More than other cuisines, "ausgezeichnet" food preparation is key to a German restaurant's success.
The notion occurred to me during my visit to Frau Kemmling Schoolhaus Brewhaus, which marks six years at the former school building at 525 Bigham Knoll Drive in Jacksonville. The sprawling grounds, friendly staff and blue and white accented decor may build toward a Bavarian impression, but dishes with long names and uncommon ingredients can fly only if prepared with excellence.
It was actually a hankering for one of those obscure ingredients, spaetzle noodles, that drew me there for lunch earlier this week. The soft, springy German staple, about the size of macaroni but somewhere between egg noodles and dumplings in consistency, is a favorite of mine.
The menu at Frau Kemmling offers numerous tempting German specialties, such as breaded pork schnitzel served with lingonberry jam and a unique ground sausage-infused hamburger, but right away my eyes zeroed in on the spaetzle casserole ($10.99). It did not disappoint.
The entree blends those little eggy German dumplings, grilled onions, ham and broccoli with cheese and a cheesy roux, then tops the whole thing off with buttery bread crumbs before it's baked to a golden brown. The cast-iron dish used to prepare the casserole ensured plenty of seared edges during the baking process.
It was only serendipity that timed my visit perfectly with the Oktoberfest celebration this weekend, which I argue is held too many weeks before the month for which the festival is named. Because of that festival, the restaurant will be closed Sunday and Monday, Sept. 25-26, although Oktoberfest events and concessions will continue Sunday. Regular hours are Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Frau Kemmling's authentic house-made pretzel ($5) was a special treat. Various stands sell previously frozen pretzels that are anything but "super," and there's a pretzel franchise at the mall, but neither of those examples quite match the fresh, savory heart-shaped baked goods I remember being common at German bakeries.
Fitting for a German restaurant, the pretzel holds much closer to the old-world standard, which was flavorful and had just the right firm texture. I added the restaurant's house-made cheese sauce at my server's suggestion, even though I knew it was my American palate talking. I learned from exchange students in college that German people typically serve pretzels with mustard or butter.
The cheese sauce at Frau Kemmling, however, is particularly well done, with a roux of sharp white cheeses spiced with nutmeg. Authentic or not, the sauce is a worthy companion to a worthy pretzel.
For dessert, I went for the restaurant's house-made bread pudding ($5.25), which to my surprise consisted of those pretzels I enjoyed, layered atop apples and cinnamon. The presentation was striking, drizzled with caramel and confectioner's sugar and garnished with three finely sliced apples.
My lunchtime visit was enjoyable, but it should be noted that service wasn't particularly swift. My server was friendly and sought to be attentive, but I gathered that she was juggling multiple tables, which led to delays. That said, those who aren't in a hurry can experience an uncommon cuisine done right.