'I just saw the menu," said Frank, sidling up to my desk with a glow of pure excitement in his eyes, "and it's very traditional!"
This may be hard to believe, but "traditional" menus - especially those laden with German heavyweights like schnitzel and wurst - aren't always a hot sell for some of my occasional dinner companions. But for my friend and colleague Frank, a German expat from Wiesbaden, the mere prospect of a juicy brat, a hearty bread dumpling, or a deeply tangy sauerbraten is enough to stir the warmest memories of childhood family meals.
I can only imagine that that is how Fox Chase old-timers must have felt when they first learned that their old Blue Ox, the 17th-century stone bastion of spaetzle and lager that's long been one of the neighborhood's cornerstones, was about to be reborn under new owners with a strong reaffirmation of its German roots as the Hop Angel Brauhaus.
But I sure hope their first bites didn't bring the same crestfallen look that quickly darkened Frank's face. With a silver-haired showman on an electric piano belting out "Danny Boy" and "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" in the bar beside us to a gathering of local pols, our meal in the side dining room brought forth from Frank a litany of complaints.
They began with wistful ruminations on some lacking fine points (as in, "my grandmother used to add fresh croutons to her potato soup"; or, "the wursts' exterior should have more snap"). But it quickly devolved into a full affront to his basic Teutonic sensibilities.
The red kraut: "It's pink."
The sauerbraten: "It isn't sour at all. And I don't see any raisins in the sauce."
The "semmelknoedel" bread dumpling: "Definitely not like the delicious bread dumpling my grandfather used to make."
Actually, Frank was being kind. The gnarled and dry brown puck appeared so much like a knobby hunk of bark, it looked like it had fallen off a very old tree.
But at least the beer is good, right, Frank? He began shaking his head as I held up a tall glass of dark Celebrator, the legendary Ayinger doppelbock, and delivered his verdict with deadpan disgust: "No head."
He was correct, of course, that my beer (all of our beers, in fact) had been hastily poured without even a wisp of celebratory froth. It was a beer-geek detail, perhaps, but also a surprise, given that the Hop Angel is owned by the folks behind the Grey Lodge Pub, the pioneering (and reliably good) beer bar that brought serious brew culture to Mayfair 17 years ago.
It should follow that Grey Lodge guru Mike "Scoates" Scotese and his manager partner here, Patrick McGinley, are the perfect choice to revive this institution in another corner of Northeast Philly. But it may prove to be a bigger challenge than expected. Under the tutelage of Scoates (creator of the Lodge's legendary "Friday the Firkinteenth") I have no doubt the Hop Angel's dozen taps will eventually fine-tune its top-notch German-centric selections, becoming more seasonal (why all the summery wheat beers in winter?) and get away from the one-size-fits-all flutes we were often served.
The 1683 building, a restaurant since the mid-20th century decked with stone masonry, leaded windows, funky corners, and ornately carved wooden columns depicting a German grape harvest, seems tailor-made to once again channel the oompah spirit after some years when the menus went astray.
I'm a bit less confident, however, that the kitchen run by chef Matt Hartnett can take advantage of this golden opportunity to help revive the nearly disappeared German tradition in the comfort corner of a city where it was once commonplace.
The best reasons to come here (and there are some) are rooted in the products this kitchen had little to do with other than reheating: the masterful sausages and lunch meats from Illg's Meats in Chalfont. Whether it's the nutmeg-tinged Nürnberger brat, the deeply smoked and beefy knackwurst, the garlicky red Hungarian, or the soft veal weisswurst, these sausages were spot-on authentic. The big smoked pork chop, reheated on the grill for the bayerische platte, was simply amazing, moist and pink from the sweet tang of slow oak smoke.
The veal schnitzel, as well, is also reliably tender, with a buttery crisp to its crust - as long as the sauce doesn't ruin it. The rich mushroom gravy for the jaeger schnitzel was inoffensive. The egg-and-caper preparation for "à la Holstein," though, was so pungent with anchovy, it tasted as if it were dipped in some brackish back bay.
Hartnett comes from some German heritage, but his cooking experience is largely French. It played to his disadvantage with his interpretation of sauerbraten, cutting the meat's brine time too short, then braising the meat in fresh wine (not the sour marinade), which, on the whole, denied the beef its traditional deep tang and fall-apart tenderness.
Other slow-cooked meats were similarly bland - like the chewy roasted pork shoulder (schweinebraten), and a dark beer-braised pork knuckle (schweinshaxe) that was unsatisfyingly dry. Better to stick with something far more basic, like the Hartnett family recipe for meat loaf that I loved, its sliced bricks of ground beef, veal, and pork goosed with bacon then crisped in clarified butter, and topped with a fried egg.
A reluctance to push the pickling also shortchanged a couple of key sides. Both the white kraut and the red (or was that pink?) lacked the zing to let their other good flavors shine through - with caraway, allspice, clove, and lard (not the usual bacon) seasoning the white; apples, mustard seed, and brown sugar mellowing the red. The German potato salad was also off-register, with too much of a vinegar ping, chased by the dusty aftertaste of herbs.
We fared far better with the spaetzle, the squiggly dumplings crisped at the edges that offer the perfectly cushioned noodle comfort to any wurst. The potato dumplings, as well, were a delight, with a delicate, crisp exterior and surprisingly fluffy mashed centers.
I say "surprising" only because the made-to-order potato cake appetizer was so awful, a lacey latke carelessly cooked in what seemed to have been a dry pan that didn't just taste scorched, but exuded the odd aroma of fish.
Other starters, beyond the Vesper platter of smoked meats, and the good liver pâté, were equally disappointing. A pureed cauliflower soup special was thin and full of stemmy fibers. The onion soup was greasy. A crock of littleneck clams were perfectly baked, but their buttery broth (with no extra seasoning added) was virtually tasteless.
The best starters were inspirations of kitchen fusion, like the pierogi made from Alsatian pizza dough stuffed with apples, kraut, mushrooms, and herbes de Provence. Or the deep-fried "Hop Tots," which were essentially croquettes stuffed with milled Hungarian brats and potatoes touched with brandied cheese.
"I've never seen these in Germany," grumbled Frank.
He had by now, of course, turned irreversibly contrarian. But the rest of us knew a stroke of German American bar-food fusion brilliance when we saw it. And so, with a hunger for something nice amid a meal of disappointments, we pounced on those tots accordingly.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Zinc Bistro à Vins. Contact him at email@example.com.