You’ve got to hand it to a pair of young restaurateurs who open a German restaurant in an iffy economy and then call it “Gunk Haus.” Okay, they chose the name because the place has wonderful views of the Gunks, which is what rock climbers call the Shawangunk Ridge. But “gunk” doesn’t have happy associations in the food world. Add to that the bum rap that German cuisine suffers from anyway, and you’re pushing your luck.
“Everyone tried to talk us out of the name,” Chef Elizabeth Steckel says cheerfully, pointing out that “gunk” means nothing to her Bavarian hubby and partner, Dirk Schalle. “But we thought it shows we don’t take ourselves too seriously — this isn’t a stuffy, uptight place. And hopefully it’s a name you don’t forget.”
A couple of years back, Steckel (who was working at National Geographic magazine) and Schalle (a software engineer) wearied of their desk jobs in Washington, D.C. and decided to launch a restaurant in the Hudson Valley, which they’d fallen in love with during visits. They spent two and a half years renovating the old Hollywood Bar in Highland, a circa 1830s building whose colorful past included periods as a boarding house, an Italian eatery, and a Jamaican reggae club. The couple stripped out the dropped ceilings, exposed the old beams, and added paneling and lime-plaster walls. The result is a cross between a classic German beer hall and a Hudson Valley barn. In Bavarian style, the roomy bar has a communal table rather than bar stools (“Dirk was adamant,” Steckel remarks). In the dining room, two more communal tables occupy the middle of the floor with others arranged around them. Lights are low, and the atmosphere is casual and easygoing.
Owners Elizabeth Steckel and Dirk Schalle indulge in two of the eatery’s craft-brewed beers
Steckel, who is German by way of Detroit, put herself through school working in restaurants and adopted the role of chef; Schalle, clad in embroidered lederhosen, works the front of the house and sets the friendly tone that the rest of the staff emulates. Since opening on Memorial Day weekend, things have been surprisingly busy, Steckel says, considering the plan was to ramp up gradually.
The menu is simple and short. You’ll find traditional choices (wursts, sauerbraten, schnitzels and such), but Steckel adds modern embellishments, and she’s serious about using fresh, local produce, which influences the menu’s daily tweaks. Schalle is the biermeister, and what he’s serious about is pairing the food to a rotating list of brews from craft breweries like Smuttynose, Keegan, Flying Dog, and Left Hand. (I really enjoyed the Flying Dog Dogtoberfest, a spicy, malty, German-style lager.) Beers are served in the appropriate glass or stein. If you’re not a beer lover, you can choose from eight wines and a cider, all local.
Hail and hearty: Gunk Haus’ curry wurst gets its special kick from house-made catsup and curried sauerkraut
We kicked off with pretzel and obatzda, a tangy, creamy cheese blend of Camembert, Gorgonzola, and Mother’s Milk beer, spiced with sumac, dry mustard, and smoked paprika. It spread nicely on chewy, house-made pretzel bread.
A roast pork loin sandwich, made with local, pasture-raised pork, was tasty. It came on a pretzel roll, dressed up with braised leeks, Gorgonzola, and spicy mustard, with crisp mesclun greens in a sherry vinaigrette on the side.
Two glistening, plump bratwursts (fresh from Highland’s artisanal butcher, Mark Elia) were good if somewhat outshone by their accompaniments: terrific sweet-and-sour green beans flavored with crispy scallions, ginger, garlic, sriracha, and balsamic vinegar — a side trip to Asia — and hearty, cheesy potatoes gratin, which brought the dish back to the West again. My curry wurst was good, too — a toothsome smoked beef sausage topped with a catsup of curry powder, tamarind, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, mustard, cumin, cardamom, and sumac that added up to a more complex take on the fast-food version you find in Germany.
The exterior of the restaurant, which offers views of Mohonk Preserve and the Catskills (on a clear day)
The vegetable strudel of the day was an enjoyable surprise: an inventive mix of buttercup squash, local corn, glazed walnuts, preserved lemons, habanero peppers, and goat cheese which came wrapped in a flaky pastry parcel and made for a savory, meatless treat. The couple at the next table were mmm-ing over their salmon croquettes — they were working their way through the menu, they told us, and could vouch for the burgers, too.
For dessert, chocoholics can revel in a chocolate cake with chocolate hazelnut ice cream and chocolate sauce aptly named Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate. We loved our generous serving of fresh apfelstrudel, but were less knocked out by the chocolate-filled pretzel bites called schatzies — an invention of Steckel’s that many find addictive. I like the sound of a holiday dessert that she’s planning: a chocolate-glazed ginger cake served with a reduction of spiced wine.
Overall, this is a casual, fun spot where the beers are good, the eats are hearty, and the tabs are light. And the only Gunk is that lovely ridge in the distance.
Open daily except Tuesday for lunch and dinner. Sandwiches and entrées range from $8-$18; desserts from $3-$6.
387 South St., Highland. 845-883-0866