By Sondra Katkin
If you are fond of feasting on fabled German food, the place to eat according to the “New York Times” is Mecklenburg Gardens. And perhaps now is an even better time to try their menu since their new chef, Mark Fullman, has had time to add his signature “tweaks” to the offerings. This modest man said he didn’t do much to the traditional offerings, but when prompted by co-owner Tom Harten, he described using center cuts of angus beef, preparing smaller portions to retain freshness, marinating meat in a special vinaigrette sauce, braising short ribs with a sweet beer sauce until the meat falls off the bones and adding improvements where needed. After five years at the Celestial, where diners expect excellence, Fullman brought his skills and high standards to his new beer garden “gig.” Harten said, “Fullman is really on top of things. He comes up with great specials with quality, consistency and creativity.”
Even though they specialize in succulent schnitzel selections, when told that my husband Steve could not eat gluten, Harten insisted on flourless food for me to take home. The last time I visited, I was treated to the schnitzel a la Holstein. Never having experienced that before, I fell in love with the crispy crust and sweet tender veal. Can anything be improved by plopping an egg on it (except, maybe toast)? Oh yes — its memorable flavor proved a happy harmony. It’s a testament to the chef’s flexibility that he could bring out two other entrees that would be equally impressive. I began with the “baked salmon.” What an unassuming way to list a complex compilation of ingredients. The angular lines of the fish were softened by its colorful presentation with matchsticks of crispy vegetables and red pepper coulis. I tasted tart lemony brightness, followed by the crunch of tender mustard seeds. It’s so much more interesting when you can have both taste and texture. Suits me to a “T.” The fresh, moist fish with the mustard, ginger, horseradish crust combined beautifully with the vegetables for a plentiful portion that satisfied Steve’s and my palate.
I would order the salmon with a delicious potato pancake, another treat I had enjoyed on my previous visit. But then what doesn’t go well with that traditional favorite. You can also have it as an appetizer with caramelized apples and sour cream. Harten commented that “To come in during happy hour (3 – 6 p.m., Monday – Friday) and get a little of Germany, is a very good deal.” Appetizers, including their famous sauerkraut balls and fried pickles, are half off and all alcoholic beverages are $1 off. “We have the largest selection of German beers in Cincinnati and a rotating selection of craft beers, he added. One happy customer noted that the “beer garden allows you to drink…surrounded by vines that have been in place for decades longer than you have been on this earth.” While inside the restaurant, you could almost envision 19th century costumed folks raising beer filled metal tankers, polka dancing and raucous revelry. There are beer dinners once a month with “oompah” music to carry on the tradition. The dark paneling and wall decorations of historic photographs brought in by fond customers form a cheerful background for the convivial atmosphere. Harten reminded me that Bockfest begins the first weekend in February and they will kick start the festival with a keg tapping and full German buffet. I wondered what made bock beer so special? Harten explained that the monks used to make it during Lent. They were fasting but were allowed to drink; so they used more barley making it sweeter, heartier and more alcoholic. I’ll drink to that. Wine lovers don’t need to whine at this historic (c. 1865) beer garden. A newly expanded wine menu is extensive and reasonably priced.
According to commentary in various dining columns, this is an authentic German restaurant with the best sauerkraut in town. Another traditional dish, the sauerbraten is made from the more tender, center cut eye of round, marinated for five days in a red wine vinaigrette then cooked for three hours in its marinade and served with gingersnap sauce, potato dumplings and apple braised cabbage. Chef Fullman explained that, “Little things make a world of difference. Searing the meat locks in the nice flavor, like a jacket for the meat.” Goulash, slow braised beef with big chunks of carrots, celery and onions is served over spaetzle, a German egg noodle — more dumpling than noodle with more odd surfaces to get coated with the gravy. They also serve a spaetzle with cheese, their take on mac and cheese. A diner I spoke to mentioned that the hearty food was especially welcome during cold weather.
Other nontraditional menu items include a marinated portabella sandwich or a “small plate” with the portly mushroom over spaetzle. Other dishes in this category are chicken strudel, beer battered cod, corned beef sandwiches, short ribs and the thick angus hamburger I sampled. The thick and juicy angus patty with its grilled onion topping looked enticing and its beefy flavor was very satisfying. For dessert the chef brought me strudel. Made with phyllo, each layer is “dusted with pecans, almonds and graham cracker crumbs creating a flaky, rich crunch. It encircles the apple raisin nut mixture that bursts with cinnamon flavored juices — just divine. It was so tender, it fell apart as soon as my fork touched it. The caramelized sauce on the side is finger licking luscious. The popular, traditional Mecklenburg pie has been made by the same talented lady for over 10 years. It’s creamy chocolate flavor will not disappoint.
Tom Harten, the face of the restaurant, is easily recognized by his imperial, curly white mustache, another traditional touch. A tall man with a deep voice, he welcomes patrons with friendly warmth. Many are regulars who enjoy the relaxed atmosphere that Harten and his extended family create. He says that Chris Koucky, his nephew and the floor manager, is the reason he can go home to sleep at night, and the whole family helped with the renovations to the site, including replacing the gravel with pavers in the “bier garten.” They also added a large party room for catered affairs. The entry way, a tall windowed floral foyer, is filled with a variety of verdancy. Harten shares my love of gardening. We must bring in as many of our “dependents” as possible. Who better to take care of the garden’s grape vines that are themselves a part of Cincinnati’s history. The hours of operation are Monday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. – 10; Saturday, 5 – 10 p.m.
302 East University Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45219