Review: Der Biergarten
Steinfulls of German kitsch downtownMonday December 6, 2010 09:00 am EST
Epcot Center can be fun, if you like that sort of thing. Personally, I'm a fan of the store at the Japan pavilion. There are tons of chopsticks and sakes you can buy. And odd Japanese toys. In the France pavilion, I've found some pretty great soaps and pretty awful food. And in German-land, or whatever they call it, there's a kind of raucous beer hall where you can buy sausages and beer in mugs as big as your head. Which is cool. If you like that sort of thing.
In Atlanta we have little in the way of German food, German beer halls, or places where you can get plates of sausages and head-sized beer-filled receptacles. But Der Biergarten, recently opened on Marietta Street above Rise sushi, has changed all that. The space was formerly the Wine Loft, but now it is brashly, undeniably German. If the dirndl T-shirts for sale at the counter by the door don't clue you in, the raucous yodeling soundtrack will.
Obviously, given the name, the place bills itself as a beer garden, which puts in mind an outdoor space with foliage and beer. But Der Biergarten is more of a beer patio with an inside that feels like the restaurant at a Midwestern Marriot. Or the upscale German restaurant at Epcot. The chairs are the requisite red, and right now the place is gloriously bedecked in over-the-top Christmas ornamentation, including life-size nutcrackers. There's a model train that runs on an overhead track around the dining room. Your kids and your Disney-worshipping in-laws will love it. You might love it, too. If you like that sort of thing.
The chef is Don Diem, who has a long history in Atlanta, including working under Tom Catherall at Tom Tom and then as chef at Noche. Most recently he was the corporate chef for Dolce Group, heading up its Atlantic Station restaurants. Der Biergarten is a collaboration between Wolfgang Hartert, a German native and local businessman, and Legacy Property Group, which owns the adjoined Max's Pizza and Stats sports bar. (Both of those restaurants were started in collaboration with Concentrics, but that partnership has since been dissolved.)
Der Biergarten's food leans heavily to the beige and salty side of things, as one might imagine. Prices are low, especially for the amount of food you're given, and pork is king. This can be gratifying, as with a colossal pork shank, tender and piggy, served over a bed of tangy, thinly sheared sauerkraut. Or it can be a downer. A cured and smoked pork chop is so salty and smoky, its pink interior kind of uniformly boingy, it reminded me of tinned ham. The Wiener Schnitzel lacked any personality at all, its pounded and breaded flesh tasting like ... well, like not much of anything. Thankfully it's served over spätzle, which at its best tastes like a cross between a noodle and the yummy crispy bits at the edge of a pancake. Here, the spätzle has less crisp and is shot through with the funk of Emmenthaler cheese and sweet bursts of caramelized onions. It's a messy jumble of carbs and cheese, and quite addictive although not particularly nuanced.
And that's how a meal here goes — there are carbs, there is meat and there is vinegar. The kitchen often interchanges advertised sides for entrées, but it doesn't seem to matter. Everything is soft and warm and vinegary. There isn't really anything green on the menu, unless you count a tasteless cucumber salad dressed in dill and cream. Sauerbraten, a hunk of roast rump beef, displays a pleasing tenderness and a — yes, vinegary — brown gravy. Warm potato salad topped with bacon crumbles also sports that acid tang. It's all kind of comforting, and good for a few bites, but the sameness, paired with some dishes that totally fall flat, don't make for a particularly thrilling dining experience.
But if you skip the horrendous Reuben rolls (corn beef, cabbage, thousand island and Swiss cheese wrapped in a spring roll), the obatza und frühlingsquark Bavarian cheese spread that tastes like old brie rind, and the mediocre gulaschsuppe that's similar to a watered-down bolognaise, there's hope. Order a wurstplatten — a plate of juicy, fat sausages — and a side of buttery braised red cabbage. Get a liter of beer from the extensive and fun list of German drafts (I particularly liked the Warsteiner dunkel). Be glad that Atlanta finally has a German restaurant, and enjoy your big plate of sausages and a beer the size of your head. Der Biergarten can be a meaty, vinegary, beery good time. If you like that sort of thing.