Let's speak German
At Hop Angel Brauhaus, the brats and brews are back, the diners happy.
The city's modest repertoire of German specialties was getting something of a booster shot one night last week at the new Hop Angel Brauhaus, successor to the venerable (which is not to say universally applauded) old Blue Ox Brauhaus, which poured its last Bavarian beer more than four years ago.
In the intervening time, a short-lived bistro inhabited the bones of the old, stone-faced hall, whose lineage can be traced to 1683. But it wasn't a good fit, and never really caught fire.
You can't - at least in this corner of Fox Chase, apparently - sling schnitzel and potato pancakes for decades and expect (especially at the same address) that there'll be no residual hunger for the stuff.
So, though the food was having trouble some nights emerging from the kitchen as piping hot as some returnees wished, they were nonetheless happy to be reunited with their favorite Deutsches Spezialitaten: The menu groaned under nutmeg-scented bratwurst, and juicy white veal sausages (imported from across the street at Rieker's, the incomparable German butcher); and sauerbraten, the braised pot roast; and schnitzels with regional accents.
If there was one first impression, though, it was that the menu tilted heavily toward heavy, the veal cutlet jaeger schnitzel indelicate under a "wild mushroom Hunter Sauce"; a platter of bratwurst, roasted pork shoulder, and tender, if salty, smoked pork chop fit for a trencherman. (A lunch menu seemed more restrained.)
Such vegetables as appeared needed some work. The sauerkraut, this particular evening, lacked the braising with beer and onion, bacon and potato, that can elevate it from a bagged product to an Alsatian delicacy. Ditto for the red cabbage, which needed more stove time (and more brown sugar or sliced apple). The German potato salad? Where's the vinegar?
The chef, Matt Hartnett, formerly of Slate near Rittenhouse Square and Caribou Cafe, had ambitions, he said, once the ship was steadier (it was still in what amounted to rehearsals last week). He wants to pickle eggs for the bar, where the taps were still handleless a few days ago. He's poking around Chadds Ford for old chardonnay barrels to ferment cabbage for his sauerkraut. There was talk about smoked paprika and smoked meats.
The bar had lost a bit of its Old World flavor; the sculpted, but impossibly corrupted, ceramic tap heads were gone, dispatched by the new owners - Mike "Scoats" Scotese and Patrick McGinley, the brains behind the estimable Grey Lodge Pub in Mayfair, which they still operate. But its draft list was already up to a dozen, replete with "black beers" (as dark as Guinness, but lighter-bodied and brighter); smoky rauchbier, harking to the days when malts roasted in wood-fire kilns; mellow wheat beers; and local craft titles from Sly Fox, Dock Street, Stoudt's, and Victory.
As the night wore on, camaraderie picked up in the old haunt. Mike Malloy, a local contractor, lapsed into a reverie about childhood summers spent routinely playing three ball games a day. Steve "The Pickleman" Slutsky blew in in full Rod Stewart hairpiece, hawking bottles of hot pickle chips and creamy Zayda's horseradish. Far more circumspectly, Ron Castille, the state Supreme Court chief justice (who lives in Rhawnhurst), slipped in for a nightcap.
It was too soon to tell, of course, if this latest Fox Chase brauhaus would benefit from the vibe of its brauhaus antecedent - or suffer by comparison with (or by association with) the bygone Blue Ox.
But it was a satisfying sight, in any event, to see this historic patch of Oxford Avenue dip back into its old foodways; to get back in touch with its quiescent, beer-loving inner German.
Hop Angel Brauhaus
7980 Oxford Ave.