East Side Restaurant, New Britain
★★ [Very Good]
Ticky-tocky, ticky-tocky, oy! oy! oy! If you recognize the chant, you know the drill. If not, let me prepare you. Walking into a large dining room where four birthday parties are going on simultaneously, each with 15 to 20 guests wearing alpine helmets, cowboy hats, silver tiaras, plaid golf caps and reindeer antlers jumping to their feet shouting ticky-tocky, ticky-tocky or das boot, das boot as tray after tray of beer steins arrive, can be off-putting to say the least.
But steady on. This is no frat house fracas or rock ’n’ roll riot. It’s just an exuberant rendition of German gemutlichkeit as you might find it in a hofbrauhaus in Munich, a beer garden in Heidelberg or in Jefferson County, Wis., where week-long gemutlichkeit festivals have been held annually for 42 years.
It can get ear-splitting at East Side but the din is real, not electronic. Live people talking, shouting, singing, drinking and clinking steins while a roving accordianist plays requests. “Happy Birthday to You,” “Du du liegst mir im hertzen,” “I’ll be loving you, always, always.”
Old-fashioned? You bet. Continuously family-owned, first by one family, then another, on the same site for 70 years, East Side treasures its traditions, even as it refreshes the premises and refines the menu.
When the main floor was expanded, local artist Kenneth Larson transformed the space into a terrace overlooking the old city of Heidelberg. In Larson’s mural (said to be the largest classical oil painted in Connecticut in the past 50 years) Heidelberg Castle looms in the background and costumed revelers are raising steins of “good German bier” inspiring us to do likewise. We have plenty to choose from: classic Munich Lager, blond and balanced; Warsteiner Dunkel, robust and darkly sweet; pale, hopped-up Warsteiner Pilsner, the largest selling beer in Germany.
“Full course” dinners are “served with pride” and they’re a bargain because they include an appetizer (chicken liver pâté, tomato juice, fresh fruit cocktail or soup of the day), a salad and an entrée with potatoes, mashed, french-fried or au gratin. German food is what East Side is known for, but the focus is on Bavarian specialties—schnitzels and goulash, sauerbraten and knockwurst, sauerkraut and spaetzle. Plus steak, chicken, burgers and roast stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce for wimps.
With none in sight, we order what everybody around us is ordering, starting with a giant Bavarian pretzel, imported from Germany. Great to share, it’s served with sweet mustard and obatzda (Bavarian-style beer cheese).
Following this we order a Burgermeister platter of German sausages: knockwurst, packing its skin with a rich garlicky mix of finely ground pork like a ready-to-burst water balloon; bratwurst, East Side style, spicier, the meat more coarsely ground, the flavor more robust; and a third option billed simply as “German sausage” that resembles kielbasa. Jolly good wursts one and all.
Here things go a bit awry. The soup course disappoints. This is surprising because Germans make great soups. At East Side, vegetable-barley soup is bland and gluey, as barley tends to get when it’s overcooked, and the onion soup is so weak-kneed my grandfather the restaurateur would have called it dishwater.
But immediately things start picking up again. Marinated herring in a wine sauce is heavenly, blanketed with sour cream and garnished with onions and pickled beets. Chicken wings (not very German, but we want what we want) are deep-fried and arrive sizzling-hot—a sinful indulgence all four of us find impossible to resist.
And our entrées have yet to arrive. When they do, they’re a mixed blessing. Kasseler Rippchenis, a hickory-smoked pork chop with just the right amount of smokiness is a winner. Grilled with a demiglace, it is served with sauerkraut and a dish of applesauce, which has a nice, chunky homemade look but is too sweet to set off the richness of the pork.
When our sauerbraten arrives, we don’t recognize it. It’s covered with ivory-colored sour cream gravy. And why not? Some village or city or state in Germany must make sauerbraten that way. We vow to like it. But when we scrape the sauce off, we find the meat thin-sliced and a little tough, and hard to identify. The “national dish of Germany,” as most of us know it, is beef marinated in red wine, with onions and bay leaf, braised until it is tender enough to cut with a fork, and served with enough thick, spicy reddish-brown gravy to float a ship. But we are not here to debate recipes. Let’s put this sauerbraten down to “a matter of taste.”
But whatever we order, there’s plenty of it. The half roast Long Island duckling with stuffing overhangs a 10-inch plate. The wing tip is a bit dry, but the rest is juicy and flavorful. How pleasant it is to bite into a good-sized piece of richly nuanced duck meat as opposed to skinless chicken breast (which is not on the menu).
East Side outdoes itself—and even your kuchen-baking grossmutter—when it comes to desserts. There are cakes and pies and, oh, my, mountains of whipped cream. A wedge of Black Forest cake sails in like the S.S. Bremen with a full complement of frosting and Grand Marnier-marinated cherries aboard. Black Forest is one of one of my favorite cakes and this is one of the best around.
German chocolate cake is a lollapalooza. Think sour cream fudge layered with a sweet-enough-to-make-your-teeth-ache mixture of toasted coconut, pecans and caramel sauce, a ton of whipped cream on top. Go for it if you dare.
In contrast, banana cream pie delightfully avoids everything that’s usually wrong with the breed. The crust is flaky, the vanilla custard not too sweet, the fresh sliced bananas not too ripe. As Goldilocks would say, this one is “just right.”
Withal, the make-or-break test of a German restaurant—with or without party hats—is apple strudel. East Side’s strudel, a delectable mix of apples, raisins and walnuts wrapped in light, flaky pastry served with whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon and powdered sugar, passes the test so splendidly it rates a salute. Ticky-tocky, ticky-tocky oy! oy! oy!
East Side Restaurant
131 Dwight St., New Britain, 860/223-1188, eastsiderestaurant.com
Lunch Monday and Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 to 4. Dinner Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 4 to 8:30, Friday and Saturday till 9:30, Sunday 12 to 8. Price range: appetizers $7 to $14.95, entrées served with sides $28 to $30, full-course dinners $26 to $34, desserts included with dinner (otherwise $5).