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Schmankerl Stube

December 20, 2009

Christmas trees and statues of reindeer shone with lights outside Schmankerl Stube, a Bavarian restaurant in downtown Hagerstown. We scurried past, cold and hungry, to enter the warm, Bavarian world which restaurateur Charles Sekula has created.

We were greeted by the most heavenly aroma of pork roasting in the ovens. We had made reservations and arrived on time, as strongly advised. Now we anticipated a meal we had long imagined -- pork shanks, or, as our waitress, Melanie, called them, swine shanks.

Shanks are legs. The flavor of the shanks and feet of pigs is the intense essence of pork, according to my father. He and the Professor's father had been butchers, though living and working in different places. They agreed on very little, but they praised the unmatchable taste of two things: steak tartare and pickled pigs feet. I thought Schmankerl Stube's pork shanks might show me why they liked the latter.

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Usually 24-hour advance notice is necessary when ordering pork shanks at Schmankerl Stube. But on Wednesdays, starting at 6:30, while they last, pork shanks Bavarian style are available for $22. I had called in advance and asked that one be saved for my dining companion, the Professor. I always want smoked pork loin in a German restaurant, but the Professor encouraged me to try something else, so I chose the trio of sausages called Schmankerl wurst teller ($18).

Our appetizer was a sentimental favorite. We had shared it on our first date -- Herring a la Hausfrauenart ($7). The presentation was beautiful. A single leaf of butter lettuce was heaped with a mound of onions and sour cream, topped off with a red grape tomato. Slices of excellent pickled herring ringed the mound. The rim of the plate was sprinkled with parsley flakes. This plate of beauty tasted as good as it looked and acted as an appetizer in that our appetite was only increased.

Our waitress, Melanie, brought a basket of sunflower seed rye bread with butter and a cream cheese spread with anchovies and capers. "Don't fill up on bread," the Professor and I warned each other as we gobbled it down. The bread made no dent in our appetite. He ordered a liter of pilsner beer ($11.50) and it was so big it was a challenge to lift to his lips, but lift he did and he quaffed it with gusto.

My plate of sausages was accompanied by a bread dumpling, sauerkraut and a burst of green broccoli. It was lovely; but the Professor's plate of pork shank was breathtaking. The pork shank was very large, served on a platter, and was a match for the liter of beer. We gave thanks for such bounty and set to. "Guten appetit!" he said.

Charlie Sekula came by to ask how we liked our meal. He wore a German tailored coat with a center pleat in the back for ease of movement, and it had leather-faced pockets and metal buttons. The Professor asked him if sausage was served with pretzels in Bavaria. "Yes, soft pretzels are part of a beer breakfast which consists of weisswurst, beer and pretzels," Charlie said. "After a breakfast like that, you would be ready to tear out trees."

My weisswurst, a white sausage, was made from veal, mild and good. The middle sausage, knackwurst, was a beef sausage and tasted most familiar to me. The last sausage, Debrezinerwurst, was long and thin, the most unique. This Hungarian sausage was dense and flavorful, for it was smoked and filled with sweet paprika.

"My father used to make this sausage in his butcher shop," said the Professor, remembering his childhood in New York City. The sauerkraut was made with onions, mushrooms and mustard seed, cooked just right. The combination of sausage, dumpling and kraut on a lake of hunter-style sauce was deeply satisfying. I barely looked up to see the attack on the pork shank.

The pork shank was a culinary masterpiece. The skin had been scored, and it enveloped the meat surrounding the shank bone. The meat was succulent, moist and rich, filled with gelatin. The depth of flavor of the pork shank must be experienced to be believed. The sides of red cabbage, sauerkraut and a bread dumpling accented the meat and raised the dish to culinary heights.

Yes, of course, we wanted dessert, especially because all the desserts were made in house. Melanie displayed for us a platter of desserts -- Black Forest cake, cottage cheese cake, apple streusel, Bavarian cream cake. We knew that we would split the apple strudel with vanilla sauce ($6).

We loved every bite of the warm pastry and wished we had ordered two. The vanilla sauce was sweet and rich, the apples tart, the currants a sweet contrast, and the pastry just about right.

All the senses were delighted here at Schmankerl Stube -- a cozy place that serves delicacies. Everything in the experience whispered, "Relax, enjoy."

First and foremost, the food smelled delicious and tasted the same. We heard Christmas music with songs in Latin, German and English. Conversations hummed around us, for the restaurant was pleasantly full this rainy Wednesday night.

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