Walking up to Bavarian Brathaus, you're greeted by the music of a German oompah band piped into the parking lot. Near the entrance, a Bavarian flag and a "Biergarten" sign reinforce the mood, transporting diners on the sidewalk patio from a suburban Cary strip mall to a romantic Alpine tavern.
Inside, the illusion is reinforced by a wealth of visual clues: cuckoo clocks, lederhosen and dirndl skirts on the walls, colorful banners hanging from the ceiling and beer steins on the mantel of a large stone fireplace whose presence hints at skiers schussing down the slopes outside.
It's a Disneyesque depiction of a German restaurant, to be sure. But one detail in particular -- an antique sausage stuffer mounted on a wall near the host stand -- hints that there's authentic substance behind all the show.
And, indeed, the food at Bavarian Brathaus is with few exceptions very good. The restaurant's namesake specialty bratwursts are superb, especially the traditional version. Made in-house with lean pork and classic seasonings, these transport me back to my year of study in Germany far more effectively than any number of cuckoo clocks or beer steins. I've sampled among the other bratwurst flavors, which include cheese, spinach, curry, garlic and an appropriately named "fire." All are tasty enough if you're inclined to try one for the novelty. But do yourself a favor and try the traditional bratwurst first.
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Of course, you could always order a bratwurst sampler or, better yet, the Bürgermeister Platter, which includes your choice of two brats, excellent sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and locally baked German-style rolls. Bring a hearty appetite, though, because these are sizable sausages.
But they're practically spa cuisine compared with the Schweinshaxen, a massive bone-in pork knuckle slow-cooked to a succulent, crackly-skinned turn. Served with a rich beer-laced gravy and an assortment of sides, Schweinshaxen is usually available on weekends or with 24 hours' notice. It's a meal well worth planning ahead for.
The kitchen turns out a worthy rendition of a Wiener Schnitzel, too, the veal thin and tender under a light, crisp breading. The Wiener is just one of nine variations on the schnitzel theme, with other options ranging from Jäger Schnitzel (with a mushroom-wine demi-glace sauce) to Zigeuner Schnitzel (topped with fried peppers and onions). I'd steer clear of the Holstein Schnitzel, though, whose tomato sauce is convincing evidence that the Germans ought to leave that particular sauce to the Italians.
The tomato sauce isn't any more persuasive in the rabbit dish Hasenpfeffer. But the leg-thigh quarters of rabbit and chunks of sausage are toothsome in their own right.
Sauerbraten, on the other hand, I can recommend without reservation. A 14-day marinade before roasting gives the beef its distinctive pickled flavor and makes the meat so tender you can cut the thick slabs with a fork.
Given the heartiness of the main courses, the limited appetizer selection should come as no surprise. I'd skip the undistinguished goulash soup and the overpriced iceberg salad (many entrees come with a delightfully sweet-tart Viennese-style tomato salad anyway) and go for the herring salad. Or start with an order of the potato pancakes, listed under Side Orders. Wash them down with a brew from the bar's outstanding selection of a dozen German beers on tap.
Bavarian Brathaus is owned by Paul Hoffman, who founded the original Bavarian Brathaus in Carthage (which has since moved to Sanford) and Gene Gibbons, who runs the Cary restaurant. Under Gibbons' guidance, service has steadily improved since the restaurant opened in January. The wait staff now appears capable of handling the crowds that overwhelmed it in the early weeks.
They'll get a test soon. Next Thursday, Bavarian Brathaus kicks off a seven-week Oktoberfest celebration with a four-day extravaganza that promises to fill the dining room and spill out onto the patio -- er, Biergarten -- every night Sept. 17-20. Admission is by advance ticket. This time, the oompah band will be real