Schweinhaxen, a beer-braised pork shank, comes with sweet-savory mashed apples and potatoes. Fork it over. Now.
I stumbled into the new Freiburg Gastropub before the restaurant had even opened. Curious about remodeling in the Monroe Street storefront, I stuck my head through an open door and was enthusiastically welcomed in by Stephen Weber, a partner in the new operation (with Jack and Julie Sosnowski of the Noble Chef Hospitality group of local restaurants). Weber showed off the new bar — a blend of dark and light woods all freshly varnished — along with the huge, wrought-iron chandeliers and clean steel of an open kitchen. My first impression was certainly of a German restaurant, but a sleeker, modern version, without the half-timbering and kitsch we’ve come to expect here.
Weber spoke of his dream to create a modern German gastropub with a friendly, neighborhood atmosphere, the best imported beers and the kind of well-prepared, farm-fresh food that today’s Germans actually eat on a casual night out.
There’s a lot to be said for genuine hospitality. Now open since midsummer, the place has the sort of happy, friendly buzz Weber promised. The tap beer list alone is overwhelming, though on the back of the menu a handy map charts the origins of the German brews. When halfway through our meal we spotted friends queuing up for a table — by then there was a wait to be seated — our hostess seemed delighted to let us make room at our table. Another round of Sunner Kolsch was ordered. We were having a very good time.
If there has been clamor for more German food in this town, I’ve missed it. And yet, this menu full of pork, fresh salads and a number of vegetarian options is very much in line with other recent additions to the restaurant scene.
The schweinhaxen, a beer-braised pork shank, is a wonder of meaty deliciousness, with crisp-chewy crackling outside and all juicy tenderness within. The sweet-savory tang of mashed apples and potatoes and a mustard vinaigrette works as a great complement to the meat.
The jäger burger, a hamburger that might be listed among the best in the city, really has fun with the play of buttery Emmentaler and salty onion crisps. Oyster mushrooms and a smear of horseradish cream add depth. It comes with German fried potatoes and onion, more flavorful and less greasy than french fries.
The wiener schnitzel here is a large, pounded pork loin in a panko and pretzel crust. It comes topped with a sweet-and-sour red cabbage my German mother-in-law would have approved of, with a side of Heaven and Earth (Himmel und Erde) — mashed potatoes and apples with caramelized onions and bacon, pleasant but less bold in its flavors than I expected. It might have been better with käsespätzle, the buttery, cheesy little dumplings served with crispy onions.
On Friday night, Freiburg offers trout schnitzel, a generous flaky filet, crusted and served with potato pancakes and slaw, that makes a tasty alternative to traditional fish fry.
On the sharing menu, the schweinebacken was a standout. Rich pork cheeks were braised to softness in honey and served over vinegar lentils and pickled radish salad. And the Königsberger klopse, little beef, veal and pork meatballs in a caper sauce, could ruin your appetite for anything else.
Among the appetizers, the big hit was the schweinefleisch rillette, a paté of pork belly that comes with bits of dark rye toast, tart pickled gherkins and a crock of spicy mustard.
Still, even among all this meatiness, the salads are part of what make this menu work. Rettichsalat is a blend of shaved fresh radish with picked black radish, watercress, cucumber, a bit of orange and sheep’s milk cheese. A light, citrusy dressing doesn’t overwhelm the delicate vegetables. Another winner, and a nice complement to a meaty meal, is the gurkensalat, cucumbers and dill in a sour cream and mustard dressing.
Freiburg’s vegetarian menu includes a spinach-stuffed German-style ravioli, cabbage rolls, dumplings, and roasted cauliflower crusted in hardboiled egg and pretzel crumbs served with sweet-and-sour red cabbage.
Our only disappointment came with the wurst. Anyone used to the Sheboygan-style flavor-bomb brats we’ve come to know and love will find Freiburg’s version timid. They reminded me of the precooked bratwurst we got from the grocery store in the ’60s. The knockwurst was dry and flavorless. The exception was the weisswurst, a primarily veal sausage, gently spiced and mild in flavor, delicious with a glass of Riesling and the housemade sauerkraut.
Aside from the extensive list of German beers, Freiburg Gastropub offers a nice selection of German wines that don’t often make it to the States, another nice note for a neighborhood pub that knows what it wants to be and has figured out how to do it well.
2612 Monroe St., 608-204-2755, freiburgmadison.com
11 am-10 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11 am-11 pm Fri., 9 am-11 pm Sat., 9 am-9 pm Sun., $8-$20