The Wurst Is Best at Cafe Cego’s
Gerhard Moser is a perfectionist. You can see it in his eyes, and you can tell it from the way he cooks and where he goes for his raw materials.
He runs a place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Cafe Cego’s, which he likes to call a Continental cafe. In reality, the cooking there is thoroughly German in spirit (the name comes from cego, an ancient German card game akin to rummy). It’s no accident that many German Americans congregate at Cafe Cego’s. Moser, who hails from the Black Forest, serves some of the best German food in the Southland.
I’m tempted to describe his charming cafe as the perfect neighborhood restaurant. It helps that it happens to be located in something pretty close to a picture-perfect neighborhood. If you take Palos Verdes Drive North to Rolling Hills, you pass long, white picket fences, beautiful shrubbery and the kind of country estates most of us can only gaze at with a sigh.
The restaurant itself is on a side street near the Peninsula Center, one of the few commercial developments in this bucolic neighborhood. It’s what you’d call comfortably stylish, with beige table linens and designer chairs from Germany, French windows and a floor covered with tiny octagonal bathroom-type tiles. For decor, there’s a good variety of poster art and a couple of hanging plants.
The first time I came here, I wandered in around 9 p.m., just as the place was about to close. Moser suggested that I try the Nurnberger bratwursts he gets from Atlas Sausage Co., a terrific German butcher shop up in Burbank. You bet, said I, and pretty soon I had two brats accompanied by crisp wedges of rosti potatoes, a pile of sweet sauerkraut, a dollop of pungent mustard and one perfect German hot roll. The sausages, all white veal, literally melted in my mouth. You’d be hard-pressed to find better bratwurst anywhere, even in Germany.
In fact, Atlas deserves a lot of credit here (this is quite usual in Europe, where restaurants proudly rely on their suppliers). Moser uses several products from the same butcher shop, including the lean, smoky Westphalian ham (which the menu unaccountably calls Black Forest ham) that he puts in perfect ham sandwiches, the sausage links he serves at breakfast and even the pig’s knuckles (schweinerhachsen) that he will serve at a special dinner on July 25.
The place opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast, where you can get anything from an omelet topped with salmon caviar and creme frai^che to ethereally fluffy blue corn pancakes. Moser turns to Asia and Italy on his lunch menu, serving a variety of pastas, a fine Asian chicken salad and even chow fun.
But dinner is my favorite meal here. You could start off with some of the best gravad lax around, served with a delicate dill mustard sauce, or perhaps with tiny homemade cheese ravioli in a wild mushroom sauce that must be 50% heavy cream.
Along with the usual American salads, you can find one of baby greens in a beautiful vinaigrette, flanked by a pair of shrimp pot stickers for a touch of fusion cuisine. Moser’s Mediterranean fish soup is best on the soup list. It’s sort of a mini-bouillabaisse stocked with whitefish, salmon, browned vegetables and plenty of saffron.
The chicken goulash stands out among the entrees for its excellent fresh-made spaetzle. The tiny egg dumplings are tossed with big pieces of chicken in a spicy paprika sauce. Pork medallions come in a meaty red wine sauce loaded with shallots. The Wiener schnitzel is lightly breaded and perfectly fried (scarcely a trace of grease).
You can’t escape dessert here. An array of tempting homemade German pastries is on display smack in the middle of the dining room. They’re terrific. I recommend the pflaumenkuchen mit sahne, a fiery red, slightly tart plum cake with a rich, crumbly crust, served (like a lot of things here) with a mountain of whipped cream. The Linzer torte, made with a pastry that is as much crushed almonds as it is flour, is just about flawless.
There’s also a fine version of creme bru^lee with a crackling sugar crust. Of course, that’s Moser making one last attempt to convince us that this is a Continental restaurant. But we know better.
Cafe Cego’s, 777 Deep Valley Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. (310) 541-2600. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:15-9 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. Beer and wine only. Takeout. All major cards. Dinner for two, $26-$42.
What to get: Black Forest ham sandwich, gravad lax, Mediterranean fish soup, Nurnberger bratwurst, chicken goulash, German pastries.