Who knew a fella from the Ukraine would be cooking up a storm of authentic German food in Mason. Oleg Makhayev, the owner of Oleg’s Tavern, is a native of Kiev, Ukraine. He’s lived in the States for about seven years and cooked at Jag’s in West Chester before opening his own restaurant last year.
In terms of space, the one-room venue, which includes the hulking shape of a foundation soda drink machine lurking in the back of the dining room, is more like an American chili or burger joint than a tavern. But the latticework on the ceiling did remind me of the grapevines in the outdoor area of Mecklenburg Gardens, and the soundtrack of American tunes with exotic-sounding lyrics in a foreign language created a nice background soundtrack for a relaxing atmosphere. Still, the warmth from the place comes mostly from the graciousness of Oleg himself.
I’ve always been a little geographically challenged, and especially when it comes to today’s Eastern Europe, so I had to do a little research to figure out the German-Ukraine connection. With a quick keystroke I discovered that Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part, in 1941. Before the German invasion, Ukraine was a republic of the USSR, inhabited by Ukrainians as well as people of the Russian, German, Jewish and Polish persuasions.
The traditional food of the Ukraine is a blend of these cultures and includes dishes with enticing names like Varenyky (dough pockets filled with potato or potato and cheddar cheese or sauerkraut) and holubtsi (cabbage rolls filled with rice and ground beef and covered with tomato sauce).
I also discovered that the Dnipro River runs through the country, cutting it half, and the southern border of Ukraine lies along the Black Sea — a fact that helped explain the seafood options on the menu, like Salmon ($14.95) and Stuffed Crabmeat Orange Roughy ($15.95), that caught me by surprise.
I consider myself somewhat of an expert on German fare — my grandma’s name was Alma Brandhorst and the relatives used to wander about the house using odd phrases like “make out the light” as they learned to translate their native tongue into English.
Oleg easily could have given any of my German aunts a run for their money when it comes to German Potato Salad ($2.99), Sauerkraut ($1.99) and some of the other traditional German dishes on his menu, like Werner Schnitzel ($15.95) and Potato Pancakes ($1.99). He is also a master when it comes to the Russian dish Beef Stroganoff ($14.95), which was our favorite.
The night we dined Oleg’s daughter was serving. She was friendly, but daddy ran circles around her. Not only did Oleg cook our dinner but he also came out to give us coffee refills (they don’t have a liquor license yet), bring us one of our entrées and bus the table.
Black Sea or no Black Sea, I was hesitant about the few seafood offerings so I decided to try one as an appetizer rather than an entrée. Along with our Crab Cakes ($8.95) starter we ordered a side of Hot German Potato Salad. My fears about the seafood were correct — while Oleg makes the majority of menu items, these looked pre-fabbed to me and the cakes had a much higher percentage of the starch filler than meaty crab. The potato salad, however, was a vinegar-lover’s dream! While it looked soupier than the potato salad my family makes, it was just as good.
For dinner we stuck with Oleg’s strong suit and ordered the Berlin Style Chicken ($14.95) with mashed potatoes, the Pork Chops ($14.95) with mashed potatoes and the Beef Stroganoff ($14.95), which was served atop spatzle. Spatzle, basically the German version of pasta, is made by forming shapes directly over a large pot of boiling water and then dropping them in and cooking them until they float to the surface.
All our meals came with sauerkraut you wouldn’t recognize if you’ve only had Klausen kraut in a jar. Oleg’s homemade sauerkraut is a deep, rich shade of brown with a much mellower taste than anything I’ve tried from the grocer shelf. It’s easy to see why he offers an Omelet with Sauerkraut filling ($6.95) for breakfast — who wouldn’t want to eat this stuff at every meal!
My pork chops were thick, center-cut chops topped with a cream-based mushroom sauce. They were garlicky and good. My husband’s chicken, pounded thin and served with a brown sauce, was tender, but the sauce was a bit over-salted. My step-dad’s beef stroganoff, on the other hand, was nothing short of perfect. The fork-tender meat over the little spatzle twists made an excellent winter supper.
We skipped dessert, which was German Chocolate cake, but only because we were stuffed to our eyeballs and Oleg’s daughter confessed that they had run out of time to make the dessert themselves that day. That’s OK, I’ll go back and get it the next time. If it’s like the rest of the Eastern-European foods on the menu, it’ll be worth the wait.