In anticipation of the 1996 Olympic Games, it is only fitting to commend shows of great culinary stamina. Like a longtime marathoner, Eichenkranz Restaurant has come back again and again; in the shadow of its better-known Highlandtown cousin, Haussner's, Eichenkranz serves up wholesome, moderately priced German food. Anyone who reads the menu can learn the details of the Eichenkranz odyssey. It was first open from 1930 to the mid-1970s, then it closed, reopened in 1985, went through several ownership changes, closed again, and reopened six years ago.
Despite its forbidding brick exterior, the restaurant is homey and warm, with none of Haussner's rococo decorating excesses. A simple square dining room is enlivened by a few dark etchings of Germany's most famous castles and, mysteriously, a Japanese fan and a print of Rome. A cozy bar at the back lets regulars watch a little TV and nurse a well-priced beer (German D.A.B. ale sells for an amazing $1.50 a pint).
Eichenkranz, named after a German-American singing society, boasts a broad menu of German and American dishes. The non-German dishes are not all that distinguished, but they are comforting: fried chicken, calf's liver and onions, and crab balls. Stick with the German specialties, even if they're hard to pronounce: schweinekoteletten mit apfeln, hasenpfeffer and sauerbraten.
Entrees come with a choice of two vegetables, many fine German staples. Sauerkraut is pleasantly piquant, dotted with aromatic caraway seeds. Red cabbage is sweet and vinegary. German green beans are served soupy and flecked with bacon -- only a classic German potato salad is missing.
Wiener Schnitzel leads the list of house specialties. It is offered several ways, from a simple version garnished only with capers and lemon juice to a traditional rendition topped with a fried egg and anchovies. All of them start with a thinly pounded veal cutlet that has been egg-battered, crumb-dipped and fried in clean, hot oil. Each serving's ample, sweet, tender veal contrasts nicely with the crisp, golden coating.
The German grill plate is a pan-fried pork cutlet and two enormous sausages, a meat lover's bliss. The cutlet is pleasant enough, but it cannot compare to the mottled brown sausage. This is a coarse-textured wurst of savory meat flecked with black pepper and herbs. The other sausage on the plate is a red, smoked, kielbasa-style link. Both sausages are delicious. They might, however, benefit from a dollop of hot brown German mustard instead of the proffered Dijon and sweet mustards.
Eichenkranz's sauerbraten is really more Maryland-style sour beef than the German specialty, which is more like a stew. In the Eichenkranz dish, small chunks of beef are smothered in a tart, cinnamony sauce and accompanied by two pillowy dumplings. The dish would be better if the beef were not a little mushy.
If you don't finish your vegetables, the kindly, nurturing waitresses might "tsk, tsk" when you order dessert. But if you have room left over, go ahead. Dessert follows the same rule as the rest of the menu: Go German.
Ice cream and cheesecake are fine, but the Black Forest cake and warm apple strudel really satisfy. The former is a wedge of cherry-topped chocolate cake moistened with a splash of rum, and the latter is an unassuming flat disk of pastry enfolding a spicy apple center. It's one of those German inventions that ranks up there with the Mercedes.
611 S. Fagley St.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Credit cards: Major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$7.95; entrees, $6.95-$13.95
Pub Date: 7/18/96