When you live in a city with an incredible German heritage, people sometimes ask whether it has great German restaurants. Before you suggest the famous one in that Italian city on the other side of the river, remember Mecklenburg Gardens.
Sure, Hofbrauhaus has good beer, but Mecklenburg is a Cincinnati treasure.
Dining under the grape vines in the historic biergarten at Mecklenburg, you can feel the spirits of the Kloppenburgs, the German residents who gathered in the bierhall in the 1880s, who pounded their empty beer steins on the tables to demand refills. Though Mecklenburg doesn’t brew its own beer, the selections are formidable. I picked a Spaten Oktoberfest ($5.50), a nice amber lager that was served in a pint glass, from the 15 beers they have on tap. There are plenty more German choices, including Franziskaner’s Heffeweisse, and Kostritzer Schwarzbeir, a black ale.
The menu has some very good choices, too. I think my favorite on the night of a recent visit were the potato dumplings ($8.50). They’re as big as ping pong balls but not too dense and surrounded by a sea of rich garlic cream sauce, with large slices of sautéed Portabella mushrooms.
The Potato Pancake is the highlight of the Mecklenburg Sampler ($8.50) appetizer. Its onion and pepper seasonings accented but didn’t hide the potato flavor, and the topping was a nice surprise. Instead of applesauce, it was a braise of apple slices with plenty of cinnamon; not too sweet and not too mushy.
I wasn’t as crazy about the other two “samples,” though. The Sauerkraut balls were oddly bland, and considering that sauerkraut is one of the world’s more assertive foods that takes some effort. I think it was overwhelmed by the thick breading. Deep-fried pickles are a popular novelty item right now, and these batter-dipped spicy dill spears were tasty enough, but nothing I’d order again while sober.
I asked my server for an entrée suggestion, and she steered me toward the Weiner Schnitzel ($20). It’s a traditional preparation, with heavily seasoned breading and topped with artichoke hearts and capers in a lemon butter sauce. Veal is one of the most delicately flavored meats and, like the sauerkraut balls, I thought the breading overwhelmed it. Pounding it is supposed to tenderize it, but it was actually pretty tough.
I loved the side dishes, though: warm red cabbage, cooked until soft and tender with apples and cinnamon, and creamy, garlicky homemade spaetzle.
Our other choice, Chicken Strudel ($18), featured flaky puff pastry stuffed with chunks of nicely seasoned chicken breast, spinach and feta cheese. Puff pastry tends to suffer in busy restaurants, but this was very good and I especially liked the nicely al dente strands of carrots, zucchini and yellow squash that came with it, dressed in that assertive garlic cream sauce.
The only thing I’d have changed was the risotto side dish, a bland tomato-based preparation that reminded me of American Spanish rice and didn’t really work. Good old-fashioned mashed potatoes would have hit the spot.
We were groaning from the authentically German-sized (big) portions and had racked up a stack of doggy bags, but we soldiered on to dessert. I liked the Apple Strudel ($4.95), a turnover of sliced apples, lots of sugar and cinnamon and soft raisins, but the too-sweet vanilla ice cream ($1.50) could have been improved.
My date picked the Mecklenburg Pie ($5.25). This dessert is an original that’s had loads of imitations and now is pretty much a bad imitation of itself. It’s current incarnation, which is much less sophisticated than the original “cloud pie,” has the obvious texture of gelatin in the mousse filling and little evidence of pecans in the crust. The best part was the dark chocolate pudding layer. Strawberry jam drizzle was not a good addition.
If you want the real thing, look for the recipe on Cincinnati Magazine’s Web site, where my friend and former CityBeat dining editor Donna Covrett describes its heritage (in which she played a starring role) and its secrets: “A rich confection of chocolate pecan crust, smooth mocha cream filling and cumulus puffs of coffee whipped cream.”
Overall, we enjoyed the evening at Mecklenburg Gardens, and so did the guests at nearby tables, most of whom were catching a free shuttle to the UC football game. I watched Mecklenburg’s owner, Tom Harten, visit most of the tables to chat, and the servers were very busy.
While a new menu is expected soon, they’ll keep the German specialties ... and maybe give that pie a tune-up.
Go: 302 E. University Ave., Corryville
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday
Entree Prices: $17-$20
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of good choices
Accessibility: Fully accessible