By Beth Segal, Special to The Plain Dealer
We might have kicked off with that evergreen hit, “In Heaven There is No Beer”. What better way to introduce Frank Sterle’s Slovenian Country House, the place that polka (and weinerschnitzel) built almost 60 years ago?
But polka is eternal. It will wait. We have a few things to discuss before we dance.
Rick Semersky, a building construction contractor with a soft spot for Cleveland’s heritage and cultural sustainability, rescued the restaurant from probable demise a little over a year ago. That was because, he reasoned, “Sterle’s is one of the things that make Cleveland Cleveland.” He shortened the name to Sterle’s Country House, lengthened the beer list, and brazenly took the waitresses out of their traditional dirndls and into black t-shirts that proclaim, on the back, “Not Your Grandma’s Schnitzel.”
It’s just part of courting a new crowd for Sterle’s, modern urbanists with a longing for old-world charm, but with an updated culinary experience, he said.
All the while taking care of his core constituents, generations of Eastern Europeans who have been coming to this dark-planked fortress of a building for decades for classic Slovenian comfort food and polka.
But, true to the t-shirt, there’s also Not Your Grandma’s Schnitzel, at lunch in sandwiches (all $11) and on occasional evenings, in avant-garde varieties such as Tilapia (sadly unavailable when we visited) and Angus Beef. Proving a good kitchen can schnitzel almost anything, the well-pounded beef was deliciously tender and delicately fried. Lunch also features a condiment bar, serving up a vast array of house-pickled peppers and other vegetables, including a fiery cross-cultural kimchee-like cabbage, to customize your sandwich.
During the summer Sterle’s big backyard, strewn with picnic tables, turns into Szemerszky’s (Semersky’s family’s original last name) Bier Garden. It’s here that Chef Jimmy Gibson can push past the cultural constraints of Sterle’s traditional menu and bring on something for the newbies.
It’s mostly grilling and starts with Bavarian Pretzels ($5), transforming the thick, chewy pretzels into crisp-crusted treats. There are kebabs and sausages, which are fine outdoor fare, but for me the must-have is the BBQ Pulled Veal Po-Boy ($10). Dry-rubbed and slow-cooked to falling-apart fabulousness, it’s napped with a mild, flavorful barbecue sauce, piled on a grilled bun and topped with crunchy vinegar-infused pink cole slaw.
Still, the big event at Sterle’s is still dinner. In a menu filled with classic eastern European comfort foods, you should have the family dinner ($20 per person, with a minimum of two diners) and try three entrees. Just make sure one of your choices is the ethereal Chicken Paprikash: silky braised boneless meat in a rich vegetable-strewn gravy with delicate little dumplings. The sturdy house-made potato and cheese pierogies are a nice foil to the tender poultry. In third place, the Slovenian sausage was fine, but seemed to lack the smoke and spice found in the best varieties. The accompanying house-made sauerkraut was uneven. One night, it was crisp and krauty, another time soggy and “cabbagey.”
Of the three desserts in our two visits, the strudel from Lucy’s was adequate, the lemon squares were institutional, and the torte . . . meh. All need work.
So back to music? Oh yes: “In Heaven There Is No Beer”. Well, on any given Saturday night at Sterle’s, with waitresses whizzing by bearing platters of schnitzel and pitchers of ale, the accordions playing at full tilt and three generations of happy polka dancers on the floor, the hereafter doesn’t seem to matter much — not compared to the here and now.
TASTE BITES Sterle’s Country House
Where: 1401 East 55th St., Cleveland.
•The Country House operates 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; and 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
•Szemerszky’s Bier Garden operates, weather permitting, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Sandwiches, $5-$10. Entrees, $11-$20. Desserts, $5.
Reservations: Accepted, and recommended on weekends.
Credit Cards: All major cards accepted.
Kid-friendliness: Children’s menu serves typical tyke fare, plus pierogies.
Bar Service: Full service, but mostly it’s beer, beer, beer — Eastern European and much more, served in bottles, pitchers and well-priced beer flights.
Grade: * * *
Ratings: One star means fair; 2 stars, good; 3 stars, very good; 4 stars, exceptional. (Zero stars: not recommended.) Plain Dealer reviewers make at least two anonymous visits to each restaurant and do not accept complimentary meals. Read past reviews at cleveland.com/dining