3998 Jefferson Davis Highway
Stafford, VA 22554
CUISINE German/Austrian, International, Beer Joints
PRICE $$$ ($21-$30)
HOURS Open for dinner, Wednesday through Sunday.
NVM AWARDS Best Restaurant 2008
NEARBY METRO None
By Warren Rojas
Food: 6.9 Ambiance: 7.3 Service: 6.6
Visit Stafford hideaway, Zum Rheingarten, more than once, and you’ll no doubt start to spot familiar faces.
And I’m not just talking about caretakers Jannec and Katherine Hornig (he’s the executive chef; she’s the general manager). It’s the recidivist families that seem content to spend every weekend feasting within the same four walls.
And who can blame them?
A creamy brew of tender potatoes and salty kielbasa is guaranteed to ward off any winter chill. Jumbo bratwurst summons a savory-sweet link of homemade sausage that makes American dogs seem toothless.
Pork Wellington yields ham-wrapped tenderloin baked within phyllo (succulent meat, flaky dough) and accompanied by bacon-topped mashed potatoes (three shades of swine = one happy camper).(February 2008)
By Warren Rojas
The owners of Zum Rheingarten really ought to consider imposing a toll or checking visas before allowing visitors to cross over the tiny, Christmas light-strewn bridge that connects them to Route 1. Because it really is the quickest and cheapest trip to Germany most people will ever take.
This Stafford treasure has been in operation for more than 40 years, yet feels like a well-guarded secret (the type of place that quickly becomes a family tradition). The restaurant occupies a charming, two-story fieldstone house, which includes a separate bar, a mural-splashed upstairs dining area and a central, wood-burning hearth on the main level. Once inside the rustic establishment, costumed staff in festive German garb (decorative blouses, flowery dresses) tend to your every need.
Executive chef Jannec Hornig, born and raised in Berlin, characterizes the cooking as traditional German with a few modern touches (new additions like grilled lamb chops, cordon blue and Swedish meatballs reach across European borders). He lists their sausage sampler (bratwurst, bauernwurst and weisswurst), the traditional weiner schnitzel and the sauerbraten as the biggest sellers, with good reason.
The bountiful kaseplatte extends an all-inclusive European welcome, featuring highly prized Westphalian ham (smoky ham joins Swiss cheese in decorative pinwheels), mixed vegetables (the vinegar-soaked celery-tomato-onion salad is terrific) and fresh fruit (grapes, sour berries). Beef goulash is old country comfort food, uniting tender morsels of stewed beef and soft potato buttons in a soothing vegetable broth. A smoked salmon starter, on the other hand, is almost completely upstaged by nicely crisped potato cakes (tasty) and a tangy, homemade horseradish (adds plenty of zip).
The signature sauerbraten brings workmanlike slabs of roast beef smothered in a sweet-and-sour shower of raisins, sliced almonds and some ferociously tart red cabbage slaw.
Homemade potato dumplings with a wonderfully crunchy, baked-on crust do the marinated beef total justice. A portion of wiener schnitzel a la Holstein (perhaps my new favorite dish) summons breaded veal steaks crowned with sunny eggs and fresh sardines—the interplay of the crunchy filets, runny yolk and uber-salty fish is absolutely outstanding—all flanked by mixed vegetables and some terrific pan-fried potatoes (better home fries than some local breakfast joints).
A hearty pork medallion platter yields tender lobes of pork tossed amidst tender twists of homemade spaetzle smothered in sour cream. Grilled lamb chops bring a half-dozen meaty chops, grilled to order but uniformly delicious (the tender meat bears some great residual smoke), accompanied by balsamic-splashed roast potatoes.
Desserts range from a traditional black forest cake (big chocolate and sour cherry flavors) to a gloriously rich, liqueur-infused coffee topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
The bar is always ready to oblige with notable imported beers, including Spaten Optimator (classic dark), Weihenstephan Hefeweizen (traditional wheat), Reissdorf Kolsch (hoppy brew from Cologne) and Warsteiner Lager—“probably the best Germany produces,” according to Hornig. There are less than a dozen wines by the glass (all under $10), while the master list showcases mostly youngish German, Austrian and French vintages (all under $40).
Toward the close of one visit, a gentleman with a nearby party pushed back from the table and announced, “That was an amazing dinner.”