German food is a culinary landscape I must admit that I know little about. While other ethnic foods and I have become acquainted over the years, Germany’s hearty cuisine has remained somewhat of a mystery to me. My only frame of reference on the culture and cuisine comes from my family’s annual attendance of Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest, one of the biggest celebrations in the country which I fondly remember for huge soft pretzels, chicken dancing, and seeing the massive beer garden. Nowadays, the thought of heavy noodles, sausages, pretzels and beer is enough to make me queasy so it’s kind of ironic that I found my way to Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe in Sanford recently for decidedly German-themed lunch. The occasion? Meeting Jennifer from Celiac in Orlando. Discovering that we both had the Willow Tree on our “to-do” lists for local restaurants, we mutually agreed to give the place a try.
I arrived before Jennifer did and went ahead and grabbed a table on the fan-cooled and covered patio not wanting prolonged exposure to the furnace-like heat of mid afternoon. I informed our waitress that we both were gluten-free and I was additionally dairy free and without missing a beat, she smiled and said the restaurant had an allergy-free training just that morning. Though I still had some questions regarding their food prep, I felt a lot better about their gluten-free friendliness. When Jennifer arrived a short time later, we both caught up while looking over the surprisingly moderate-sized gluten-free menu. While noodles, gravies, and other breaded items are off limits, German favorites such as sausages, schnitzel, and other signature dishes can be adapted to be gluten-free friendly thanks to the use of gluten-free bread (and bread crumbs) that are made in-house and careful practices that lessen the risk of cross contamination. As our waitress explained, the restaurant emphasizes to their staff the importance of getting allergen-free orders right. If something goes wrong, they will find out where the chain broke down.
After comparing the regular menu with the gluten free options, I knew I wanted to try the gluten-free schnitzel to get an authentic taste of German cuisine. The lunch menu featured a schnitzel sandwich which caught my attention, but the waitress informed me that the bread contained dairy after double-checking. Going with plan B, I decided upon a simple chicken schnitzel (lunch portion, sans gravy) with German beans and red cabbage on the side (the dish comes with two sides). After taking our order, the waitress emerged a couple minutes later to let me know that the gluten-free schnitzel batter they use does contain dairy after closer examination and that mine would be grilled instead of battered and pan fried. This small gesture was huge in my book because the double checking saved the lunch from going downhill quickly should I have consumed the dairy products. This serves as a prime example of their commitment to going above and beyond with food allergies.
When it arrived, I was pleased to see that mine looked simple, yet delicious and was the perfect portion for lunch. Starting with the schnitzel, I really enjoyed the grilled outer edge that was perfectly seasoned. The chicken, which was pounded thin, was juicy and light compared to a full-sized chicken breast that is a common “default” gluten-free meal. The German beans consisted of a trio of green and wax beans as well as carrots which were steamed with herbs. While they didn’t have much flavor, they were a good paring with the chicken and were one of the only vegetable side options. The red cabbage, which I’ve had Turkish style at Bosphorous in Winter Park, was completely different than it’s Turkish counterpart because it was cooked with sweet and super tart granny smith apples. At one point, I ate a slice of apple and puckered up thanks to the sour explosion. Though I wasn’t sure about it at first, I really enjoyed it the more I had. But by the time I reached the bottom of the dish, I had my fill of the sweet, tart, and vinegar-y kaleidoscope of flavors.
All in all, I really enjoyed Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe for their service, selection, and wonderful open patio overlooking Sanford’s historic 1st Street. Thanks to all involved Jennifer and I had a great gluten-free lunch and a taste of a cuisine that’s not known for being g-free friendly. I hope someday that they have a bread that does not contain dairy because it looked really good on Jennifer’s sandwich. To see her full review, check out her post on her website.
Ideal For: Lunch, Dinner
Price: Lunch items $15 and under
Accessibility: The restaurant was wheelchair accessible.
Special Features: Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant ahead of time at 407-756-4103. They book up weeks in advance on weekends so reservations are strongly recommended.
Disclaimer: This review is based upon the information I have at the time of the review and does not reflect changes in ingredients or availability of items. Please contact the restaurant directly for up-to-date information and feel free to to contact me with any questions or comments. I was not compensated for this review and it is a reflection of my personal opinion.