[Pigging by Wilfrid: April 7, 2008]
Hungry? You will need to be for this. What better for a cool evening than hunks of braised meat and icy Pilsner?
So, intent on exploring the biergarten which opened a short walk from Bedford Avenue at the beginning of the year - before the summer crowds swarm it - I headed for Radegast Hall.
For some reason, "Radegast" is a word I find impossible to type without error. I had the same problem with "Wittgenstein", and writing a finals paper on his philosophy was torture for that unforeseen reason. Let's call it the Hall, a place where many young Williamsburgers are having a ball.
Believe me, a full range of hipster hats are in attendance, along with hair crafted with endless ingenuity and expense to appear tousled and edgy. But none of this need distract from the beer menu, which is extensive and focussed, as expected, on German and Belgian brews served in a bewildering variety of large, small, long or squat mugs.
There are fifteen drafts. I found the Radeberger Pilsner light in flavor, and much preferred a Gosser Pilsner, crisp enough but with a little honey on the finish. The Kostritzer Schwarzbier ia another good choice, malty but not cloying. I didn't get into the list of almost forty bottles. The wines are much less interesting.
There are two sections to this vast space. The huge interior room, where a more-or-less dumbbell shaped bar can be approached from all sides and is surrounded by ledges, counters, tables, and wooden booths, and an equally huge courtyard, containing long communal tables, warmly enclosed still but with a roof which will vanish when the sun commences to shine.
There are two places to go for food: the menu, which is served on regular tableware at bar or tables, or a grill station at the distant end of the courtyard which dispenses sausages, chops, burgers and fries in little cardboard boxes. Female servers sport dirndls with abandon. Male bar-tenders, most of whom seem familiar with the movie Cocktail, spin shakers and bottles and pour shots into glasses from above their heads. The mood is animated. After midnight, I'm told, it's wild. And I believe it: the beer is strong.
Until ten, anyway, I was able to hear myself comfortably enough over a bizarre mix of oompah, mariachi, tango and indistinct plaints, described by a shot-pourer as Gypsy music. He also described the bar as "Central European" rather than Germanic, despite the large, glowering portrait of a Kaiser and an Austrian Emperor which stares disapprovingly form the wall. You have to approve the food, though, which could be a carb-heavy, stomach-lining blandfest, but is actually much, much better than it needs to be.
From the short menu, the quail appetizer was an obvious choice. Small birds, well-braised in a distinctively cranberry-accented dark beer sauce. Finger-licking, and served with properly charred strips of grilled asparagus.
Tempted by a rabbit liver pâté, I decided something other than meat should be ordered, and tried the smoked trout salad instead. I admit, I'd hoped for slices of fish with perhaps a green leaf or two: but this is a true salad, the trout flaked into it for flavor. Notably fresh and bright too, with slices of radish for texture.
Meat 'n' fruit is not to everybody's taste, and you are welcome to disdain it. But its authenticity is not to be denied, and a taste for it ranges through northern Europe, from reindeer and lingonberries in the frigid north, to game with fruit sauce and noodles in Schwaben, where Germany descends toward the Swiss border. Indeed, I well remember ordering a hamburger for lunch in a restaurant in Freiburg, and being startled by the sweetness of the jam which accompanied it. It's entirely proper for the Hall to play on this combination, and they do it well: here pork loin is stuffed with soft prunes and tied into a roll (you can see where the string went, and indeed I managed to eat a piece). The sauce was similar to that which attended the quail, with prune substituted for cranberry. The meat was tender and plentiful. The gnocci too, if not prize-winningly light, soaked up the juices appropriately.
The rabbit provided a contrast to the sweet quail and pork. The sauce was savory, oniony, and there was sage on the plate somewhere. The red cabbage had some welcome acidity, and the crisped slices of potato dumpling were mealy in a nice way. I confess, I did wonder what happened to the legs: this was the saddle, long-cooked, very soft, and no drier than domestic rabbit will always be. A well-balanced plate.
I have drunk German brandy from Hamburg to Frankfurt to Konstanz, and like its full fruitiness and touch of vanilla. I haven't noticed the Asbach Uralt in New York before, although my server told me its sold in Fanelli's - who knew? A digestif was certainly in order.
Monitor the Hall right here.