Rolf's German-American Restaurant
East Side, NYC
Review by Diana deRiggs & MaceVindaloo
For many years, a piece of Germany was said to exist on the east side of New York City. It was the "romantic, good Germany" full of cheerful, stolid peasants that people believed was the heart, not the "bad Germany" that one hears about, or the "boring stodgy Germany" of foodlore. It's as if the Black Forest was not an environmental victim and everyday is Oktoberfest -- kind of Hansel and Gretel meet a college frat.
Alas, the food is like that too. One would like to believe in the rich desserts, the carefully roasted and stewed wild game, the tasty beers. The reality is poorly plated boiled things, the same gravy used on everything (I think it's used as chocolate sauce if they add cocoa powder to it), burnt, tough duck, food plonked on a plate so that if the sloppy waitress moves too fast, it all slides across the plate to one side. There is a decent vinegar-marinated cucumber salad, but everything else was awful, just like the German food of your nightmares, complete with knife sticking in your food, as if to make sure it wouldn't run away.
We even ordered a variety of things to try and cover the menu sufficiently, so that we couldn't be accused of having stuff that the place is not "known" for (though at $20 to $30 for entrees in a not-fashionable neighborhood, I don't see why anything should be bad). For starters, we had shrimp cocktail (boiled shrimp laid over some random greens), cucumber salad (marinated in sugar, salt and vinegar, we think), another salad with white stuff we no longer remember (seriously, we can't remember what accompanied the pallid salad), split pea soup (which was so thick it wasn't soup and so tasteless it didn't even qualify as glue).
As dismal as the appetizers appeared, the main course was rather horrific. It looked bad, it didn't taste like much. We even got thing which are traditionally very flavorful and considered the top of German cuisine: Choucroute Garni, which is sauerkraut baked with hams, sausages, and potatoes, and it was served all dumped on one side of the plate with a mysterious and not-tasty orange-colored gravy, swimming in a puddle of water. With it, we asked for spaetzle, the free-form boiled dumpling of Germany; that was actually good, boiled then fried till lightly browned, but their bright yellow color and slightly gritty texture seemed to point to a mix rather than to eggs, flour, etc. The half-duck was burned and the meat done way too well. The Wiener Schnitzel was dry and swamped in that weird gravy. We even ordered liver and onions, and though overdone, they didn't taste bad. No one finished their food. The side dishes looked like and tasted like badly reheated leftovers. To sum up, all the food was sour-tasting (we couldn't tell if it was supposed to be like that) and greasy; bitterness was provided by the burnt parts where they food had stuck to the pan for too long.
Most hideous were the dessert. Look at the photos. Can you tell those might have been Black Forest Cake -- a multilayered caked which is supposed to be beautiful to look at -- and apple strudel? The cream covering everything was out of can and melted into a soggy puddle in about 3 minutes. We think they'd heated the strudel in the microwave so it was chewy, limp, and soggy instead of crispy and tender. They were disgusting to look at and gross to eat.
We'd heard this place had good German food; if so then maybe we just don't like German food. The seating was old and uncomfortable -- people were crammed into small booths lined with benches and if you are tall, you have to watch out for the foliage hanging from the ceiling. Then we started wondering how long this stuff had been up?
Is this a case of the reality not being able to fulfill a fond fantasy? Had the wondrous kugel in a German grandmother's kitchen table and the sheets of light, frangible strudel been nothing but a manufactured lie? We do wonder. It's too bad, we wanted it to be good, but the $250 bill for four people and the mediocre service and awful food and standard beer just puts this on the "don't visit again" list. We hope the bar offerings are better, but quite frankly, we have no desire to give them the chance to prove it. Is German food supposed to be like this? Alas ...
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