In the Imaginary Awards ceremony for Orange County, the award for “biggest menu in proportion to the size of the restaurant” goes to . . . the A la Carte Bistro of Huntington Beach. Go down and try all the specialties--if you have a year or two.
This modest-looking place is a German food-lovers’ fantasy. It is just a mall space with a patio and a plain, square dining room. Oh, there is a fancy glass rack, and the tables do have cloths and attractive settings, but the chairs are straight-backed and metallic and the only decorative touch is some ersatz Art Deco overhead fans. There isn’t so much as a poster of the Austrian Alps, native haunt of chef Friedrich Rechberger. But food is dished up in staggering proportion, along with heady measures of old world gemutlichkeit , and somehow the restaurant manages to feel very European.
This is due to Rechberger’s dedication. Even before anything has been ordered a basket of fresh mini-loaves--dill, whole-wheat, and/or white--is brought to the table accompanied by three tiny crocks of designer butters--garlic-herb, lemon-chive and plain. Then complimentary appetizers such as vegetable lasagna or stuffed potato skins Polonaise arrive. Combine these with one of the delightful German wines sold by the glass and you have a charming, al fresco supper. Order a main course or two and you have a Teutonic feast of Wagnerian scale.
Dinners come with a choice of soup or salad. But these are not the usual perfunctory plates of food. The house gemichte salad is a huge platter of mixed salads--a grainy German potato salad; creamy celery root remoulade; marinated, stuffed olives; pickled tomatoes, and other creations of the chef. Hearty soups, which can be as diverse as a mushroom-laden clam chowder, a thick Yugoslavian bean soup, or an onion soup gratinee with a mountain of melted cheese, are served in enormous bowls. All are perfectly prepared.
Main dishes are equally elaborate. With the coming of autumn the chef has added his “game season” menu. This seems to contain a majority of the small animals and birds native to central Europe; just reading it makes you feel like you are in a forest near the Bodensee. I tried the quail (two) with chestnut stuffing, garnished with “forest mushrooms” ( cepes actually), and found them richly smothered in a thick sauce. Roast boar “huntsman style” is even richer; it is roasted with juniper berries and rosehips and finished off in a white wine cream sauce. There is also venison, rabbit and pheasant, cooked in various ways and served with red cabbage, spaetzli dumplings and baby vegetables. And this is just for starters.
Beef roulades Esterhazy--14 ounces of beef rolled around bacon, dill, onion, boiled egg and ground veal--are braised slowly in red wine and served in a sour cream sauce. Mark Twain said Mahler’s music was better than it sounded; So is this. Naturally there is carpetbagger steak, rack of lamb, duck a l’orange, lemon chicken, veal dishes, goulash, and much more.
I loved the smoked shrimp and smoked, broiled salmon, which the chef buys privately from a Long Beach smokehouse. These taste much like the seafoods in the Pacific Northwest. There are also various homemade pastas.
And then there is dessert. The pair of special desserts (served for two or more) are so remarkable that they alone are worth a trip to the restaurant. Kaiserschmarn --maybe the world’s most fattening dessert--consists of light, buttery pancakes chopped up, sprinkled with powdered sugar and lemon zest, then buried in pureed apricot. The name means “emperor’s nonsense,” and you should be sure to order it. Just don’t eat dinner before you do. Any dinner.
The second special dessert is quite a bit lighter. “It is,” says chef Fritz, as he personally delivers it, “like first love; hot, sweet and ephemeral.” Salzburger nockerln is, in fact, an airy, vanilla-flavored souffle served in a giant glass baking pan. And it is wonderful.
Given the surroundings, prices are moderately high--but portions are enormous. Wonderful wines like Scheurebe, Friedelsheimer Schlossgarten, and after dinner spatleses are $2.50 to $5 a glass. Appetizers and salads are $3.50 to $7. Vegetarian entrees are $9.25 to $10.75. Pastas are $9.50 to $11.95. Main dishes are $11.75 to $19.95. Kaiserschmarn is $11; nockerln is $13.
A LA CARTE BISTRO
16847 Algonquin Road (in the Huntington Harbour Mall), Huntington Beach
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m-10p.m; Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m
Master Card and Visa accepted