Veteran chef brings exquisite German cuisine back to Charm City
Published: July 4, 2012
10 Mellor Ave.,  747-7333, after 5:30 P.M.), duesenbergsgermandinners.com
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IT’S CLEARLY NOT your average American-style coleslaw, you think, this Weisskrautsalat. The pale cabbage is shredded, of course, but the strands are silky, yet still crisp; the dressing is mildly tart; there’s not a trace of mayonnaise. It tastes beyond refreshing during a sweltering Baltimore heat wave, and you ask chef Christa Seiler her method while she makes one of several visits to your table. She smiles as she apologizes and politely refuses. You make a mental note to scan your scant trove of German recipes, but even then, you realize, instead, that Seiler’s secret is one that will bring you back to Duesenberg’s German Dinners for more research.
Most Catonsville residents are familiar with Duesenberg’s, which operates as a breakfast-and-lunch joint just off Frederick Road. Normally, Duesenberg’s closes for dinner. But since September 2011, Christa Seiler, a 30-year veteran private chef in her home country of Germany, has taken over the kitchen of the tiny Catonsville diner Wednesday through Saturday evenings, turning out German specialties that have become more and more rare as the city’s German restaurants have all but disappeared, and German churches, where church dinners flourished, have cut back due to aging congregations. With her German dinners, Seiler is re-introducing Baltimoreans to Bavarian classics like Sauerbraten, Wiener Schnitzel and Schwarzwelder Kirschtorte.
And geez, is it a welcome re-introduction. Eating in Seiler’s dining room feels like eating in a small inn or bed and breakfast that serves dinner—not because of the decor, which consists of lots of large photos of Duesenbergs—but because of the welcome you get from the chef and the sense of sharing a secret dining experience with other guests. Seiler knows many of her customers by name and shares greetings and hugs with her regulars, but she visits each table to introduce herself to customers, to encourage diners to try out their rusty German skills, and to make sure every plate is as it should be.
Things to be aware of prior to your meal: “und salat” at the end of an entree description actually means your entree includes a composed plate of four salads—greens, carrot, cabbage and potato—each better than the other and nearly a meal in itself. If you miss “spaetzle” when reading the German description of a meal, note that “pasta,” in the English translation, does not mean penne or spaghetti; it means spaetzle, those small, knobby homemade noodles, rich with egg and usually glossed with butter. And unlike the tradition of many Baltimore restaurants to allot only one potato dumpling or Knedel with an order of sour beef, Seiler’s plate of sauerbraten comes with two, at no extra charge.
If the entrees sound generous, it’s because they are. There are no listed appetizers, but five of the eight entrees come with the plate of composed salads (an entire dinner plate portion of any of the salads can be ordered separately for $3.50 each). The remaining three entrees are accompanied by a vegetable. In the case of the sauerbraten ($16.50) it’s a slightly sweet Blaukraut (red cabbage), that shares the plate with the thick, gravy-drenched slices of beef, and two tennis ball-sized dumplings that show not a bit of gumminess. This Baltimore favorite is a dish that varies widely in style and quality, and Seiler’s may be the best in Baltimore at this point. The gravy is balanced—spicy, not too thick, and a careful balance between sweet and sour. That same sweet-sour description could be applied to many things on Duesenberg’s menu, especially the sauerkraut, which accompanies two bratwursts ($13.50), each nearly as long as your forearm, and a mound of rustic, browned potato slices. This is simple fare that is as satisfying as it is straightforward.
Then Duesenberg’s gets a little bit fancy on you. If you’ve missed the chicken cordon bleu craze that took America by storm in the late ’70s, revisit Duesenberg’s version ($16.50). This time the chicken is replaced by pork and does away with the white wine sauce that could sometimes make the meat mushy. Instead, the pork cutlet, stuffed with ham and cheese, is breaded and fried to a crisp that crunches with each bite. Lachs, Spaetzle, Spinat Auflauf mit Salat ($15.50), a casserole of spaetzle, cheese, and spinach, topped with chunks of salmon, turns out to be an exercise in richness and not for those with small appetites or who are counting calories. The ingredients are fresh, but it just feels like too much of a good thing.
Seiler completes her menu with goulash served over spaetzle, wiener schnitzel, and its guilty-pleasure cousin Jaegerschnitzel ($16.50), pork cutlets smothered with mushroom gravy.
Desserts change regularly on Seiler’s menu, but there is always one cake (banana-chocolate on the evening I dined there) and Seiler’s homemade apple strudel ($5.50), served with vanilla ice cream, spiked with clove, and less sweet than you might be accustomed to.
The German dinners are BYOB, and reservations are encouraged though not necessary. Still, in a dining room that has fewer than 20 tables—indoors and outdoors combined—it’s a good idea to call and let Seiler know that you’re coming. I have no doubt she will encourage you (as she encouraged us) to bring some wine, relax, and have a beautiful time. I can guarantee that you will.
Duesenberg’s German Dinners serves dinner Wednesday-Saturday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac