A Place to Stand By
The Traditional Suits Dependable East Side German Dining Room
Located on a Highlandtown side street on the fringes of what real estate developers are now calling Brewers Hill, Eichenkranz (611 S. Fagley St.,  563-7577) offers reassuringly homely dining in an inexorably changing landscape. Finishing touches are being put to $400,000 townhomes right next door, and rising property values can almost be felt bursting through the sidewalk. But all is calm in Eichenkranzís square dining room.
The nicest thing about Eichenkranz, which bills itself as Baltimoreís only German restaurant but augments its menu with classically humble restaurant fare, is how well it treats its loyal customers. Older customers, in particular, are handled with affection, tenderness, and something approaching grace. A lovely older woman, who often takes her lunch alone at Eichenkranzís bar was joined there on a recent weekday by a man who courted her 60 years ago. He had seen her car parked outside--he carries a picture of her as a teenager in his wallet.
In truth, Eichenkranz feels like a place for old folks. Itís neat and tidy, not especially pretty (it reminded one companion of the lunchrooms of his native Midwest). Repeated renovations to the old stone building have restored propriety but not history. Windows are sealed off, and whatever graceful details the interior once had remain obscured. It evokes nothing German. But what happens to Eichenkranz as people move into the neighborhood with their expectations for historic renovations--and for more up-to-date fare than is being served here now--is worth worrying about.
The German food at Eichenkranz is given serious due. The menu lists sauerbraten, various versions of schnitzel, wursts, pork chops with apples, duck en casserole, rolled steak, and even hasenpfeffer. The wary diner sees rabbit on the menu and prepares himself for the inevitable "weíre out of that tonight," but to its enormous credit Eichenkranz was serving all of its offerings on a torrid Sunday night.
About that rabbit ($14.95): Eichenkranzís version does admirably little to train down the inherent gamy flavor of the meat, and no amount of culinary magic would yield more succulent meat than this one did. It would be easier to recommend if the red-pepper wine sauce coating it hadnít been such an unfortunate shade of gray, one which suggested too much about the rabbitís life cycle.
The sauerbraten ($10.95) had sauce problems as well, too much of it in proportion to the amount of cubed beef and potato dumplings. There was an arousing, curious play of puckering flavors in the sauce but nothing that the tongue could identify as the gingersnap gravy described on the menu. The meat itself didnít quite pass the fall-apart-in-the-mouth test, and the potato dumplings had good flavor but not the promised fluffiness. They were too dense.
Better than these was the schnitzel Eichenkranz ($13.75), one of four variations on the classic German veal cutlet, in this instance with smoked ham and melted cheese. (Other versions come with capers and lemon, mushroom gravy, or a fried egg and anchovies.) This pleased with its pure artlessness, something anyone would be satisfied with if not moved by--for that it needed some more pepper to the breading. Still, with a couple of sides thrown in--superbly dusky sauerkraut, crunchy breaded french fries, wh7lesome red cabbage--youíve got yourself a decent meal.
Eichenkranz offers numerous daily specials at three price points--$5.49 (such as fried chicken, meat loaf, pork schnitzel), $6.49 (Salisbury steak, pot roast, chicken parmigiana), and $7.49 (stuffed pork chop, baked flounder, lasagna)--and this is presumably where many regulars focus their attention. A heaping plate of liver and onions ($5.49), taken as lunch with corn and mashed potatoes, amounted to a hearty if unmemorable meal. The menu also offers sandwiches for lunch, an odd assortment of appetizers--smoked nova in lemon butter, herring fillet with sour cream, zucchini straws tempura with honey mustard sauce--and a lengthy list of seafood options.
If all of the German fare had succeeded as well as the wurst platter ($12.75), three gorgeously grilled plump specimens (a knockwurst, the rarely seen and spicy burenwurst, and a bratwurst), it might compel a crosstown visit to Eichenkranzís dining room. For now, the important thing is for its local patrons to keep supporting it, to check in on its health every once in a while. The wonderful waitstaff--and a finishing plate of warm apple strudel served with vanilla ice cream and dusted with cinnamon ($2.50)--is the reward for this mitzvah.