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Pork's ankle is worth the walk to Stube

August 08, 2004|by E.T. MOORE

For almost 17 years, the Schmankerl Stube Bavarian Restaurant has stood sentry on the corner of Antietam and Potomac streets, a sometimes lonely bastion in the City of Hagerstown's ongoing efforts at reinventing itself. Other restaurants have come and gone, but the Stube has remained solid and dependable, offering robust, stick-to-the-ribs Germanic meals not inconsistent with the county's own Germanic history.

Little Heiskel would have eaten here.

Sometimes the problem with being so dependable is that folks start taking you for granted. There's no buzz, no sense of urgency about visiting the reliable old Stube.

Except now there is.

Stube owner Charlie Sekula, downtown Hagerstown's maitre'd and one of its greatest champions, seems a trifle baffled himself when he tries to describe what happened. In a nutshell, Sekula has made a silk purse out of a sow's - ankle. The Schmankerl Stube's pork shank isn't exactly a new menu item, but the Wednesday night special ($20) has caught fire of late. Everybody's talking about it, and those who don't call and order it in advance or show up promptly at 6:30 p.m. are bound to be disappointed.

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People are driving up from the cities to plunge their forks into this rich, dark eruption of meat that dominates the plate like Mount Vesuvius over Pompeii. On a recent evening in the Stube's pleasant, oak-shaded outdoor beer garden, two couples from Richmond, Va., had heard about the creation and stopped by - only to be informed that by 7:45, the last shank was long gone.

The need for the advance notice is dictated by cooking times. A shank starts out with a nest of tough tendons and sinew that take hours in a slow oven to break down. But when they do, they melt luxuriously through the meat to the point where it becomes fork-tender beneath its thick, crispy crust. There is nothing subtle about the shank; no underlying notes of complex spices or perfume of spirits - just lots and lots of delicious meat. The mound of pork is served with two tasty Bavarian Bread Dumplings, sauerkraut and red cabbage.

While the pork shank was a given, we had more difficulty choosing two more entrees from the restaurant's extensive menu - which features dishes ranging from grilled pork cutlet with Camembert and provolone cheeses to grilled chicken breast in a vermouth cream sauce to Wiener Schnitzel, that breaded and grilled veal or pork dish that's a favorite among many Bavarian food enthusiasts. Schmankerl Stube also offers combination platters for two or three diners, and a daily fresh fish dish - which featured grouper on the Wednesday evening we dined at the restaurant. Entrees averaged about $18.

We finally settled on the Stube's Herzhafter Sauerbraten ($17), slices of pot roast covered in a sweet-sour sauce and served with the dumplings, red cabbage and vegetable du jour. Our waiter kindly substituted the day's corn and bean medley, however, for the excellent bacon-wrapped green beans that are menu regulars. The pot roast was hot and tender and the sauce satisfying, but the sauerbraten lacked the cohesiveness that traditionally comes from a long stewing of the meat and sauce together.

Anyone who's only tasted kraut out of a bag or a can owes himself the opportunity to taste kraut done the right way - the way the Stube does it: mellow, thoughtfully seasoned and peppered with little mustard seeds. As good as the sauerkraut is, however, it is the red cabbage that really captured our imagination. Too often, red cabbage is an unavoidable atrocity clinging to a German entree like a burr on a long-haired cat. You eat it just so you don't have to look at it. The Stube's red cabbage is an eye-opener, sweet and tender.

Our dining companion stuck to non-Bavarian basics and ordered the Pfeffersteak "Madagascar," a filet mignon topped with a green Madagascar peppercorn sauce and served with the green beans, corn medley and "Potato Snow" - a mound of potatoes that looked like light hash browns that hadn't been fried ($22). He ordered his steak medium and was delighted with its doneness and full flavor.

One item that should never be overlooked at the Stube is its wonderful array of succulent sausages. They're available on the menu in main courses, but if you're up for a more adventurous appetizer, the Wurst Sampler ($12) easily satisfies several people. Included are four sausages each of veal, beef, traditional pork bratwurst and an excellent smoked sausage. They're served with three dipping sauces - two Dijon mustards, including a pleasing house-made number with jalapeos, and one curry. The curry is a pleasant surprise, a lively, imaginative spice that complements the sausages quite well.

We ended our meal with three of the Stube's homemade desserts - apple streusel served warm with vanilla ice cream, a double-layered vanilla cake filled with Bavarian cream and a Black Forest cake called Schwarzwalder Kirsh Torte (all $4.45). The streusel stole the show hands-down with its crunchy topping and juicy apples.

Our bill, which included two glasses of house merlot and two half-liter ales, totaled about $120 before tip.

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