One by one, the plates emerged from the City Tavern's kitchen -
soup with a kiss of sour cream, and a salty, pink slab of
, a sweet pork loaf, overlaid with a sunny fried egg; and pan-seared
veal bratwurst (scented with chive), and
, a tripod of seasonal sausages (mild weisswurst, bacony Allgauer, and a beef number) over mashed potatoes and imperative German weinkraut.
I'd asked Walter Staib, the tavern's manic proprietor, for a preview of his Oktoberfest menu, which you can sample yourself starting today, and through October. (His colonial-style fare will continue, as well.)
What I'd asked for, actually, was a few
. But Staib doesn't do bites of this stuff; he does trenchers. By the time I arrived he'd gotten Marcus Rieker, the German butcher in Fox Chase, to make him an advance batch of his exquisite seasonal sausages and smoked pork chops, bribing him with fresh-baked chocolate mousse cake: He did not go to all this trouble to offer up a mere taste.
He'd even procured extras of the giant yellow tins of the imported Mildessa-brand sauerkraut he dresses up with the traditional apple, onion and bacon. Why is it so much better than American-style? It's from a special cone-shaped cabbage, he said, its core less prominent, its leaves far finer, from near Stuttgart. Then it's shredded more thinly, and soaked in sour-mitigating white wine.
It has always been a mystery to me that in a city so rich in German heritage, Philadelphia has so little of it in evidence. Pennsylvania Dutch (for
) farmers do their cameos at the Reading Terminal Market. But Germantown, the nation's first permanent German settlement (of 13 families of German Quakers and Mennonites in 1683), lost its accent long ago. And I'll venture that few passersby know that the hulking gray hall at Sixth and Spring Garden is the German Society, founded in the 1700s to aid poor German immigrants who were obliged - as my own forebears were - to work off their passage to America as indentured laborers.
Even more notable has been the almost total extinction of German-inflected cuisine. (The list of Japanese eateries, by contrast, takes most of a page in the 2008 Zagat's.) One of the last German restaurants - the stuffy Hoffman House on Sansom Street - went dark years ago. Ludwig's Garden, onetime home of tall, heady hefeweizens and Bavarian lager, has dried up. And the landmark Blue Ox Brauhaus in Fox Chase changed hands, reemerging as Blue Ox Bistro, its ambivalent menu now featuring just a smattering of German specialties.
So I make keen note of the surviving Mohicans. In Mayfair, there's Haegele's Bakery, known for its German holiday cookies (215-624-0117). And the Old Guard House Inn in Gladwyne, where German specialties - wiener schnitzel, and pork schweinepfeffer with red cabbage and spaetzle - supplement its crab cake and lamb chop stalwarts (610-649-9708). And Rieker's Prime Meats in Fox Chase, the wondrous German butcher shop (215-745-3114). (Maia, the Villanova newcomer, is offering its first Oktoberfest menu paired with malty fest beer from Downingtown's Victory Brewing Co., (610-527-4888).
Other German-style beers, the wellspring of Oktoberfest, need only be imported from Adamstown, Lancaster County, the home of Stoudt's Brewery and its pitcher-perfect medium-bodied Fest brew. A Philly Oktoberfest (
» READ MORE: www.phillybeerfests.com
), at the First City Troop Armory, 22 S. 23d St., on Saturday, is promising 50 bottled imports, including Munich's renowned Augustiner
. And the German-American Chamber of Commerce is hosting a German wine-tasting at the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel, Sept. 30. (Details and other local culinary events are at
» READ MORE: www.GermanAmericanDay.org
It is the most ambitious agenda in years, a second look at the often-caricatured German festival: "It's about the food," City Tavern's Staib intones, "not about the
And, well, yes, it is still certainly about the beer.
138 S. Second St.
» READ MORE: www.citytavern.com