Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Rathskeller

Last month found us at Amici’s for my birthday, and this past Friday night found us at the Rathskeller for the anniversary of Amy’s arrival on earth. I’ve been to the Biergarten for music a few times, but this was the first time we had actually gone to eat dinner (we wound up coming back for the music, but more on that later - and it was somewhat surreal). We arrived a little bit early for a 6:30 p.m. reservation and were seated immediately. Amy was quite taken with the design of the interior - the restaurant occupies part of the lower level of the Athenaeum, on the southeast corner of New Jersey and Michigan Streets, where Mass Ave bisects that intersection. Other tenants of the building - which was designed by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather - include the American Cabaret Theatre and the YMCA.

While we looked at the menu, we noshed on a trio of rolls (white, wheat, wonderfully subtle dark pumpernickel rye) and a salted soft pretzel in the bread basket that came out with the glasses of water. We also ordered the Pesto French Bread ($6.95) for an appetizer, a small loaf of French bread smeared with pesto spread and covered with parmesan and provolone cheeses and baked in the oven. It came out piping hot - soft and chewy and very flavorful. I could taste both the cheese and the pesto, which is sometimes tough to pull off because of the inherent strength of pesto.

Amy had sauerbraten ($21.95), a roast beef dish prepared with a top secret marinade and finished with brown gravy "accented with tones of currants and ginger." The flavor was both bright and dusky at the same time, sweet and strong - and yet despite a somewhat heavy portion of sauce on top, the meat tasted dry, like a brisket pot roast that’s been in the oven too long. Once meat has gone around that bend, you can sauce it until the cows come home (so to speak), and it will still be dry. I suppose the flavor of the dish makes up for it, but...that’s still a little bit bush league. Amy liked it, though, so that’s probably the important part. Entrées come with two sides and a salad, and Amy had applesauce and a potato pancake. I had the potato pancake with my meal, and it was adequate - palatable but unimaginative, and nothing to write home about.

I went with sausage, specifically the Mixed Wurst Platte ($22.95), which is exactly what it sounds like - a plate full of sausage. German wiener, bockwurst, bratwurst, and kielbasa on a bed of sauerkraut, with horseradish and dijon mustards on the side. All were very finely ground, firm and flavorful - none of that gristly Johnsonville nonsense. This is the real deal - and the mustards were amazing. They were on the spicy side, and the flavor was extremely powerful - like Grey Poupon or Gulden’s turned up to eleven. For those who enjoy sauerkraut, the Rathskeller has the best I’ve ever tasted. Too often, sauerkraut is an overpowering science project testing the outer limits of how much vinegar the human body can absorb. Here, however, the flavor is light and tangy without knocking you down. My other side was German potato salad - a warm, sweet, tangy affair that probably could have been tossed a bit longer to get all of the ingredients completely mixed up together.

I also opted for the soup of the day instead of the salad, and this was a wise choice. Our server helpfully pointed out that we could substitute the soup for the salad with our entrée, a bit of trivia that the printed menu omits. Last Friday’s choice was house-made shrimp and crab bisque. I didn’t taste any shrimp, and the crab may actually have been krab, but it was a thick, hearty soup and could have come out of a box and it would have been better than the fairly pedestrian side salad looked.

You don’t have to settle for German food if you’re not in the mood for that, as the menu contains plenty of beef, chicken, seafood, and pasta choices. The vegetarian choices leave something to be desired, however. The Vegetarian Plate consists of your choice of five items from the “accompaniments” list. This is the same way you build a veggie plate at Cracker Barrel, but whatever. I wasn’t drinking that night, but the beer menu goes on for pages and pages, and most of the choices are unpronounceable. That’s probably a good thing - although I’ve never really gotten into the hard-core German beer scene.

Anything noted above that sounds like a quibble is a minor one. Everything - especially that pesto bread - came out hot, everything was right, the service was excellent, and the portions were goodly sized without being excessive. The Rathskeller’s not a cheap date, but it’s pretty satisfying for the price - not the kind of place those without golden parachutes would dine at very often, but definitely worthy of a return trip in the future.

Now...about the music. Local pop/rock band Peal was set to play at 9pm in the banquet room adjacent to the long narrow dining room you enter when you walk down the stairs and into the restaurant. I don’t recall how I heard about Peal, though I think it was from hearing one of their songs on a Paste magazine sampler CD. I found out that they were a local band and started to keep my eye out for where they were playing. We got back to the restaurant around nine and went in and took a seat. A banquet was ending and Peal was doing a rudimentary sort of sound check (at least on some of their instruments, but more on that in a moment), and then they just launched into the songs.

Unfortunately, they had the lead guitar player turned so far up that you could barely hear the singer's voice - he also plays rhythm acoustic/electric guitar - or his guitar, unless he was slashing through chords sort of like Pete Townshend. I couldn’t tell if the lead guitar player noticed this or not, but he did keep fiddling with his dials on the floor. However, as they played on and I started to go the little bit deaf you start to go when you're listening to music that’s too loud for the space it’s being played in, I could start to hear the singer a bit better. I don’t know the band well enough to recognize more than a handful of songs from the one record of theirs that I have, but I like the basic pop-rock sensibility. For those who are familiar with Rebuilt, Peal has a similar feel to their music - with the notable difference being that Peal’s lead guitar player is talented.

Now for the surreal part, preceded by an annoying part. A little less than an hour into their set, the singer switched from his acoustic/electric to a straight electric guitar - for, you know, more noise in an already noisy enclosed space. It also seemed as though that particular instrument was not included in their rudimentary sound check. The singer clearly noticed this and somewhat frantically tried to get his volume adjusted and his tuning corrected, but I don’t know that he quite managed it. They played two songs that way and then took a break, and that was when Amy and I split. I didn’t recognize the first song, but the second was a cover...of “In The Meantime,” by Spacehog.

Yes, that “In The Meantime,” by that Spacehog. I have no problem with the song, in and of itself. I just never thought that I would ever hear anyone covering it. More surreal than that, though, was the middle-aged black dude with the derby hat who got up with his wife and danced during the Spacehog cover. There is no way I could ever have conceived of seeing that particular spectacle, no matter how much time I spent trying to think it up.

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