There is no love more pure than the love of a child. Such wide-eyed adoration imprints its subjects on tender souls, malleable as 24-karat gold, before experience of the wider world alloys them with disappointment. This helps explain why you might travel the globe, sampling its elixirs and delicacies, only to find that nothing moves you quite like the beef on weck and malted milkshake at Charlie the Butcher's after driving straight from the airport.
That's where my thoughts ended up after trying to figure out why my recent dinner at Scharf's in West Seneca left me in a minor snit.
It started with the potato pancakes. My mother's German roots shine through her version, which elevates humble potatoes to lacy-edged crispy disks of golden glory with a dash of salt, pepper and onion, maybe an egg. While it pains me to criticize a restaurant that has served its customers faithfully for 51 years, it would be worse to pretend my mother's pancakes never existed.
Scharf's started its history in a former Schiller Park tavern, opening in 1967. In 2012, after most of its regulars moved on or moved out to the suburbs, owner Jerry Scharf was contemplating closing when the news prompted a burst of support. Buoyed, in 2014 the restaurant found another home in the former Deerhead Inn, another family-run tavern in West Seneca, where it's open six days a week. (It's closed from May 27 to May 29, however.)
The classic tavern setup has customers stepping into the wood-lined barroom. The main dining room to the right holds tables covered in white-and-blue checked plastic. An illuminated display of beer steins, plaques and other German tchotchkes anchors one wall, with lederhosen-clad figurines and strings of Oktoberfest flags elsewhere. At Scharf's, it's always Oktoberfest, and I'm gut with that.
The German beer list is appropriately broad, with five drafts and more than a dozen bottles. Thursday night is trivia night, an amplified event punctuated by rounds of a German drinking chant. It starts at 7 p.m., and is best avoided if you're keen on hearing what your tablemates have to say.
Our server was too busy to chat. She brought drinks and then a basket of seedless rye bread and butter packets, then returned with armloads of appetizers and hustled away.
Liver dumpling soup ($4.50) was two tender gray spheres in cloudy chicken broth. There was just enough of a copper tang in the dumplings to hint at their foundational ingredient.
Soft pretzel sticks with housemade beer cheese dipping sauce ($6.95) brought four warm, doughy batons whose texture was more like skinny, salty bread than pretzels. The beer cheese hit the spot, with plenty of hoppy undertones, but I would have appreciated more of it.
Potato pancakes (four for $9.50) come with applesauce or syrup, with sour cream an extra $.25. They were a little thinner than a hockey puck but not much more appealing after a couple of bites – tough, chewy and under-seasoned.
Scharf's dinners come with salad, a choice of starch (housemade spätzle dumplings, German potato salad, French fries, pub fries or garlic mashed potatoes) and vegetable (including sauerkraut, sweet and sour cabbage, red cabbage and corn). The salads were small but crisply fresh, with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and radish.
Sauerbraten ($16.50) was an ample serving of beef in thin gravy that added moisture but not much flavor. The meat was crumbly and chalky in texture, with a hint of sourness.
Our three-sausage plate ($12.95) included pale weisswurst, smoked bratwurst and fresh bratwurst. The sausages were watery, as if they had stayed on the boil too long. The flavors were on point, with the mildly flavored veal-and-beef weisswurst and hearty smoked bratwurst especially satisfying.
A fish fry ($9.95) arrived as a decent-sized piece of haddock with a coating soft as velvet. The fish was agreeably flaky but I prefer a crunch with my fry.
Jagerschnitzel ($14.50) was my favorite plate of the night. A pork cutlet pounded out and dredged in fine breadcrumbs had been pan-fried to a golden exterior. The schnitzel was tender inside and crisp at the edges, covered with gravy and canned mushrooms.
Hungarian goulash ($12.50) was my second favorite, fork-tender cubes of beef served over housemade spätzle. The low level of paprika in the sauce made it more of a stewed beef than a proper Hungarian goulash, but it was an amiable dish.
Not winsome enough to overlook the spätzle, however. The noodles had little consistency in size, including pieces from the usual fettuccine-gauge short ribbons to pieces the size of playing cards. That meant inconsistent texture.
Sauerkraut and red cabbage were bare-bones versions, with no detectable nuance from wine or smoke. German potato salad appeared in the form of lumpy vinegared mashed potatoes without noticeable smoky overtones.
Desserts included a Black Forest cherry torte ($4.95) that offered a satisfying melange of chocolate cake, cherries, liqueur and whipped cream.
Banana cream pie ($4.50) offered familiar custard in a prefab shell, in a surprisingly small portion. Apple strudel ($4.50) was fruit filling in a high-rising piece of puff pastry. Cherry and blackberry versions seemed different, not puffy in the least and striped with white icing drizzles like toaster strudel.
The service and speed of my dinner at Scharf's made it more of a diner-style meal. So did the prices, which are certainly a draw. It's not the best German food in town, but as a value choice for dinner, it's not the wurst.
Scharf's – 6 plates (out of 10)
Location: 2683 Clinton St, West Seneca, 895-7249
Hours: 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$13.95; entrees $10.95-$17.95.
Gluten-free: broiled seafood, pork chops, more.