Venue Review: J. Betski's
What comes to mind when you hear the term "German cuisine"? Wait, let me guess: "Boiled potatoes, boiled noodles, boiled meat and sauerkraut - in short, a study in bland, heavy and overcooked."
Or simply: "Oxymoron."
How about "Polish cuisine"? Does "Similar to German, but with pierogis and kielbasa" come close to the mark?
Your answers are understandable. Unless you've lived in Germany or Poland, it's a safe bet that your knowledge of their cuisines has largely come not from actual experience but through reputation -- an outdated reputation, I might add, that harks back at least to the war-ravaged central Europe of the middle of the last century.
In truth, both of these cuisines are richly varied, and both have undergone a dramatic Renaissance in their native lands over the past 50 years. But because of their lingering image problem, German and Polish restaurants in America remain scarce.
J. Betski's, which opened in Seaboard Station, will show you what you've been missing.
The restaurant is the realization of a long-held dream of John Korzekwinski, a dream of sharing with the world the foods of his Polish and German heritage. Korzekwinski, who owns Betski's with his wife Kathy, is himself an accomplished cook (he turns out a mean handmade strudel pastry, which you shouldn't miss come dessert time). But to showcase his cherished dishes in their best light, he hired chef Todd Whitney, whose culinary pedigree can be traced back to the Michelin three-star Aubergine in Munich.
To say that this was a wise move is an understatement. Whitney's cooking rates among the very best I had when I lived in Germany for a year. His seasonally evolving menu is deceptively brief, but it's loaded with delightful surprises, even for palates thoroughly schooled in central European cuisines. The variety of the offering -- mostly German and Polish fare, with an occasional foray into Austria or Hungary -- is enhanced by the fact that some of Whitney's presentations are traditional, while others are treated to a refreshing update.
Polish or German, traditional or updated, it's nearly impossible to go wrong. At the traditional end of the spectrum, fresh kielbasa is redolent of garlic and marjoram, succulent alongside a properly gentle house-made sauerkraut. Borscht is an exemplary rendition, the sparkling garnet clarity of the beet soup belying flavors so earthy you feel as if you ought to be able to chew them.
Pan-seared trout in brown butter, spangled with capers and served with potato pancakes, couldn't be improved upon, unless it might be to serve the whole fish instead of catering to American queasiness by serving filets. Pork schnitzel is classically thin and savory, if a bit chewy. And from the pastry cart, a moist Sachertorte does full, apricot-glazed chocolate justice to the Austrian original.
Those seeking culinary novelty cannot fail to be delighted by a terrine of house-smoked trout and herbed quark, flanked by a scattering of pickled mushrooms -- a clever riff on the smoked and pickled fish dishes popular throughout much of central Europe. Orange coriander-glazed celery root is at once surprising and well-suited as a companion, along with spaetzle and sweet-sour red cabbage, to impeccably crisp-skinned duck breast. And for dessert, warm gingerbread napped with a sabayon that has been flavored with Koelsch (a German ale) is sheer inspired whimsy.
Of course, some may prefer to take their Koelsch in a glass. That's a happy possibility, given J. Betski's superb German-focused wine list and draft beer offerings.
Every couple of years or so, I conduct an informal poll among local foodies. I call it my "wish list" poll, and it consists of a single question: If you could wish for one kind of restaurant to open in the Triangle, a restaurant specializing in a cuisine that is absent or severely lacking, what would it be? The answer, every time since I began asking nearly 12 years ago, has without exception been "German."
The wait has been long, but it has been worth it. Our wish has finally been granted, in a big way.