Traditional German cooking may seem straightforward with its familiar meat-and-potatoes roster of dishes. As always, however, the details make the difference. So after learning that a new café in the French Quarter was serving an authentic-looking German menu, I decided to visit with a friend who grew up in Bavaria eating just this sort of food. I was bringing in a ringer.
Just as I had expected, she approached Jäger Haus German Bistro & Coffee Shop with caution verging on cynicism. She has seen her homeland's traditions treated to sloppy preparations, or otherwise reinterpreted beyond recognition by overzealous American cooks. But the first indication that we were in good hands arrived with a round of Paulaner Hefeweizen, a wheat beer from Munich available on tap at Jäger Haus. To my friend's relief, the beer was served in tall, slender, stemmed glasses as per the proper Bavarian regimen.
'It's really not possible any other way, even a pint glass is wrong, but not everyone knows this," she explained, taking a sip of the cloudy, unfiltered beer.
From the first round of 'prost!" (the German way to say 'cheers"), the hits kept on coming from a menu that is straightforward, simple and utterly convincing. Wiener schnitzel was thin, greaseless and crisp. Potato pancakes were bracingly flavored with garlic. The texture of the house spaetzle played a delightful, beguiling balancing act between chewy and crunchy. For my Bavarian friend, the food passed the taste-of-home test.
Jäger Haus is the product of Yarda 'Angel" Ramesh and his mother Yani, who helped work out the recipes. Ramesh is a native of the Czech Republic and lived in Germany before moving to New Orleans in 1998. He opened Jäger Haus this spring in a narrow Conti Street spot that had previously been a 24-hour bar called Rio.
Jäger Haus is a casual place, with a small bar up front and about 10 tables dispersed through two rooms. Prices are very reasonable, with appetizers around $5 and most entrees below $15.
There is a small breakfast menu, and the café also functions as a coffee shop. Coffee service comes from Lavazza, the Italian coffee company with its distinctive blue menu board and comprehensive list of specialty drinks. Jäger Haus does justice to the European approach, serving its coffees in nice porcelain cups, and even an iced Americano, the closest thing to a straight-up iced coffee I found here on a hot afternoon, arrived on a saucer with a doily.
Some people may sip coffee and work on laptops around the main room or eat burgers and fries at the bar, but what sets Jäger Haus apart is the ability to assemble hearty and satisfying samples of food we rarely see in this city. From the appetizer list, two generous slabs of rabbit liver pate were smooth-bodied and gently spiked with cognac. The Bavarian wurstsalad " squares of bologna mixed with raw onions and parsley awash in vinaigrette " qualifies as one of the most unusual salads I've tried, though it is evidently common in southern Germany. The schnitte sandwich was like a German bruschetta, with layers of ham, egg, pickle, bell pepper and potato salad all balanced on slices of French bread.
The kitchen prepares two types of potato salad. The German potato salad is a sour concoction of thick potato slices dressed with vinegar and mustard and laced with onions and pickles. In the Bohemian version, chopped potatoes are bound together with mayonnaise and enhanced with egg, peas and crunchy bits of apple.
One of the excellent specialties is the spaetzle, the traditional, tiny German dumplings that can accompany any number of entrees at Jäger Haus. They meet their best match next to the Hungarian goulash, where they help sop up the deep, dark, paprika-spiced gravy that smothers roughly hewn chunks of beef.
Two mainstay dishes are the Wiener schnitzel and the Jäger schnitzel. Both feature a pork cutlet pounded thin, then breaded and fried for the wiener schnitzel and sautéed with a lightly applied cream sauce and mushrooms for the Jäger schnitzel. Another dish called Prague eggs is basically a wiener schnitzel stuffed with a whole, hard-boiled egg.
The one seafood option is called Moldau trout, a reference to the German name for the river upon which Prague sits. A large, thin fillet is crusted with caraway seeds and pan-fried in butter. Slightly sweet and tasting a bit like anise, the aromatic caraway seeds prove a worthy foil to the strong flavor of the fish. In a city with plenty of trout recipes, this one is memorable and distinctive.
The new café's name is bound to be misconstrued as a reference to Jägermeister, the potent German liquor that has gained cult popularity among some frat row and French Quarter bar patrons. It is served at Jäger Haus, but it is also made into an alluring, uniquely herbal-flavored ice cream, which should be a dead giveaway that while this place has a bar, it's better to save the shots and accompanied shouting and chanting for Bourbon Street establishments just down the block.