Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, April 22, 2017-4:41 pm
New York culinary institutions don’t have to be great restaurants. But they do have to offer something that you can’t get anywhere else.
Rolf’s on Third Avenue in Manhattan offers that. It’s been in the same corner location for ages. It features sturdy German food. And it’s adorned like a nearly year-round Christmas tree.
Nope. You can’t get much more unusual than that.
The bar’s off to the side. When you enter, you may see right away that the place has lights, dolls, angels, greenery and all sorts of December-esque items festooning the ceiling … come during the right month, and you’ll fall in love with this wondrous, knickknacky splendor. OK, it might be a little insistent. It might be a little curious. It is, however, also endearing, as if the establishment doesn’t want the holiday season to end. It greets you almost all the time.
That’s just what its regulars like.
They also like the fact that there are cozy booths available along with the plain chairs and tables in the room. They like the bizarre photos on the walls that don’t seem to be related to anything. They like the Deutsche beers that are available on tap and come in fabulously tall glasses that, for the undaunted imbiber, represent this side of liquid paradise.
The cuisine is another story.
Huge portions aren’t, in general, trendy. On the other hand, they are useful—particularly if you want food for the next day’s lunch. Rolf’s will assist in that regard. An appetizer of potato pancakes, for example, comes to you on a huge plate bolstered by little bowls of sour cream and applesauce; meanwhile, the spud saucers, which are about as big as those Beatles LPs you used to play on your record player in days gone by and are numerous enough (there are three in total) to warrant an invitation to the local softball team for communal sharing, are crisp, mild, not too dense … before you know it, you’ve eaten nearly the entire dish. Hopefully, you’ll still have room for the entrees, as they’re just as hearty and perhaps even more flavorful.
The smoked center-cut pork chop offers evidence of this: It’s aromatic, similar in weight and thickness to a gigantic mallet from Ye Olden Times but with a juiciness that’s much more contemporary. With it you get somewhat dull mashed potatoes that are a bit too thin, as well as startlingly delicious sauerkraut that transcends the genre in its crunch and subtlety. There are also various kinds of schnitzel, the fried meat cutlet that’s so beloved all around the world. The version called “a la Holstein” is draped with a well-cooked fried egg, speckled with biting capers, punctuated with brisk anchovies and augmented by a side of disappointingly dreary spaetzle and soft, meek green beans. All of it looks like it doesn’t make sense together, but the saltiness of the anchovies work brilliantly with the blandness of the fried protein, though the unfortunate presence of the sides doesn’t do much to merit further indulgence in them.
Fortunately, dessert will proffer assistance, and the apple strudel may make your smile broader than it’s been in a while. It’s almost drowned out in whipped cream, but underneath, the apples are sweet, countered by plump raisins and gathered together by a somewhat wilted pastry. Again, the serving is immense—you may want to take what you don’t finish home. Your waiters, who are affable and quick, will oblige.
Prices: not inexpensive; some of the mains reach the 30- and 40-buck range. And that platter of potato pancakes approaches $20. Still, you’ll probably end up with at least one more meal afterward, so your repast is for a worthy cause. Plus, Rolf’s is an institution, and when you’re dining at an institution, you’ve got to live a little.
You’ll find there’s a lot to live for when you decide to eat at Rolf’s. There’s a lot to love, too.
I say: Enjoy. The regulars do. You probably will as well.