So Frank Sinatra walked into the Bacchanal Room at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, and ordered steak au poivre. He was with his daughter, Tina. She wanted a broiled pork chop, but there were no pork chops on the menu.
What to do?
This was Dieter Bornemann’s dilemma as the chef on duty. The year, he says, was 1966. As he tells the story (think of it as The Bornemann Ultimatum), he quickly procured a pork chop from one of Caesar’s other kitchens, broiled it, and sent it out with sautéed apples and buttery whipped potatoes. Then he mopped his brow.
About twenty minutes later, Sinatra burst into the kitchen. “Who made that pork chop?” the Voice demanded. The only sound was of knees knocking. Finally, Bornemann ’fessed up. Sinatra strode up to him, face to face.
“She loved it!” he declared, and pressed a $100 bill into the chef’s hand.
Bornemann, now 66, serves a version of the dish at the Little Kraut, the German restaurant he opened in Red Bank in 1971 and moved to its present location in 1979. (The menu description does not invoke Sinatra.) These days the meat is roasted pork loin, but the accompaniments are the same.
“Stick with a winner,” he says.
Inside, it could still be 1979, or 1879– and I mean that in a good way. A mahogany bar faces the entrance; the dining room is nearly as narrow as a Pullman car. It is nostalgically appointed with dark wood walls, rows of Meissen porcelain beer steins, and German landscape paintings from the home of Bornemann’s aunt and uncle in his native Cologne.
Bornemann, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, came up with the name Little Kraut. “That’s what people call me behind my back,” he explains. “So why not?”
After culinary school in Switzerland, he cooked in France, England, and Las Vegas before heading east to Spring Lake (at a place now called The Mill) and Red Bank, where he opened Little Kraut in a former luncheonette.
The chef knows his puff pastry, filling strudel-like starters with tasty snails, Brie, or spinach. The clam bisque was unremarkable, but my table devoured the Jersey beefsteak tomato stuffed with large, sweet shrimp in mayonnaise mixed with buttermilk, ketchup, and dill. Nor could we get enough of the balsamic-drizzled scallops wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon. The crispy, silver-dollar-sized potato pancakes, made with a hint of grated onion, were very good, and even better with the accompanying applesauce, sour cream, and imported fresh lingonberries.
Come for the hearty, rustic meat and fowl. Sauerbraten (a beef pot roast) tenderizes for a week in a marinade of red-wine vinegar, pickling spices, and—strange as it sounds—ginger snaps, which add flavor and eventually thicken the sauce. The non-meat eater in my party was pleased with her orange roughy cooked in parchment paper, which sealed in the flavors of the Chablis, herb butter, and vegetables.
The Little Kraut offers several different schnitzels—veal cutlets pounded thin, dredged in flour, and sautéed in clarified butter. I found the Wiener schnitzel in a simple demi-glace reduction a bit spartan. But ham, Swiss cheese, and tomato enlivened the Tyrolean schnitzel. Also good was a free-spirited schnitzel á la Holstein—with lemon, capers, anchovies, and the signature pair of sunny-side up eggs (which are said to resemble the eyes of black-and-white Holstein cows).
I don’t share the chef’s enthusiasm for pork medallions, but his cream-based Calvados sauce is luscious, sparked with baked apple slices and applejack brandy from Monmouth County’s historic Laird distillery.
Bornemann’s Long Island duckling is definitive, with moist flesh and crackling skin. From October to May, he serves Christmas goose stuffed with spiced apples, raisins, walnuts, and egg-enriched croutons.
A German restaurant is only as good as its strudel, and Bornemann’s is a showstopper. The delicate pastry exudes a dense, delicious filling of apples, raisins, and cranberries, which you can barely see under the mantle of fresh whipped cream. The Little Kraut celebrates the way things used to be, mit schlag.—Karen Tina Harrison