Old German Bar and Bierkeller
A lot going on
by M.B. Lewis
It's not easy to pigeonhole the newest establishment on the corner where Grizzly Peak has built a brewpub fantasyland. On Ashley just off Washington, a hinged little shingle of folksy old world metalwork reads "Old German." Stairs lead down to a jumbled, narrow basement hideaway where big screens show sports. It's under the Den, which anyone who remembers the original Old German may still think of as the Del Rio.
Like the Den, the new Old German partly serves as overflow for the perennially popular Peak. While the name is a tribute to the longtime eatery that once anchored this corner, the "Bar and Bierkeller" is also a trendy drinkers' mashup, with rotating taps of solid brews, decent continental and Michigan wines by the glass, novelty cocktails, and crazy shots. Open less than a year, the new Old German may still be evolving; for now, it's best not to arrive with rigid expectations.
Downstairs, the Peak's crisp and creative beers are supplemented with German-inspired special drafts. They make perfect accompaniments for an array of bratwurst and artisanal sausage sandwiches mainly sourced from Detroit's Eastern Market. Two amazingly affordable "Early Week Specials" are served Sunday through Wednesday: For $4.95, choose a burger or bratwurst patty, both with a side of German potato salad that's more herbed than bacon-vinegary. Baked soft pretzels and dipping cheese give a German flair to munchies-oriented bar fare.
Adventuresome types can try more unusual sandwiches like the Hasenpfeffer (peppered rabbit), a massive helping in a Buffalo-wings kind of sauce--sopping it up is the toasty and tasty little pretzel roll, the best bun in the house. The "Bavarian Banh Mi" of pickles and various meats--liverwurst is in the mix--comes with a sunny-side-up egg on top for a messy but reliably appealing meal in a basket. Sandwiches this ambitious and interesting probably deserve better than a black plastic "wicker" basket lined with a skimpy sheet of paper.
Just a notch up in price--and served on real plates--other Old Country-inspired
offerings still provide great value, with meals under fifteen bucks. Suited for sharing is a charcuterie platter Germanized with liverwurst, ham, and pumpernickel amid its varied cheeses and pickles, including crisp pink and green radish slices. Most colorful plate award goes (surprisingly) to the solid slab of Bavarian meat loaf, stuffed with ham and cheese and browned in a skillet, then flanked with bright green spinach spaetzle (also crisper than the traditional doughy version), and yummy, not-too-sweet braised purple cabbage. The only salad offered is a good one: a filled-to-overflowing bowl of chopped kale dressed in balsamic-mustard vinaigrette and sweetened with hidden treasures of Riesling-poached pear, dried apricots, and walnuts. Topped with pumpernickel croutons and a scoop of red quinoa, it's plenty to share at your booth or a healthy meal for one under nine bucks.
A friend of Austrian descent liked her big smoked pork chops accented by a simple beurre blanc sauce and sauerkraut, and it'd be hard not to love the authentic texture and full fruitiness of the house-made applesauce served alongside a generous order of crispy edged potato pancakes. But the platter-wide swirls of a bland "horseradish sour cream" squiggled over the top lacked the rich flavor that dollops of real horseradish or sour cream could have added to the potato pancakes. I imagined a dancing hand wielding a plastic squirt bottle in the kitchen, doing up the showy flourishes you see on the Food Network.
Meat with cheese is a theme here--Muenster in the meat loaf and on an already rich and delicious chicken schnitzel cutlet that dwarfed its wonderful mini-pretzel bun, Swiss packed into a bratwurst custom-made with Grizzly Peak beer and bacon, and Gruyere atop the sliders. In case you hadn't already concluded that hearty bar food is Job One here, all that cheese is a final clue.
If blaring basketball games on the televisions or music on the digital jukebox overwhelm your attempts at conversation, try asking the cheery servers to turn them down. It helped a bit for us. Then we caved, let the party spirit move us, and decided to sample some flavored schnapps and brandy shots served (quickly) in melting glasses of ice. Prosit to that!
The check had been paid, but we were still there, having digested for long enough that dessert seemed worthy of investigation. Not a bad idea. "Beer-a-misu" turned out to be creamy delish, with flavor more like butterscotch than beer. We considered Grizzly Peak's reliable black-and-tan brownie but went instead with our server's recommendation of chocolate truffle mousse cake. Crusty warm on the outside, soft chocolate on the inside, it was out of this world. I longed for a cup of coffee to sip with it, but, alas, hot beverages are not carried down from the upstairs kitchen, our server explained. I felt her sharing my pain on that--after a nearly three-hour evening that was more than a meal, I had come to consider her a friend as well as a sage advisor.
Within the constraints of its space and its multiple concepts, the new Old German is working hard. Arrive with an open mind, and you may not find it easy to leave.
Old German, 117 S. Ashley
Sun.-Wed. 4 p.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Soup and salad $4.95-$8.95, sandwiches $4.95-$12.95, entrees $12.95-$14.95.
Not accessible (flight of stairs, no elevator)
[Originally published in April, 2014.]