When Kristina and Bruno Tomaszewska surveyed their small Lakewood restaurant space, the couple envisioned a simple business featuring the handcrafted European soups Bruno loves to cook.
But Bruno had schnitzel on his mind. And sauerbraten.
And rouladen. And goulash, potato dumplings, spatzle and latkes. And don’t forget the cabbage rolls, cucumber salad and red cabbage. Luckily for German and European food lovers, the menu at Bruno’s European Café evolved beyond soups to a full-service menu featuring daily specials and home-cooked European dishes in more-than-generous entree portions. And the soups and sandwiches they originally envisioned are on the menu, too.
Bruno’s opened three months ago in a tiny space sandwiched between a residential community and a row of businesses along a busy stretch of road.
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It’s a small restaurant. I counted four tables, 18 chairs on my visits. Because the space is tiny, you might be seated next to strangers, which can be adventurous or annoying, depending upon your dining preferences. Kristina gives diners a choice of sitting together or not, and she brings a cheeriness to her job as host that makes a communal dining experience more convivial than awkward. In small cafes in Europe, she said, it’s expected that strangers will dine elbow to elbow. She knows traditions here are different, and she said most diners seem to take the small space and seating arrangements in stride.
Kristina’s the warm, friendly grandmotherly type who takes orders and runs plates from the kitchen (not much running to do, more like 10 or 12 steps from the kitchen). Bruno’s the one in the kitchen – the place where he’s most comfortable, although he made a few dining room appearances to check on diners during my anonymous visits. The couple moved from their native Poland to Germany to Greece to New Jersey (with stops in between). They moved to Lakewood from New Jersey, where they owned a similar small restaurant, 10 years ago after their son moved his family to the area. Bruno formerly cooked his way through Europe, which is reflected in his cuisine.
If Bruno and Kristina look familiar, you might have seen them selling cabbage rolls, latkes and soups at their food booth at the Tacoma Farmers Market, which they intend to continue running when the market opens May 20. Beyond the weekly Thursday market booth and tiny restaurant, they really don’t have aspirations to become a bigger operation. “If you are bigger, you have to be more commercial. He (Bruno) doesn’t want that; we don’t want that. He wants to be more homey, more things from scratch. You cannot hand-chop vegetables and onions if you run a big commercial operation,” said Kristina.
And in a restaurant that’s high volume, it’s difficult to make a daily rotation of different soups every day, especially soup made from handcrafted pickles. Bruno gets the cucumbers from a Puyallup valley farm, then he pickles them in a dill brine solution flavored with garlic and horseradish. Those pickles formed a delicious, puckery base for the soup ($2.75 cup/$3.75 bowl for all soups) along with bits of carrots, celery root and leek, and finished with a splash of cream and fresh dill.
Soups change daily on the menu. Pickle soup is the Saturday special. A daily offering is hangover soup – a rich soup with a smoky base from sausage and ham hock or bacon (or whatever Bruno has in the kitchen that adds that smoky, porky flavor). It’s slow-simmered with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, celery root, leek and finished with dill and sour cream. Mushroom soup, Thursday’s soup, was a creamy soup that fetched a two-fer mushroom punch from button mushrooms in the soup and dried porcinis fueling the broth.
Button and porcini mushrooms also showed up in the gravy for the Jaeger schnitzel ($9.95), one of the most popular dishes on the menu. A pork cutlet was pounded thin, breaded and fried. The cutlet also was as big as my head (and worth the caloric investment). The mushroom gravy, like the soup, yielded mushroom meatiness from chopped button mushrooms, and the broth was flavored earthy by porcinis, an expensive ingredient with which Bruno is generous. Bruno’s schnitzel ($9.95) arrived with the same golden, crispy delicious breaded cutlet, just minus the mushroom gravy.
Sauerbraten ($9.75) is only offered once a week on Saturdays, and with good reason. It’s a dish that takes five days to prepare. Prime beef starts with a long marinade of bay leaves and fresh herbs. After a few days of that, the beef is slow simmered in a pot until fork tender. Gravy is the final step, made from beefy pan drippings and enriched with cream. It’s a rich, satisfying, hearty meal.
Goulash stew (8.95) is similarly slow simmered. But first, beef is seared over high heat, browned, and then slow simmered with bay leaves and a gravy flavored with onions and porcinis, paprika and cream. This is not the tomato-laden paprika goulash you might find in Hungary or Poland, said Kristina. The style is more German. Or, as she explains the brown gravies that are a base for several of Bruno’s dishes, “In German cooking ... the food, it’s very beefy, everything must be brown.”
Cabbage rolls ($7.95) are one of the dishes that put the couple on the culinary map at the Tacoma Farmers market. Cooked cabbage leaves come stuffed with warm ground pork and rice, and covered with a vibrant tomato sauce softened with a splash of cream.
Every entree sampled for this report turned into an oversized plate of food because of the hefty sides. Diners get a choice of one starchy side – German potato salad, potato dumplings, mashed potatoes and spatzle; and a choice of vegetables – red cabbage, sauerkraut or cucumber salad. Can’t make up your mind on the vegetables? Kristina offers a serving each of tart red cabbage and crisp, cool cucumber salad – both colorful, unctuous sides with puckery vinegar bite tempered with a touch of sweetness. There’s sauerkraut, too, if you want it.
For starch choices, the dumplings with mushroom gravy were ethereal puffs of potato and flour that tasted deliciously squishy. The spatzle were wholesome, chewy egg noodles. Mashed potatoes were my least favorite of the starches. They were plainly seasoned compared to the puckery bite of the vinegar-based cold potato salad that’s flavored with nothing more than vinegar, oil and salt and pepper. Yellow potatoes made the potato salad creamy.
The couple has done little in promoting their restaurant. Kristina said it’s been word-of-mouth from customers that has led to lines out the door during weekday lunches (be patient, it’s worth the wait; or consider takeout). “People when they find us, if they’re used to eating European food or grow up there, they talk about how homesick they are. They come to the map (of Europe, in the dining room) and show us where they’re from and point here or there. It’s good to remind people of good times and bad times, they tell us their stories,” said Kristina.
While the couple doesn’t have plans to expand the restaurant in the immediate future to a bigger location, they said they do plan on applying for a liquor permit so they can serve the beverage that is best suited for their kind of cooking: beer.
They also hope to add outdoor seating. “If we could expand our tables outside, that would double our dining room,” said Kristina. She’s checking into it now.
Bruno’s European CaféWhere: 11725 Pacific Highway Southwest, Lakewood Phone: 253-719-7181Hours: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesdays-SaturdaysPLEASE NOTE: This restaurant takes cash, but no plastic.