News of a new chef has brought me back to Das Lokal. That, and the thought of a steaming mug of Gluhwein by the outdoor firepit on a cold November night.
Austrian-born Christian Wallner, by my (rough and possibly inaccurate) count, is head chef number four for the four-year-old Dalhousie Avenue, German-leaning restaurant. He’s been in place since last spring.
I’ve always found the food at Das Lokal to be reliably filling and tasty, but also reliably uneven. For me, its cuisine has played second fiddle to the feel and cosy-comfort of the place – to that delicious thing the Germans call a sense of ‘gemütlichkeit’. How that’s accomplished in the shell of a former KFC building is quite the achievement. They’ve done it with warm service, a quirky décor, enticing food and wine deals, live piano music, free parking in the ByWard Market… And there’s no doubt Das Lokal knows how to warm the dark heart of the season. Sparkly twinkle lights, inside and out, faux fur rugs on chairs, a charming street-side firepit with an outdoor bar that ladles up Gluhwein (mulled wine, and you need to request it from the inside bar).
If they ever decided to board and flood their parking lot and offer skating with Strauss waltzes it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Das Lokal is a busy, happy little restaurant, and it embraces winter like few others.
But with Wallner’s arrival, I sense a new spring in the kitchen.
This isn’t dazzling food, but neither is it just the usual suspects – the hearty, homely clichés of Old Austria/Germany. Yes, there are fat sausages and sauerkraut, pork schnitzel that extends off the edges of plates, apple strudel and Black Forest cake. But there’s also some delicacy and modernity in the clear attention to plate presentation, to vegetables, to greens, to citrus, to saucing, and a general lightening up of those traditional ribstickers.
Wallner has shortened the menu and focused on strengths. Those began one visit with the charcuterie offerings. They’re no longer made in house I learn (not a bad thing), but sourced, wisely, from the excellent Seed to Sausage. We love his beer-braised brats, served with a radish-heavy, well-dressed arugula salad, a dilled sour cream and the house sauerkraut wrapped in strudel. I seem to have had that dish twice it was so good. Though at my last visit, the strudel arrived cold – and was rewarmed immediately upon request.
We slurped down a bowl of mussels and clams with great relish, steamed to just-open in a fennel-wine broth, piqued with lime and herbs. I liked everything about the celery root croquettes but the price. At $27, it feels too high for a veggie dish that eats more like a starter. But if you like celery root and agree it might be improved with some breading and a bit of time in the fryer, you’ll like these vegetable ‘schnitzels’, improved when dunked deeply in lemon-ed sour cream. They come with some glazed beets and crisped kale.
But my favourite dish was the scallops. Little bay fellows, seared off and still wobbly, with eggy spaetzle that squiggle their way into a sauce of sundried tomatoes and fresh dill topped with greens and grated veg. Terrific flavours and textures in that tasty mound.
Spaetzle again, greened with spinach in a sort of puttanesca sauce was another hit, with crispy prosciutto, shards of Parmigiano, olives, caperberries, sundried tomatoes, and roasted red peppers.
We weren’t hungry, but soldiered on with two desserts – an apple strudel with fruit and crème fraiche and a generous wedge of Black Forest cake, standing tall and tasting of quality everything.
The wine list is short, but kudos for offering wines by the glass in two-sized pours, along with half and full bottles on most selections.