ADAMS — Most first-time diners at Haflinger Haus don’t know what a Haflinger is before arriving at this northern Berkshire County restaurant. Many also don’t have the first clue about Austrian food.
Owner Don Sommer is passionate about his heritage, which leads to nightly crash courses for customers on the nuances of Austria’s cuisine and the country’s second-most-famous horse breed. “The Haflinger is just a very gentle, smart, willing worker,” says Sommer, who has bred the horses for the last 16 years. But he could also be describing his own patient approach to building a loyal following for an unfamiliar cuisine. Since opening the restaurant four years ago, the retired public school administrator has been committed to educating locals and tourists alike about dishes like schnitzel (pounded and breaded meat cutlets) and paprikahuhn (chicken with paprika).
It all happens in an old Georgian-style mansion in a mill town of 8,000 in northern Berkshire county. Haflinger Haus is an inn with six rooms. The spot offers guests tavern and dining room options, walls covered with antique family photographs, and a working fireplace. The restaurant menu offers American choices (New York strip steak, baked haddock), but to play it safe is to miss a food adventure.
For starters, there’s fritattensuppe, a traditional clear soup with chicken, sliced crepes, and chives, or an Austrian salad of mixed greens and potato salad with marinated cucumbers and carrot slaw on the side. Every table should order obatzda, a Bavarian blend of butter and a pungent cheese like a Camembert, served with a warm pillowy pretzel and honey-smoked ham. While pretzels may not scream fine dining, the knotted bread is satisfying fun to pull apart and share.
Then it’s on to the main course, which includes Sommer’s grandmother’s goulash recipe served over dumplings, or slow-roasted pork shank with apple sauerkraut and dumpling.
At least one person at the table should order schnitzel (chicken, pork, or veal), especially the hearty jaeger (hunter) version with dark mushroom sauce.
Equally popular is the chicken paprika, in which cutlets are simmered in a creamy sauce made with the spice Sommer brings back in 10-kilo bags from his trips to Vienna.
Sommer, who has always raised horses, started taking a particular interest in Haflingers 16 years ago on a trip to Europe. That experience marked the beginning of quarterly trips to import and breed the chestnut-colored horses with their distinctive platinum blonde manes and tails. “The horse you hear [about] in Austria is Lipizzaner, but the Haflinger is getting more popular,” he says. “They’re a very easy keeper, living on hay alone.”
It only followed that the inn and restaurant would be named in their honor. Photographs and paintings of Haflingers hang on walls alongside homespun Austrian sayings. Sommer has a horse farm nearby.
Only open for dinner, Sommer runs the inn with a small staff and his two sons and two daughters. Early on, he says, he struggled re-creating authentic Austrian menus so he brought in chef Gerhard Schmid (former owner of The Gateways Inn in Lenox). Schmid spent a year getting the cooks up to speed on the finer points of Austrian fare. “Without him, we wouldn’t have the restaurant,” says Sommer.
The investment has established Haflinger Haus as a popular spot for locals, and Sommer says the dining room always includes newcomers. “When I go around to the tables and ask how people found us, it might be a couple from Cheshire six miles away who say, ‘We didn’t even know this was here, but we’ll be back.’ ”
After a dessert here, the return trip is more certain. Anyone who has been to Vienna knows about Austrian pastries, particularly the apple strudel. A rich black forest cake is also offered, but it’s the flaky layered fruit pastry that makes the Berkshire Hills spot most feel like the Salzburg Alps.
Haflinger Haus 17 Commercial St., Adams, 413-743-2221, email@example.com.