Playing second fiddleSome bright spots on Elbe's menu, but restaurant is dominated by adjacent pub
by Dale F. Bentson
There are not many subtleties to the German food served at 11-year-old Elbe on University Avenue in Palo Alto.
While the fare is generally good, it is on the heavy side. Service is prompt, except when the restaurant is busy, but the wait staff's knowledge of the menu and kitchen varies by server.
Elbe is adjacent to and under the same ownership of Rudy's Pub. At 9 p.m. most evenings, dividing doors are opened and the restaurant and Rudy's merge into a comedy nightclub. The restaurant certainly is second fiddle to the pub/nightclub concept, and it shows.
Early one evening, the raucous sounds from the pub overwhelmed the dining room, negating any thought of an intimate dinner. Another time, soothing Mozart wafted through the room. Yet one more time, Beer Barrel Polka played a dozen times in just over an hour. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the ambiance of the place.
For starters, the cold smoked trout and salmon platter ($9) was served with creamy, ever-so-mild horseradish sauce and hot potato pancakes. The fish had been well smoked and the flavors were gratifying. The ample serving was plenty for two.
The sausage sampler ($7) was two different types of sausage served with a couple of mustards. Nothing fancy here, just a dozen or so slices of grilled sausage. The word "sampler" is a bit off the mark with just two varieties.
I liked the well prepared potato pancakes ($7) that were offered as a first course and also appeared as accompaniments on many other plates. Potato pancakes are made from grated potatoes, onion, eggs and flour. The egg whites are beaten separately and added to the other ingredients just before frying in hot oil. Elbe's version was invariably light and crunchy.
Prawns a La Pancha ($8) were prawns sauteed in olive oil with garlic, white wine, onions, red peppers, spicy Italian sausage and herbs. I thought it a strange combination but it worked. It was a hearty plate, though, almost too much as an appetizer.
There was one vegetarian main plate on the menu. Kasespaetzle ($13) was house-made noodles tossed in olive oil with herbs, spinach and two cheeses. So thick was the cheese I was reminded of a certain macaroni and cheese that comes in a little blue box. The plate was heavy and unrewarding. I hankered for a splash of catsup.
Wiener schnitzel ($16) was a breaded veal cutlet under a beurre blanc sauce with warm potato salad and sauteed vegetables. The veal was fork-tender and the breading not too thick to mask the delicate meat. It was one of the better dishes on the menu.
Rinderrouladen ($15) were lean beef rolls stuffed with smoked bacon, roasted peppers, dill gherkins and German-style mustard, served with spatzle and sour red cabbage. After thin slices of beef had been stuffed and sauteed they were stewed additional minutes for tenderizing.
The red cabbage was delightfully sour and was the only thing on the plate that showed much flavor. Spatzle, literally translated as "little sparrow," is a dish of puffy noodles made of flour, eggs, and milk. Spatzle, like white rice and pasta, doesn't have a lot of flavor of its own. Here, even with the addition of finely chopped herbs, there wasn't enough oomph to add much to this bland plate.
The food improved markedly as the weekend neared. I was not sure why. Vegetables tasted fresher, meat was more tender, accompaniments were livelier.
I ordered the sauerbraten ($14) early in the week. It was very dry roast beef that, the menu stated, had been marinated in a vinaigrette. The meat was so dry it might well have blown away had it not been weighted down by an insipid sauce. The meat should have been marinated in sweet and sour vinaigrette. If it had, it hadn't been for long, or, perhaps, way too long. The accompanying potato pancakes and sour red cabbage relieved the dish.
Near the end of the week, I ordered Rahmgeschnetzeltes vom Huhn ($14). That foot-long German word refers to a dish with a creamy, thin cutlet, usually of veal. At Elbe, chicken was substituted with an abundance of tasty mushrooms imbued in delicate cream sauce with shallots. It was a lovely dish, vibrant and fresh. Served with roasted potatoes and a heap of sauteed fresh spinach, it was easily the best plate I tried.
Goulash ($14) was my second favorite. Generous fork-tender chunks of braised paprika lamb stew had been topped with sour cream. The meat was so tender it almost needed to be scooped with a spoon. Spatzle and red cabbage complemented that dish.
Desserts confounded the wait staff. On each of my visits I asked the server which of the desserts were house-made. I was given three different answers. I ordered the carrot cake one evening and was told the pastry maker was away on vacation and they did not have that particular dessert. The very next evening, the carrot cake was alive and well even though the pastry maker was still away.
The honey carrot cake, with cream cheese frosting, was my favorite. The multi-layered affair was shy in raisins and carrots but otherwise first-rate.
The German chocolate cake with coconut pecan frosting was a gooey and rich affair, the kind grandma used to make.
The apple strudel was sweet enough and chockablock full of apples and raisins, but the many layers of thin pastry were mashed together into a single doughy crust. Instead of light and crisp, it was a heavy warmed blob on the plate. Served with vanilla ice cream, it was but a faint echo of what it could have been. All desserts were $6.50.
The interior of Elbe is friendly enough, although there is little that hints of its Teutonic theme. Tables are amply spaced for conversation -- provided that a fraternity isn't singing next door. Inexpensive French posters adorn one wall, a full-length mirror another. The rear of the restaurant has a small bar with a few beer German steins atop as decoration.
There are a multitude of German beers available in addition to a plethora of beer on tap. The small wine list doesn't offer much of interest beyond a handful of sweet German white wines. Even German white wines billed as "dry" are more sweet than California dry whites. I had hoped the restaurant offered some truly wonderful German dessert wines. Alas, no.
Not much has changed at Elbe since I reviewed it five years ago, although the menu has several newer entries. It remains a stepchild with unrealized potential. The kitchen, at times, assembles lovely dishes; the wait staff might or might not be knowledgeable; and ambiance varies between sedate and raucous. All in all, it's an iffy way to invest dinner dollars.
What do you think of Elbe? Do you have thoughts on other restaurants that just need to be shared? Leave a comment at TownSquare. Go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: varies
Bathroom cleanliness: fair
117 University Ave., Palo Alto
Mon.-Fri.: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5:30-9 p.m.
Sat.-Sun.: Dinner 5:30-9 p.m.