It was Oktoberfest. It was Highlandtown. It was a big, solid building built as a clubhouse and restaurant for a German-American singing society.We thought we knew what to expect from Eichenkranz, which offered what one reader had praised as "some of the best German food I have had since Europe." From the outside, we could practically smell the sauerkraut and hear the clink of the beer mugs.
Yes, we did find beer. And sauerkraut, and a good apple strudel. Even polka music. But Eichenkranz, built in the '30s and recently reopened after several changes of ownership, looks like, and essentially is, a decorous Continental restaurant. The chairs have pastel tapestry covers, and much of the menu consists of such yuppie-sounding items as "sesame-crusted orange roughy with ginger butter sauce" and "flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis." No beer-hall this.
An appetizer described as "crisp triangles of spinach and cheese with fresh tomato sauce" ($4.50) also defied expectations. The description indicated origins on the Mediterranean coast, not the Bavarian forest, but the reality lay somewhere in-between. This was not a variant on spanakopita. The strudel pastry was tucked around a creamy cheese filling with only a little spinach and a pleasant nutmeg flavor; the tomato sauce was sweetish, with a refreshingly acid edge.
The cream of broccoli soup was pedestrian, and I doubt that real cream played a part in its creation. The crab balls ($5.50) didn't look promising, either. We've been spoiled by fat balls of lump meat, and this was a mushier mixture of cheaper shredded crab. But the flavor delivered.
It was October, and we were really in the mood for German food, so we ordered accordingly, with one item from the house specialties list, another from the daily specials.
A platter of three plump wursts ($10.75) was almost comically robust. The best of the three was the large, pale weisswurst, both more delicate and more distinctive than the knackwurst or the salty bratwurst. From a long list of vegetables I chose the sauerkraut, very pungent and heavily flavored with caraway seed, and lightly browned, dilled red-skinned potatoes. The latter were very tasty, although they weren't dilled, they were "rosemaried."
By way of contrast, the rahmschnitzel ($10.95), a veal cutlet with a paprika cream sauce, had a refined look and a gentle flavor. Too gentle for my taste; both the veal and its sauce were pallid. Once the sauerkraut's juices had leached into the mix, though, the flavor leapt to life, and we finished off the sauce with the fine house pumpernickel.
Where: 611 Fagley St.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays.
Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V.
Features: Continental and German dishes.
Non-smoking section? Yes.