First Bite: Biergarten Haus has the look, but not the taste, of Germany

Kelly Connors and Jen Horan hoist a couple of steins during an evening at the beer garden.
Kelly Connors and Jen Horan hoist a couple of steins during an evening at the beer garden. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 2:37 PM

I fell in love with Germany when I lived there for a year as a high school student and discovered the simple pleasures of a warm, salt-crusted pretzel served straight from the baker's oven and a proper golden Wiener schnitzel dished out with vinegar-laced potato salad. My pre-euro romance was kindled by an exchange rate back then that was close to four marks to the dollar, allowing me to spend quite a bit of time exploring "bee sting" cakes in the many pastry shops and hefeweizen in the many pubs.

News of a beer garden opening on H Street Northeast this summer rekindled some of those fond memories and whetted my appetite for some of the lusty food of my youth.

The owners (from Washington's Russia House) got the look down pat. "It's like another dimension," a friend says as he walks from the dark-paneled front bar, decorated with antique steins, onto the sprawling brick patio of Biergarten Haus. A sea of sturdy communal tables and heavy benches, shaded by outsize umbrellas and fenced in with more wood, suggests a forest. Flags from Germany's 16 states flap from a small carriage house that has been turned into a brew dispenser. Along with a round of beer from the all-German list, assembled by local beer guru Bill Catron, my quartet orders a basket of pretzel rolls.

Dry and dull and served with ordinary mustard, they're the first sign we're not going to be visiting Germany tonight. Further into dinner, no amount of beer can erase the reality of arid sauerbraten, spongy bratwurst and a Wiener schnitzel whose stiffness could qualify the meat as a lethal weapon. The squiggly sauteed spaetzle are decent, but a guy can down only so many little dumplings.

The largely joyless food is eaten to the accompaniment of polka music, but the loudest notes are those playing in my mouth: oom-pah-blah.

1355 H St. NE. 202-388-4085. Entrees, $13-$22.

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