For those of you inclined to underestimate the value of punctuation, consider what a difference a hyphen can make. For example, if I were to tell you about the new Southern German restaurant in a four-square house near Centennial Park, you might expect an eatery devoted to culinary delicacies from below the Weisswurstäquator. That is to say, from south of Germany's River Main, a region known for weisswurst (white sausage).
But if you knew I was talking about a Southern-hyphen-German restaurant, you might expect an intercontinental fusion of German cuisine with the tastes of the Southern United States. For purposes of clarity, we might say Southern-German, y'all, ja?
Hyphenation is indeed the situation at Viener Fest, the not-too-purely German-and-Austrian gaststätte where a roster of frankfurters and wursts coexists peacefully with auslander favorites such as Cobb salad and Oreo-marshmallow-crisp treats.
"The German palate and the Southern palate are so similar," says general manager Jef Ellis, an alumnus of Irish pub Fiddler's Green in Murfreesboro and Los Cuñados Mexican restaurant on Murfreesboro Road. "We love pork, gravy and rich dessert."
A theater critic who travels frequently to Europe, Ellis developed a fondness for a particular restaurant in Vienna, Austria, then teamed up with investors to create a similar concept here. They call it "German-and-Austrian-styled cuisine with an American accent."
True to its German-Austro-Hungarian heritage, Viener Fest boasts plenty of plump bratwursts and smoky paprika-tinged debreziners. But there are foreign links in the chain, too, such as andouille (spicy smoked pork sausage of French origin and Cajun fame) and bologna (bouncy pink cold cuts of lunchbox infamy.) So far, there's no weisswurst, but it's still early days, and Ellis & Co. plan to switch up the sausage offerings frequently, to see what people like.
On one visit, the plentiful sampler of three steamed-and-grilled sausages included brats, andouille and Swiss-cheese-filled käsekrainers, which were like excellent grown-up versions of those cheese-injected hot dogs we used to beg Mom to buy when we were kids. (All these years later, we were begging for Viener Fest's cheese-filled links, but they weren't available on our return visit. Memo to management: People really like käsekrainers.) The sausage sampler comes with slices of marble rye bread, house-made German mustard and choice of side, including sauerkraut, tangy-sweet red cabbage, cucumber slices tossed in sour cream, and buttered handmade spaetzle.
For fans of spaetzle, the buttery egg noodle dumplings are available as an entrée, topped with Swiss cheese sauce or gypsy sauce. The latter, also known as Zigeuner sauce, is a mildly spicy stew of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers and paprika, reminiscent of Hungarian goulash.
There's also an excellent rustic house-made spaetzle soup with vegetables and chicken broth. We preferred this clear broth-based elixir to the creamy roasted garlic soup with the consistency of thick chowder.
It wouldn't be a Viener Fest without schnitzel. The traditional deep-fried boneless cutlets of pork, chicken, veal and eggplant are served with choice of burgundy-mushroom sauce, Gypsy sauce, pepper-cream sauce or lemon-caper sauce with a fried egg on top. I've never been a big fan of schnitzel, but the pork and chicken versions we tried were well-executed examples of the broadly beloved European staple.
Schnitzels and sausages are also available as sandwiches, on buns or European-style (inserted into a hollowed-out baguette). While we appreciated this nod to authenticity, the baguettes in question were rubbery and hard to manage, so we ended up throwing away a lot of bread.
On the other hand, sandwiches made with sliced sourdough loaf were unusually good, grilled golden and gently crunchy. The grilled cheese was a big hit at the table, and we were a little sheepish about how much we enjoyed the fried bologna sandwich. Ellis says it was added to the menu with a playful wink; nonetheless, the execution — an inch-thick slab dunked in the deep-fryer and served on sourdough with a fluffy frond of lettuce — won sincere approval.
For now, there are all-American beef burgers on the menu, topped with choice of bleu cheese, bacon, red cabbage and fried egg. Soon, a more German-influenced pork burger will be added.
For the Southern palate that does indeed love rich dessert, Viener Fest delivers. On one of his many trips to the theater, Ellis ran into Lila Parker as she was developing a pastry business. He commissioned her to bake an apple strudel and other traditional European desserts. Parker met the challenge with a gorgeous Black Forest cake (moist layers of dark chocolate sponge and fluffy mousse, with whipped cream frosting and cherry filling) and a Sacher torte (chocolate sponge infused with fruit and covered with ganache).
Natürlich, there is a German chocolate cake, even though there's nothing Deutsch about it. "People are expecting it, even though it's not German," Ellis says of the layered confection invented by American baker Sam German. One bite of the chocolate sponge topped with silken buttercream frosting and rustic coconut-pecan filling, and you won't be haggling over national lineage.
Meanwhile, jingoists of both Southern and European persuasion will find satisfaction at the bar, which promises a selection of German and local draft beers (as soon as the permits come through), in addition to spirits, high-alcohol beers and a roster of German and Austrian wines. Like so much of Viener Fest's well-executed fare and friendly atmosphere, the beverage menu should satisfy Southern, German and Southern-German appetites.
Viener Fest serves lunch and dinner daily.