August 5, 2005
without a doubt
Inside the old storefront at 208 N. Main St., Independence, MO, The Rheinland Restaurant's décor suggests a pastoral setting. Dark green tablecloths, plants, trellises and railings throughout the two-tiered dining room create a rustic atmosphere enhanced by the bright green ceiling above old brick walls. On Saturday nights, Diane and John playing polkas and folk tunes on a hammer dulcimer and guitar add to the rural feel. They play polkas tolerable even for someone who doesn't have any "ompahpah".
A tag line on the menu's cover proclaims the food to be “authentic German cuisine.” And according to head server Margot Gieseke, herself German-born, owner Heinz Heinzelmann’s wife Rosie developed all the recipes, all made from scratch except for a few desserts. The dishes come from peasant roots and from the same tree as American "country" or "down-home" cooking.
There's the schnitzels (breaded and fried cutlets), pot roast, smoked pork chops, the Roastbraten ($16.95), a 10 oz. K.C. Strip with grilled onions or herb butter, and the Rheinland Burger German Style. (Columnist's digression: As I'm writing, I'm trying to refresh my geography memory. Now where was the city that gave its name to the “All-American Hamburger?” It’s ironic that a German restaurant has to reclaim one of its sandwiches. Of course, that's probably a fair trade for the Reuben sandwich, which isn't a German creation.)
In a phone conversation, I asked if the dishes represented a particular region of the country. Rosie Heinzelmann told me, "No. Not really. You can pretty much find these dishes all over there."
The appetizers actually sounded appetizing compared to the usual fried onion rings and Mozzarella sticks. The Rheinland serves a smoked salmon and cheese plate ($9.50), a plate of meats, imported cheeses and fruit ($8.35), and the one we tried, the German Variety Plate ($7.75), a combination of five cold salads. Emily and I enjoyed the sliced cucumbers with dill and other herbs in the sour cream dressing, a variety of beans bathed under an oil and cider vinegar dressing, cold potato salad with a hint of celery seed, a bit of tossed salad in a creamy dressing and pickled beets.
Meat rules the plate at the Rheinland. They have four schnitzels (pork or veal cutlets), three beef dishes, a smoked pork chop, and a Bratwurst or Knackwurst dinner. On a special night when we were there, the offerings included salmon. Chicken Cordon Bleu is the main poultry entree.
"We put the Cordon Bleu on the menu because the customers asked. We don't really change the menu very often," Gieseke said
On our visits, Emily and I tried two of the schnizels ($14.95 for pork and $17.95 for veal), the Jaegerschnitzel (Hunter schnitzel), a breaded cutlet topped with a creamy Burgundy/mushroom sauce, and Zigeunerschnitzel (Gypsy Schnitzel), served under gelatinous pepper sauce. According to Gieseke, the Jaegerschnitzel is their most popular entrée. It impressed Emily.
The Zigeunerschnitzel impressed me with its sauce of bell peppers, onions, pimentos and an unidentifiable spice that creating a tinge of fire to provide the name's suggestive wildness. Accompanied with steamed red cabbage and spaetzle-pellets of German pasta browned after boiling, the dish evoked images of a distant campfire and lonely violin music.
On our other visit, my wife had the evening's special — roast pork stuffed with spinach and mushrooms ($15.95). The nutmeg and herbs gave the meat a savory aroma while the spinach and mushrooms provided a woodsy taste.
I chose the Sauerbraten ($14.95) the other time we went. The German version of pot roast has a distinctively different flavor from other cultures' beef dishes. Marinated in vinegar, onion, spices, sugar and bay laves, the meat doesn't get cooked till it falls apart like most pot roasts. They served me a firm but tender slice, moist but not greasy. The unique combination of flavors challenges the taste buds.
I should add a word about the side dishes. I neglected the sauerkraut but did try the hot German potato salad. Unlike the greasy, syrupy versions served in most places, at the Rheinland it had a minimum of dressing and little bacon grease. The cider vinegar made it tarter but more refreshing than other versions.
After tantalizing the palate, the Rheinland has plenty to satisfy a sweet tooth. The dessert tray includes a brownie al a mode, a torte of the day and the ubiquitous “cheese cake of the day.” We tried two in-house desserts on one night — the homemade apple strudel ($3.85) and bread pudding ($4.95, large) with a vanilla sauce. Emily made short work of the flaky apple-filled pastry. And then she chided me as I tried to skim the last drops of vanilla sauce from the bread pudding bowl. I smiled internally when she flicked one last flake of strudel off the plate with her fingertip.
Although none of the other servers we encountered had accents like Gieseke's, they still proved well versed in the menu and pronounced the foods' names properly. They're efficient and quick to correct any glitch, as when we miscommunicated brand of beer I ordered.
The Rheinland has operated around the corner from the Jackson County Courthouse since February 1991. The experienced kitchen turns out superbly prepared food. The wait staff offers high caliber service. And I can't avoid saying this, so forgive me: Our experience there was the best, but we didn't try the “wurst.”
Mike Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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