If you look around Cincinnati, you'll find an abundance of evidence pointing to the city's deep German roots: "Over-the-Rhine" and the neighborhood's distinctive period architecture; area tours of the old German brewery district; German streets signs; churches; and even evidence of German discrimination during the first and second World Wars. And let's face it: Oktoberfest remains quite a big deal around here.
But, today, it's mostly just that: evidence --empty shells of a past long gone. Cincinnati is now so very much more. Our city has become vastly diverse, representing strong influences from virtually every major culture on the planet.
Still, it's important that the city remembers its origins and there's been a modest revival of sorts in particularly the culinary realm: Moerlein House, Rhinegeist and other area craft breweries are trying to rekindle Cincinnati's German-laden beer heyday; and a few German restaurant advocates still try to keep interest in our heritage alive. Chef Jackson Rouse, with his new restaurant, Bauer Farm Kitchen, is one of them.
Rouse is the former chef of The Rookwood, which abruptly closed in December, 2016 due to a landlord dispute. That was an interesting tidbit of information for me because his exploration of Cincinnati's German roots would be perfectly explored and realized in the historic setting the sprawling Rookwood Pottery building offers, with all its massive kilns. The wealthy Longworth family, who founded the Rookwood Pottery Company, was also responsible for a German-style winemaking movement that swept through the Ohio valley and, indeed, the nation. Why that building's current landlord couldn't work out a deal with the Rookwood restaurant owners leaves me scratching my head. If you're a landlord, how is eliminating a regular revenue stream better than not having one at all? That $94k yearly tax bill isn't going to pay itself.
But perhaps it's just as well. Chef Rouse's new digs are on Elm Street in the former Jimmy G's location, a strange, windowless, subterranean space in which patrons walk in, regroup from their initial confusion, and then find their own way down an unmarked flight of stairs into the restaurant reception area. There have been a couple eateries there over the last decade or so --it was a gaudy Chinese restaurant called "Wah Mee" the last time I'd stepped foot inside.
Bauer hopes to reacquaint the masses with German food, particularly those who may have grown averse to the cuisine thanks to its reputation for being heavy and meaty. The schnitzels and spaetzles are still here, but they're among a lineup of lighter fare. The restaurant adopts a "modern twist" on the tired German theme using a variety of European techniques showcasing locally-sourced vegetables and meats.
The menu is short, sweet and a tad pricey due to the premium-sourced meats and produce, focusing on both small and large plates. There's an $18 burger and pommes frites plate featuring local mushrooms, curry ketchup and oxtail marmalade; a $15 pork stew with turnips and bone marrow dumplings; and a $13 Parisian Gnocchi with hand-made herb dumplings and local seasonal vegetables. To be sure: this is not your father's German restaurant.
We arrived one weekend early evening and were led into a dimly-lit, beautifully designed, rustic dining room. Wait staff dressed in flannel shirts added to a relaxed, casual (but not too casual) vibe. Each table offered a unique set of funky, ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers: ours depicted two very happy, smiling ears of corn.
In Europe, you typically have to ask NOT to have bread and butter brought out, but in Bauer's case, they were polite enough to ask if we'd want to pay for the service. We enthusiastically did. What arrived were a variety of fresh-baked slices of rye and crusty baguette with an inviting herbed butter ($5).
We decided on ordering two small plates and one larger entree-sized plate to share. Our selections included the "Seasonal Sausage," with house-made sauerkraut, pretzel rolls, a very light-tasting potato salad and a side of whole-grain beer mustard ($14). The sausage we got was the Currywurst, something we enjoyed in our last visit to Belgium. Hot juices from the sausage sprayed onto my shirt as I cut into a piece, but I paid it no mind. In Belgium, the curry aspect comes more from the ketchup, but in Bauer's case, it's cooked into the meat with just a little bit of mildly spicy heat.
Our next item was the aforementioned Parisian Gnocchi ($13), which featured some seasonal greens and turnips amid the toasted pillows of gnocchi. This was arguably our favorite dish: it was beautifully presented; tasted light; and the vegetables retained a bit of their snap instead of being soft and overcooked.
Our main entree was the pork schnitzel ($22), pounded out flat, lightly fried and topped with a sunny-side-up egg, capers, anchovies and sour beer. We found the anchovy element a bit unusual and overpowering; but when properly dispersed, I found I was enjoying the flavor combination while my girlfriend avoided the anchovies altogether. Of all the dishes, this one was decidedly one-note. We could have used more crispiness throughout the schnitzel.
For dessert, we split a very delicate, very delicious, flaky blueberry strudel accompanied by a shard of pistachio-flecked white chocolate ($9).
Overall, Bauer Farm Kitchen was a unique and rewarding experience. We look forward to trying some of the other menu items, particularly the sauerbraten short ribs, the cheese spaetzle gratin and the oxtail stew.