How do you review Christmas dinner at grandma’s house?
Do you pick on the décor — the eight-foot snowman in the foyer, three dozen blushy Santas staring at you from the dining room, the light-up tiny German towns, a kirche here and a feuerwache there?
Do you note the odd shuffle of songs, some collection of Mitch Miller, Borat-style Eastern European polka and classic holiday carols?
Or what of the food? Rindsroulade, beef rolled around spicy mustard, pickles and bacon; or Sauerbraten, beef round marinated in pungent vinegar for days and served in raisin and pumpernickel gravy.
How do you critique Westfalen Hof? I think you start with the white-knuckled drive.
Winding up snowy Coal Creek Canyon on the winter solstice, I’m gripping the wheel like my Dad in traffic on Christmas Eve trying to get to my grandparents’ house before he implodes. The climb continues until we see a chalet lit in Technicolor, the likely product of Christmas seasons past where one string went out and was replaced with “I don’t know, just get blue this time.”
Inside was even more endearing — illuminated only by the light of a churning fire, the dull glow of plastic holiday figurines and the strings of holiday lights. Tables lined a wooden porch with big windows that in daylight show a vast jigsaw of green and blue. At night, the windows reflect the twinkle of holiday decorations in a strangely comforting and familiar kaleidoscopic haze.
We sit in wooden chairs and the floors creak deep and slow with the delivery of each course. First was Koeniginpastetchen, a veal and mushroom ragout served in a flaky pastry grenade. It was rich and warm and savory and begged to not be parsed, just enjoyed.
Then came borscht, beet soup and cream; and German salad — in neat piles, pickled dill cucumbers, and cold corn and carrots retaining a frothy, sweet dressing. It clicked here — we’d walked into a time machine when we walked into Westfalen Hof.
It was a chance to retrain taste buds. Here was the beet, the most reviled dirtbag in the vegetable game, and it was fantastic. Here was dill, my tongue’s oldest enemy, covering cold, tangy vegetables and I loved it. It was as if my grandmother was plopping this onto my plate, adding, “Or else no dessert.” They were carefully crafted comfort food dishes whose recipes had been passed down as heirlooms just in this one home, it seemed, for generations, not to be altered but to be trusted and enjoyed.
In time the sauerbraten and spaezle came, like it had at my grandparents’ house, with red cabbage that had a loving nip of cloves. Last, we had warm apple strudel with cold vanilla ice cream.
Maybe it was the several glasses of Warsteiner and the bottle of Riesling we’d downed, but a visage appeared in the window at the end of the meal. It was the silhouette of a child, looking toward the fireplace, created by the shadow of a cheap figurine in front of an outside light.
I’m looking at the kid in the window, and with the lights and creeking floors; the music and the food; the familiarity of it all, on the week that my grandfather moved out of that house we all used to drive to on Christmas, a house with tiny towns and mismatched outdoor lights and the sauerbraten my brother hated to eat; the silhouette looked like a moment from childhood projected from the past and preserved.
It was worth the trip.