Brunch in the Alps
Karl Camenzind, the kindly chef and owner of Karl's at the Riverbend, presided over his extensive Sunday brunch buffet from a spot between the chafing dishes and the made-to-order omelette and waffle station. On the wall just behind him were three framed prints of snowy white Alps. The hokey artwork reminds you that Karl, resplendent in his snowy white chef's jacket and white hair, is from Switzerland.
And that's how Chef Karl gets away with serving dated European food. Like his blast-from-the-past salmon Florentine with spinach and white sauce and his déjà vu strawberries with Bavarian pastry cream, the white-haired chef is an old-world relic.
"It tastes old-fashioned, but I like it," a picky dining companion said after our first trip through the buffet line. We started with the salads, which were lined up in homey mismatched bowls. The standouts were the slightly crunchy asparagus spears with a tart vinaigrette, the cucumber and dill in sour cream, the pickled mushrooms and the chunky potato-and-venison salad, with tiny pieces of meat.
On my second trip through the line, I got one egg Benedict with excellent freshly made hollandaise and a ladle full of venison stew, which I spooned over some large slices of home-fried potatoes. It was one of the best venison stews I've eaten lately, full of tender meat chunks in a shiny, viscous wine reduction sauce studded with small peppercorns.
A sign outside Karl's declares it an American and Continental restaurant. "Continental cuisine" is an American term coined at mid-century to describe faux European food. It recalls elaborate conglomerations like veal Oscar, lobster Newburg and cherries jubilee. Upscale Houston restaurants such as Tony's only recently stopped using the term to describe their menus, so it seems a little early for a retro movement. But that's not really what's on the menu here anyway.
What Karl is serving might be called The Sound of Music cuisine -- cozy comfort foods like warm apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles, and all the rest of the gravy-covered mitteleuropäische grub that Germanic Texans crave in cold weather. Sure, the brunch buffet line is sprinkled here and there with such Gulf Coast classics as crawfish étouffée and bread pudding, but for the most part the food reflects Karl's Swiss sensibilities. And you can tell by the red flag with the white cross flying outside that Karl is fond of his fatherland.
That might also explain why the restaurant looks like it was decorated by Heidi's grandmother. With three working fireplaces, lots of dark wood furniture and floral print wallpaper, the place oozes a gooey gemütlichkeit. The glass-fronted display cabinet in the main entryway is stuffed with a collection of ornate beer steins and ceramic birds. Hanging wall clocks, paintings of peasants in the vineyards and every other bit of Alpine kitsch you can imagine adorns one niche or another. It makes you want to throw back your head and yodel.
On my third trip through the buffet line, I sampled a thin slice of rare roast beef. Karl carves off a piece of the enormous inside round roast only when it's requested, so each piece remains juicy, and it can be as rare or as well done as you want it. I also helped myself to a little bit of crawfish étouffée, which was way too rich considering all the other food I had just eaten.
I took a short break after that third course and ordered some coffee, which I drank while reading the Sunday paper and looking out the window at the blue sky and leafless trees of a sunny January afternoon. Our table on the glassed-in patio had a view of a horse farm on the other side of a drainage ditch. I realized that the ditch must be the "river bend."
"It's actually called Jones Creek," the waitress told me.
Having recovered my appetite, I made a fourth trip through the line to try some desserts. My top choice was a boozy English trifle, which is pudding with cake, strawberries, whipped cream and some kind of brandy mixed up in it. I also sampled three kinds of mousse: amaretto, white chocolate and dark chocolate; I liked the dark chocolate best. Adding the apple strudel was really just an excuse to spoon a lot of Bavarian cream on my plate, but the strudel, with lots of raisins and nuts, was better than expected. The bread pudding was just average. But as one of my companions observed, bread pudding always tastes like French toast that didn't get cooked through anyway.
We were all delighted with what turned out to be a splendid, old-fashioned Sunday brunch. And the ambience was quite amusing in an Alpine theme park sort of way. The price tag was also a pleasant shock. Sixteen dollars is a bargain for this spread. And if you want to limit yourself to salads only, or two entrées, two vegetables and dessert, the price drops to $11.
Karl and Susie Camenzind put their restaurant here in the sparsely populated grasslands of Richmond for "romantic dining in the country," according to their Web site (www.karlsrb.com). And their ploy worked marvelously for me, since it was one of those perfect days for a drive. I only wish I had a big shiny motorcycle, like so many of the other Sunday drivers we saw out on the road.
On our way home, I dragged my companions to a charming retail establishment called Wild West World, where I admired a clever string of shotgun-shell Christmas lights that I want to get for the tree next year.
I made my first visit to Karl's at the Riverbend during the holidays, and I must say they do quite a job with the Christmas decorations. Their towering tree had some of those old-fashioned glass bubble lights. I hadn't seen those in years. The food seemed perfect for holiday feasting, too.
The dinner menu at Karl's, which is long on wild game and red meat with German-style accompaniments, reminds me of the offerings at the now-defunct Rotisserie for Beef and Bird. Wild game dinners run in the $24-to-$34 range and include fruit and vegetable garnishes and your choice of soup or salad, along with baked potato, rice or spaetzle. I got the wild game mixed grill, which includes one Popsicle-size quail, a wild boar chop that tastes a lot like a pork chop and a spectacular rare venison steak. The wild boar chop and venison steak look so much alike, the kitchen puts an apple fritter on top of the boar so you can tell them apart. The spaetzle, served without any gravy, is boring.
One of my three dining companions sampled the roast prime rib, which was a huge no-surprises slab of juicy beef. The other two didn't order red meat, and they were suitably punished with blandness. The coq au vin, which bore no resemblance to the French dish of gamy cock slow-cooked in red wine, was instead an all-American boneless, skinless chicken breast with some mushrooms cooked in Burgundy. The quail and beer-batter shrimp turned out to be a tasty bird sautéed with Marsala and four shrimp in a way-too-thick coating of bready batter, which my companion removed before eating the shrimp.
Overall, the dinner menu proved uneven. If I were to return to Karl's for dinner, I would go on a cold winter night and get an over-the-top entrée like elk steak with wild mushrooms in Scotch and peppercorn sauce or venison cognac schnitzel. This is the kind of robust wild game cookery where Karl's talents really shine. If you're going to order something middle-of-the-road here, you might as well go Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, when Karl's at the Riverbend has a "neighborhood menu" of items like bratwurst, pork chops, liver and onions and chicken-fried steak, all priced at around $10.
But the best idea of all is to take a drive out to Karl's on a sunny Sunday afternoon. (Make a reservation; the place books up solid in nice weather.) You're bound to enjoy Karl's old-fashioned Sunday brunch buffet because there's something for everyone. And anyway, your motorcycle probably needs the exercise.
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