a hint of sugar.
I have had lunch at Hardy's several times in the past, and I enjoyed the oportunity to try rare seasonal German beers on tap with a sampler plate of sausages ($6.95) or thinly sliced Westphalian ham ($8.95).
These and other lunch dishes come with a generous scoop of potato salad, thinly sliced pickle, or a garnish of baby greens.
With food this simple, good ingredients make the difference. In the past, I recognized sausages and smoked meats sourced from Dittmer's in Mountain View. Upon the most recent visit, however, the Nuremburger wurst ($6.95) came frozen from Saag's, a large wholesale supplier.
Served on a bed of sauerkraut, the three thin sausages had a slightly mealy texture, and I couldn't help but wonder if cost-cutting measures had led to a change in suppliers.
On a more positive note, the Hungarian goulash ($2.75 for a cup) conveyed satisfying spicy flavors of paprika, peppers and onions, in thick savory broth with beef and potatoes.
Ingredients Make the Meal
As I tasted the sauces from several different dishes, I recognized flavors that reminded me of certain ready-made mixes. I admit to a bias in this regard: when I go to a restaurant I hope to taste food with unique personality. When a sauce tastes like a packet of gravy mix, I feel dissapointed.
These recent visits to Hardy's reminded me that a restaurant's quality depends upon the quality of ingredients used in preparing the food. Many of Hardy's better dishes seem to rely more upon the vendors than upon the chef. This may prove especially true now that Hardy Steiner has retired.
When vendors provide the quality, a change in vendors can change flavors for better or worse. When owners try to save money in the wrong places, they risk undermining the very essence of a restaurant.