Smile Politely

Das Café just about perfect

The owners of La Gourmandise in downtown Urbana knew the jig was up. Pete Schnabel and his family had been inundated with requests for authentic German food over the past two years, and as such, they’ve retitled the name of their restaurant to Das Café. And lucky for us, this is the same family who founded and ran Bayern Stube, in Gibson City, for years. Hence, the endless stream of requests for schnitzel and such.

My wife and I were some of those people.

We always enjoyed La Gourmandise, but once we were there for dinner on the weekend, and they were running a German food special. We eagerly snapped it up and satiated our cravings for all things wurst, schnitzel, spatzle, kraut, and the like.

When we returned to order it again on the following Monday, Pete — who runs the joint along with his wife but is the face of the restaurant (he’s there always) — stammered a bit, and said that was just a special for the weekend. But he could see the disappointment on our faces. He knew why we were there. He stammered again. And he told us that, “well, I might be able to whip something up back there.”

And sure enough, schnitzel sandwiches were sold to us, off menu, on delicious pretzel rolls for something silly like $7.95.

We were in heaven.

So, hyperbolic inaccuracies aside, Das Café truly knows German food. In a previous column, I made the claim that I liked to eat food from authentic hands. And I rightfully got lit up for it; certainly a man from North Korea can easily make shrimp n’ grits or fried green tomatoes to go alongside his award winning Hoppin’ John. I get it. We’re all human. As such, we can all make food no matter what our cultural background happens to be.

But I maintain: getting a homemade meal of authentic international cuisine from people whose culture actually orginated the food? It’s the best. No argument. I really don’t want to hear it, if you have one.

Rick Bayless has nothing on Aaron Sanchez. It is what it is.

But back to the food:

At Das Café, last Saturday night, every last table was packed. No seating available. Twenty minute wait. That’s a great thing. It means that something is being done right; after all, generally speaking, people just don’t wait to eat poorly cooked, overpriced food. I suppose the article in the News-Gazoo last week helped it out a bit, but judging from the empty plates at every table, you can be sure that dinner hour on the weekends will be as such from here on out.

And that’s because the food was actually homemade.

Now, that’s a term — “homemade” — that gets tossed around so much in kitchens at restaurants anywhere you go, it can be surprising to actually see it truly going down just beyond the window.

See, I love me some Apple Dumplin’ and I love me some Seaboat, too. Both are formidable, and dare I say it, to be revered. And both pride themselves on the notion that what they are serving is homemade, to a degree. But I think what they are trying to convey is that they offer “homemade” recipes cooked by hired help.

And while this might end up being the case at Das Café eventually, last weekend, it was the real deal. And by that I mean, Pete Schabel and his family were running the restaurant, collectively, but single-handedly. Our order was taken by his father, a surly but kind fella with a deep, thick German accent: unmistakable. The kitchen was being run by his mother, or so I believed, with Pete himself assisting her, and expediting the plates and running the food. It was truly a sight to behold, if only because it’s so rare to see the people who own the joint also create its product as well on site, at that moment. It happens, but just not all that often.

And we could taste it, really. We ordered the Bistro Sampler, which included schweinbraten (a roasted pork loin with a rich brown gravy), bratwurst, schnitzel, rotkohl (the neon purple cabbage that you always see with German food), small potato pancakes, and of course, spatzle. Each element was worthy of commendation. It came out hot, and it came out in an appropriate amount of time. When you order food like this, the last thing you want to see is it appear in front of you five minutes later. This took 15–20 minutes, and you could taste that it was made to order. That matters to people who care about the food they order — a great deal.

We also ordered the Bohemian Schnitzel, which is the classic breaded porkloin but topped with cinnamon apples and grated swiss cheese. I barely got to eat any of it because my wife demolished her plate in what felt like minutes. It was really just that good.

But the menu at Das Café has yet to fully change over. You can still get some of the same things that they were serving as La Gourmandise. American fare dominates the lunch menu, and breakfast is still served Tuesday–Sunday. I highly recommend the house omelet as well. Though it’s likely got more calories than you’d need to start your day, my oh my, it is definitely worth it. It’s packed with bacon, onions, cheeses, and potatoes. Truly delicious.

When asked what prompted the change, Pete Schnabel laughs about the fact that it kind of wasn’t even a choice he had to make himself; the community demanded it, and he was just willing to listen.

And we can only be thankful that he did. Das Café brings a ton to an already fabulous food scene in C-U, and most notably, in downtown Urbana. This is highly recommended.

Das Cafe is located at 119 West Main in downtown Urbana.

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