Based on a few recommendations on the site and a few more on the web I visited Killmeyers Bavarian House on Staten Island last Saturday night. The results were disappointing.
The building itself is in a semi-desolate section of Staten Island, hard by the Outerbridge Crossing. It has the look of a classic roadhouse and appears to have been recently renovated. My friend and I were cheered by the fullish parking lot that indicated happy customers. But crowds are an unreliable measure of quality.
A bit of background. I've been to Germany about 10 times so I'm reasonably familiar with the cuisine. My friend and I are also regular diners at Zum Stamtisch in Queens, IMO the best German restaurant in New York City and my benchmark in judging German restaurants.
When we were seated we were served two large soft pretzels in a basket in lieu of bread. A nice idea but bad execution. The pretzels had been heated in a microwave instead of a conventional oven. They were slightly warm, soggy, and chewy.
We started with the goulash soup and the mixed cold wurst & cheese platter. The soup was average at best and the meat was remarkably dry and chewy, a difficult trick considering that it was immersed in the soup broth. (FWIW, the Zum Stamtisch goulash soup is actually better than the versions I've tasted in Germany!)
The wurst & cheese platter was somewhat better however the generous selection of cheeses was more than offset by the meager portion of wurst. There was no attempt to serve German cheese. The wursts were accompanied by cheddar and Swiss as well as Muenster, although my friend suspected that all the cheeses were supplied by Boars Head. Not bad but nothing special.
For main courses we ordered Jaegerschnitzel and Beef Rouladen (a dish described on the menu as rolled beef with bacon and onions and gherkin). The Jaegerschnitzel arrived with a stingy portion of mushroom gravy and once again the meat was dry and chewy. Ditto the Beef Rouladen, and our teeth received quite a workout. The bacon and onion were MIA although the gherkin formed the core at the center of the rolled beef. Two more dishes, two more misses.
*The Good Things*
There were some truly outstanding things about Killmayers. The restaurant features a magnificant 100 year old bar rescued from another restaurant. My friend and I passed a pleasant hour there sampling the extensive selection of German and Czech beers. Both the draft and bottled beers were fresh and well kept.
Later, as we were finishing our disappointing meal, we heard the sound of music playing in the beer garden and moved outside to check it out. For the next hour and a half we were treated to a first rate blues band playing under the stars. The beer garden is sizeable, holding about 12 picnic tables and a few trees. Unfortunately it only opens at 9:00PM and offers only a subset of the main menu - grilled wursts. Then again, given the disappointing main courses this may be a blessing.
The combination of good beer and music turned an average evening into a happy one.
*Battle of the Buds*
The first thing you have to know is that there are two Budweisers. One is the well known St. Louis product that has been around for about 125 years. The other is known as Budweiser Budvar and it's been brewed in the Czech Republic for 800 years, long before there *was* a Czech republic or those stupid frogs.
In my opinion, Budweiser Budvar is the best beer I've ever had. It's rich and creamy without being cloying or bitter, and has a sneaky potency that will leave you weak in the knees after only 2 or 3 glasses. It also takes about 5 minutes to draw a draft since the bartender has to make multiple passes in order to let the head drop down before he completes his pour. The wait is worth it.
While it's a Czech beer, it is widely available in Germany (where I discovered it), being one of the few imported brews that meets Germanys' strict beer purity laws. Michael Jackson, the British beer writer, considers it one of the worlds' best brews. He's right. But back to history.
The American Budweiser was a product of August Buschs' tour of Europe in the mid 1800s. Busch was looking to discover some European brewing techniques that he could use to improve the product of his St. Louis brewery. I'm not sure if he succeeded in this but he certainly did succeed in appropriating both Budvars' name and slogan. Budweiser bills itself as "The King of Beers". Budvar has long called its' product "The Beer of Kings", which makes obvious sense when you consider that no self respecting king would drink the St. Louis swill.
Anyway, Busch returned home, renamed his beer, and prospered beyond his wildest dreams. Initially the Czechs took no notice, but by the 1930s the world had become a smaller place and lawyers got involved. In recognition of the fact that they had made free with Budvars' name and slogan, the St. Louis attorneys offered a cash settlement and promised that Budweiser would not sell their product in most of the countries of Europe. In exchange, Budvar promised that it would not use the "Budweiser" name in the United States.
By the 1990s the world had shrunk even further. The St. Louis Budweiser had morphed into McBeer, a worldwide giant with a nondescript product and a never ending thirst for new markets. Budweiser viewed the old agreement of the 1930s as overly restrictive. They therefore approached the Budvar management with what they viewed as a generous buyout offer. The Czechs declined. Being Americans, they then took a more direct approach and resorted to bribery. Since Budvar is owned by its home town, Big Bud showered the local community with free civic improvements and a well appointed community center. The Czechs said thank you to the improvements but no thank you to the buyout. Budweiser growled and slunk away to plan other means of attack. And the Czechs also began to ponder their own strategy.
Last Saturday at Killmeyers (you knew I was coming back to that, didn't you?) I noticed a prominent Budweiser Budvar logo. The first time I saw one of those in the States was at Astorias' Old Bohemian Hall. That time I got very excited, figuring that as a famous Czech landmark once visited by the Czech President, Vaclev Havel, perhaps they had received some kind of exemption that allowed them to import Budvar across the Great Beer Wall. But no, the Budvar sign was just there to add some atmosphere, just like the Prague street signs behind the bar.
At Killmeyers, having been burnt once before, I remained calm until I saw a sign immediately below the Budvar placard for "Czechvar" beer. The typescript and logo were identical and I instantly knew that I was witnessing a brilliant Czech counterattack. They had skirted the edge of the 1930s treaty by renaming their product while keeping it recognizable!
A quick word with the bartender confirmed my analysis and he began to tell me the story of the Two Buds. "Yeah yeah, I know it already" I interrupted. "Just pour me one please". And now it gets sad. Czechvar was only available in bottles and not in my fondly remembered draft form. I first noticed that it did not have the full head of its' draft cousin as it was poured into my glass. After a couple of sips, I realized that it also didn't have the flavor of its' Czech older brother. Actually its' more like a 2nd cousin once removed.
Mind you, it's not a bad beer at all. It's not as biting as many European beers and I had had a Spaten before trying the Czechvar. As a result it's flavor was a little lost during my first few minutes of tasting, but it gradually emerged as the Spaten taste receded. All in all it's a very good beer which I will order again. But it's not the original either.
I have a lot of questions. Is Czechvar available in draft? (Sometimes draft beers taste distinctly different than their bottled counterparts). Have the Budvar master brewers tinkered with their formula because they think American palates can't handle the real thing? ("You can't handle the truth!"). I don't know but I'm going to investigate further.
In the meantime, if you see Czechvar, please give it a try. And if you travel to Germany or the Czech Republic and see Budvar on draft, have one for me.