Winner Schnitzel

Alpenhof Steak Haus
16018 Hamilton Pool Rd., 263-9875
Tue-Sun, opens 6pm

Queen Elizabeth, Dan Rather, Alfred Hitchcock, and me. What's my link to this motley crew? One thing, at least, is that we're a random sampling of the people who have been fed by the Kohler family, now grooming its seventh generation of chefs to carry on the family Weinerschnitzel.

Schnitzel is a cutlet of meat pounded thin, breaded, then fried. Though it's made of tender veal, in my experience weinerschnitzel can be chewy, greasy, or bland, a German standard, and the wrong thing to eat. In fact, though I'll get in trouble with my brother-in-law Rudolph Kempf for saying so, if it were up to me to eliminate one of the world's cuisines, I'd choose German.

So what was I thinking, willingly driving 20 miles out of town for dinner at a place called the Alpenhof? First of all, its reputation for steaks near the lake is unparalleled, and I'll go anywhere if I think I might get a great steak out of the deal. Plus, the drive out to Hamilton Pool is a favorite of mine.

The first time I go is a Friday night. My dinner companion and I arrive to find soft white lights threaded through the room and rose-colored cloths on the tables. I assume, wrongly, that these romantic details are temporary, orchestrated for sappy valentines. A fire crackles in a stone fireplace, heads of deer peer out from the walls. A glance at the menu reveals a cheese fondue for an appetizer and a chocolate fondue for dessert. Then I notice that all the waitresses are blond and that the wood-paneled walls and roaring fire give the place the warm feeling of a ski chalet. Hmm. I come to the slow realization that there's more than one German-speaking country with a claim to the Alps, and I begin to believe that we are in a Swiss establishment. Thank God.

We order a Tossed Salad with Feta ($3.25) and the Swiss Cheese Fondue for two. While we wait, we devour a basket of brown-and-serve style French bread with garlic chive butter and reminisce about fondue. Barry, a mildly bossy friend who spent a year in Switzerland, once hosted a fondue party for his Texas friends. That night, all guests were admonished to drink only white wine with the cheese fondue. "Otherwise, you'll get a ball in your stomach," Barry kept threatening, enigmatically. The more white wine he drank, the louder he'd bellow about the dreaded cheese ball. Soon, any offense doomed a guest to this obscure digestive problem. In clear defiance, we order our Alpenhof fondue without wine. It should be noted that the Kohlers, who are real Swiss people, are not tyrants; they let you drink anything you want with your fondue.

After a short wait and some confusion (this night the waitress is responsible for about twice as many tables as usual), we're brought a ramekin of Swiss cheeses (Gruyere and Emmental), melted with white wine, kirsch, and shallots. Long forks and a basket of cubed bread are the only tools you need to put yourself into a cheese trance; the quantity (huge) and the price (costly) would make this a better choice of appetizer for a large table celebrating a special occasion. We still have salad to contend with, we need to save plenty of room for our dinners, and we don't want balls in our stomachs.

Photo of steaks on the grill

photograph by John Anderson

From a list of rib eyes, filets, porterhouses, and top sirloins, I choose my favorite cut: a New York Strip (3/4 pound for $20.95). With a strip, you have to work harder than you do with a butter-tender filet, but every rich, flavor-packed bite is worth it. The beef at the Alpenhof is prime cut, aged 200 days for tenderness, hand-cut at the restaurant, then cooked to specifications on a grill. The beef at the Alpenhof is outstanding. Its succulence drowns out everything else on the plate: the standard baked potato (with a kit containing sour cream, bacon bits, and green onion), a small pile of freshly steamed healthy vegetables (carrot and broccoli), and a corresponding pile of sautéed aromatic vegetables (peppers and onions).

After much deliberation between the Tenderloin Tips in Red Wine Sauce over Pasta ($12.95) and the Pork Tenderloin ($15.95), my friend chooses the pork. The pork is a good dinner, glazed in a sweet mushroom and sherry sauce, with oven-browned potatoes -- crisp on the outside, soft on the inside -- and the vegetable piles. But it somehow seems a little gloomy and a little overcooked in the shadow of the beef. In fact, it's difficult to get a perspective on the pork when the beef is in the room. We leave fairly happy and very full, convinced that the steak is the way to go at the Alpenhof.

On the return visit, fellow Chronicle food writer Pableaux Johnson joins me. I must find the snug, sheltered, and warm glow of the Alpenhof conducive to heavy, grounding food because I choose to start with a lulling crock of Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup ($4.50). This celebration of melted cheese and croutons is thinned with cream and a chicken stock, and balanced with shreds of bacon and celery. Pableaux starts with a crock of French Onion Soup ($4.25), a pleasingly rich beef and wine stock swimming with caramelized onions, topped with croutons and a few shavings of cheese. Pursuing the beef theme that he began with the soup, Pableaux orders the Rib Eye Steak ($20.95 for 3/4 pound, $23.95 for 1 pound). After much deliberation, I opt against Fillet of Snapper Alpenhof (with butter, mushrooms, capers, and white wine) and Veal Cordon Bleu. Fully expecting to lose the unspoken yet implicitly understood "who ordered the best thing at the table" competition, I take the plunge and ask for the Weinerschnitzel with Sauerkraut and Hot Swiss Potato Salad ($17.95). From a medium-sized, relatively inexpensive wine list, Pableaux orders a glass of jammy and delicious 1997 Rosemount Shiraz ($5.50 glass, $20 bottle). I select a glass of oaky La Crema Chardonnay ($7.75 glass, $34 bottle).

My soup is good but Pableaux's is better, his shiraz outshines my Chardonnay, and we all know that Weinerschnitzel pales in comparison to Rib Eye any day of the week. But you never know what fate will bring you. I didn't know that the Kohlers have been cooking their way around the world for generations. I didn't know that what we could actually hear being pounded out in the kitchen was Chef Pepi's father's father's father's father's father's recipe. I didn't know that Weinerschnitzel could be worthy. Eventually our waitress, Renee, brought me a large cut of the tenderest veal, lightly dredged in flour and sautéed in butter. Just before serving, white wine, lemon juice, and traces of butter are poured over the top of the golden landscape, acid echoing the sauerkraut and sweet, smoky, pungent potatoes. It is perfect; Pableaux was jealous; I had won.

It needs to be said that his steak was also very good. Though fattier and slightly denser in chew than the top sirloin, it was perfectly charred on the outside and shockingly pink on the inside, and exuded a wealth of delicious, rich juices. It was slightly rarer than Pableaux had wanted, but overall we were both very pleased with our dinners (although he did keep suggesting that we trade plates).

From a selection of pies, a fondue made of Swiss chocolate, brandy, and cream, and chocolate cake made in-house, we shared a slice of the deeply decadent, three-layer cake decorated with cream swirls, crushed almonds, and strawberry purée.

It seems that the character of the Alpenhof, now in its 25th year of existence, is probably more casual than the Kohlers' previous endeavours. "Call our food flat food," said Mike Kohler, a man knowledgeable about wines, world history, and food trends; he knows that "vertical food" is on its way out. Kohler, who personally greets everyone who arrives, is more interested in what tastes really good and what makes his Hill Country customers happy.

The food is flat. The food is good.

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