Things didn’t start out well on my trip to Sanford last weekend. When I arrived at my intended destination, Chianti’s, a new pizza and pasta place, I discovered a wedding party in the center of the small space. Not a reception gathering — they actually held the wedding ceremony there. Some other time, I said as I left. I didn’t know the couple, so I didn’t want to be a part of their celebration.
Let’s head over to downtown, I said to my dinner companion. A new restaurant, the Breezeway, in the space that was previously occupied by Two Blondes and a Shrimp. It was busy, which may be why no one acknowledged us as we stood inside the front door. But while we waited, I looked over the menu that was sitting on the bar. Appetizers of fried mozzarella cheese and deep-fried breaded mushrooms? I was hoping for something a little better than that. And since we still had not been greeted, we slipped back out and stood on First Street.
Across the street and a few doors down, another restaurant was all abuzz. Let’s go check out the Willow Tree Cafe, I said.
It’s been years since I’ve been to Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe. Seven years, by my reckoning. In that time, the restaurant has won accolades as a favorite for its German food, and it has also tripled in size. And that doesn’t include owner Theo Hollerbach’s latest project: a market and deli a few doors away.
The place was packed, and I was sure the wait would be too long. But we must have arrived at just the right moment because a table opened up and we were seated right away.
Willow Tree has the effect of being a large, open dining area, but there are really three sections, not including the outdoor patio, which has fairly substantial seating. The original restaurant space is in the center and still has the original black and white tile flooring. Over the years, Hollerbach took over the storefronts on either side of the restaurant and opened them up, adding a bar area in one of them.
Dining at the Willow Tree is a little like being inside one of the Oktoberfest beer tents in Munich. The crowd is loud and boisterous, the music beats a constant oom-pah-pah, and the end of one rambunctious prost! at the table next to you will likely be followed immediately by another across the room. The main difference between Sanford and Munich is that, from my experience, the food at Willow Tree is better than anything I ever had in one of the beer tents in Germany.
I started, as I usually do, with an order of potato pancakes. There were three of them on the plate, each just under about a half inch, and served with both sour cream and applesauce (I hate it when restaurants make you choose just one or the other). The pancakes were firmly textured, meaty with grated potatoes and just a bit of filler, and pan fried to a speckled brown. They went quickly, supplemented by some of the assorted breads in the basket that had been placed on the table by our server.
For my entree, I chose, as I usually do, the schnitzel Holsteiner, a veal cutlet, pounded thin, breaded and sauteed, topped with capers, anchovies and a fried egg. The veal cutlet was much larger than the three anchovies, but they topped the list of flavors with each bite. I loved the fried egg, too, and wished I could have stretched the runny yolk to include it in more bites.
My friend had the eisbein, a foreleg pork shank served atop “heaven & earth” potatoes (mashed potatoes with onions, bacon and bits of apple) and surrounded by sauerkraut, extra tangy with a vinegary bite. (Hollerbach told me his secret for his sauerkraut: he buys prepared kraut and rinses it clean, then adds his own seasonings.)
I had a choice of side dishes to accompany my schnitzel. I chose, as I usually do, red cabbage and spatzel. The red cabbage, supplemented with apples, was good. So was the spatzel, but I was served the cheese dumplings instead of just plain spatzel, which I prefer.
All through dinner, the crowd was entertained by Jimmy & Eckhard, a lederhosen-wearing, accordion-playing and bell-ringing duo of impressive talent. Yes, I said it: I enjoyed listening to an accordion player. Even more, I loved the fiddle-playing kids of one of the duo who joined their father on the stage. The young boy and girl were both very good, but when the son (14 years old? I’m guessing) did a solo turn with a fiddling frenzy, the crowd went crazy.
And then I realized that I had ended up at Willow Tree Cafe because I didn’t want to be part of some strangers’ wedding party, and here I was in a party atmosphere with a couple of hundred strangers anyway. But here I wasn’t an outsider, I felt like I was part of the celebration. You will, too.
After dinner, I got a peek at Hollerbach’s Magnolia Square Market. I’ll tell you about that soon.
Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe is at 205 E. 1st St., Sanford. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Here’s a link to willowtreecafe.com. The phone number is 407-756-4103.