It turns out that I really like sauerbraten. At least I like the sauerbraten at the Old Stein Inn, where I really liked just about everything that I ate, drank and otherwise soaked in on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the restaurant's back patio.
But what really got me was the sauerbraten. Old Stein Inn makes its sauerbraten from short ribs, which turns out to be an ideal cut for the preparation of this classic dish. I get, absolutely, that a typical home-style sauerbraten makes use of tough cuts of meat, but with short ribs, the long marinating process loosens up the meat and renders it meltingly tender. And the wine and vinegar notes, so often aggressive, were mellow and subtle.
Even better, Old Stein Inn serves its sauerbraten with potato dumplings that are truly airy, even feathery, and a helping of vinegary cabbage, ruby red, that added a welcome dose of color to the plate.
There was a splash of deep pink in a sparkling glass of Lindemans Framboise, a lambic beer fermented with raspberries that Old Stein Inn serves on draft. And there was a burst of red on a plate of watermelon and Black Forest ham, a commendable appetizer, in which dollops of goat cheese and a cherry-vinegar reduction intensified the flavors of the pieces of sweet, finely chopped watermelon.
German food? Pretty? It is at Old Stein Inn, which took me by surprise. The chef is Ian Douglas, who is treating the restaurant's traditional recipes with great care while introducing a light, contemporary touch of his own.
It's a good time to get to know Old Stein Inn, which is located in Mayo, a waterside town near Edgewater in Anne Arundel County. (There are three marinas within walking distance, which the restaurant helpfully points out on its website.) This summer, the restaurant is celebrating both its 30th anniversary and its full recovery from the 2011 fire that all but knocked the family-owned business out of commission.
The owners, Beth and Mike Selinger — he's the son of the restaurant's original owners — rebuilt the cottage-style building, keeping the inviting A-frame cottage structure but reconfiguring and lightening up its interior. They turned what had been a group of squat and small rooms into an airy but still intimate beer hall, graced with stained-glass windows and softened with amber-glowing light fixtures.
It's a good, welcoming space, but the fact is we only saw it briefly, on the way to and from the beer garden in back, a fine spot for spending a long Sunday afternoon, when the full dinner menu is available all day long. The outdoor area is shaded by mature trees and is partially tented, and there are both patio-style tables and picnic benches for big parties or for sharing with strangers. On Saturday nights, there are diversions, often a strolling accordionist, but sometimes yodeling and Alpine horn-blowing contests.
On the Sunday we visited, the restaurant was offering not only its full dinner menu but also a special "Augustoberfest" menu and as well as a listing of chef's specials and — because it was the first Sunday of the month — pork platters and sandwiches made from a suckling pig, which we saw being roasted on the restaurant's side porch when we arrived.
This is all to say we barely dented the regular menu. We had that commendable sauerbraten and the Old Stein Inn sampler, which gave us a good taste of the restaurant's regular fare of schnitzels and wursts — a flavorful and juicy smoked pork loin chop; a tender pork schnitzel with a lemony breading, pounded as flat as a penny; and a fat and warm crispy-skinned bratwurst. We had the exceptional Muenster cheese and crab soup, a prize-winning house specialty, with just the right amount of tarragon.
From the Augustoberfest menu, we found clam strips, remarkably light under a flaky pretzel breading, served with a zippy cocktail sauce spiked with Franziskanner Dunkel, a superb Hefe-Weissbier — one of the 10 beers in Old Stein Inn's draft lineup; and for dessert, a heavenly slice of "Bienenstich" (literally, "bee-sting), a breadlike cake layered with lemon cream and topped with a caramelized honey-lemon-almond crust.
We plan to come back, in the summer if we can, for another glass of lemonade spiked with Berentzen Wild Cherry Liqueur, and, of course, for the yodeling contest.
The Old Stein Inn
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 1143 Central Ave. E., Mayo
Contact: 410-798-6807, http://www.oldstein-inn.com
Prices: Appetizers $6-$12; entrees $14-$28
Food: Traditional and contemporary German fare
Service: Friendly and helpful
Best dishes: Sauerbraten, fried clams, melon and ham
Parking/Accessibility: Adjacent parking lot. The restaurant is fully accessible.
Outdoor seating: The beer garden, by day, is simply a lovely patio, partially tented and tree-shaded. At night, it's illuminated by strings of lights. There were, when we visited, quite a few interested flies.
Children: A small selection of items is available fur die kinder.
Noise level/television: The noise level is comfortable, at least on the patio, and at least during the day. There is a television inside at the front bar, which was playing without sound when we visited.
[Key: Superlative:5 stars ; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]