For many of us, German cuisine holds most appeal in fall and winter, with all those heavy sausages, potatoes and cabbage.
Yet Freiburg Gastropub, Madison's newest German restaurant open since mid-July on Monroe Street, served up one of the most cool, refreshing dishes I've eaten all summer.
Cold cucumber soup, or gurkensuppe ($4.95), gets its creaminess not from dairy but from repeated straining through a fine chinois, resulting in a smooth, light consistency.
With a zip of fresh lemon juice, mild sweetness from onion, fresh parsley, dill and a bit of peppery radish for croutons, this soup could knock preconceived notions about heavy German food right off the table.
"Despite (Madison) being a heavily German culture, people think it's super heavy food and sauce laden," said Freiburg executive chef Christian Behr, formerly of the Avenue Bar (now Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar, set to re-open this week).
"It's actually not as much as people would think."
As we found over a few visits earlier this month, Freiburg Gastropub's menu doesn't completely back up this statement, populated as it is with curry wurst ($8.95), mustard beef ($11.95) and various kinds of pork.
Yet Behr clearly knows better than to cater only to our bacon instincts.
This summer Freiburg, named for a Madison sister city near Germany's southwestern border with France, offered some decent salads, like a crunchy rettichsalat (radish salad, $7.95) with watercress and citrus.
A plate "to share" of sweet, fatty pork cheeks ($10.95) attempted balance with pickled radish and lentil salad, a good concept, if too bland in execution.
And there were briny pickles and fermented things all over the place, offering those sour, mildly funky notes I hated in my grandma's sauerkraut as a child but can't get enough of now.
It feels both Midwestern and German to serve proteins the size that Freiburg does, with a rich and juicy half chicken in Riesling butter ($17.95) and a pounded, fried pork chop (jägerschnitzel, $18.95) roughly the size of my head.
I'd say to save half for later, but that pork was so wonderfully browned and crunchy beneath its creamy mushroom sauce, I barely managed it myself.
Serving whole, or close-to-whole, fish fillets is something we've been seeing more of in Madison, and Freiburg's herb-stuffed trout ($18.95) stuffed with lemons made a strong case for why, with perfect cross-hatching and flaky white flesh.
The sausages will change frequently on Freiburg's wurst plate ($12.95), served with mustard, a pretzel and good quality housemade sauerkraut. If you get knockwurst, a smoked pork sausage, and weisswurst, made with veal, as we did, you'll do just fine.
Cabbage salad and dumplings can be added on the side, but it doesn't get more comforting than "himmel und erde," or "heaven and earth" ($3.95). Simply mashed potatoes with caramelized onions, apples and bacon, it was both familiar and divine.
For those who do not spreche Deutsch, Freiburg's dishes could be tough to pronounce. As a concession, Behr added things to the menu like "brat stickers" ($8.95) and, at lunch, an excellent double-decker Reuben ($13.95) with house-cured corned beef worthy of a full scale deli.
Yet Germanophiles looking for a taste memory or two may be disappointed with some of Freiburg's missteps. Bread, from basket to sandwich to brunch Schwarzwälder (meat/cheese/egg platter $10.95), was often thin, dry and flavorless.
Spaetzle should taste like something, even if it's just butter. Of course, pork belly rillettes borrowed from Freiburg's French neighbors ($8.95) tasted too much like butter and not enough like pork, so there's a limit.
Our service at Freiburg varied. One server was competent and businesslike; another was overly friendly but inexperienced, answering questions incorrectly and forgetting our drinks.
The menu needs a good edit, too. Someone might add vintages to the wine list and weed out misnomers like "hourseradish," "grav lox" and "crème fresh." Consider the umlaut, which seems to be deployed willy-nilly across the menu.
Freiburg is the fifth concept from Noble Chef Hospitality Group, which recently announced the expansion of its Rare Steakhouse, open since 2014, to Milwaukee. Freiburg itself is owned by Jack and Julie Sosnowski, along with a new partner, Stephen Weber.
Behr is very enthusiastic about Freiburg's German-centric beer menu, which will eventually involve more than 30 taps (there are currently 21) of maibock, schwarzbier and hefeweizen. He envisions tap takeovers and celebrations of new-to-market brews, like Krombacher's Hell.
Another menu change is coming soon, too, as Freiburg prepares to offer what Behr called "vespa," a version of happy hour between 2 and 5 p.m. daily.
"You come in, have a beer and a 'mid-meal' — it's not quite lunch, it's not quite dinner, but it's not just a snack," Behr said.
The menu would be short, with things like a wurst platter and a pickle plate, with pickled sausages, pickled vegetables, Behr said; "anything I can get my hands on I will ferment or pickle."
Freiburgers observe this kind of happy hour, he said. And it could be a hit with Dudgeon-Monroe parents looking to kill time while the kids are in piano lessons a few doors down.
Behr, who has 3-year-old twins named Wolfgang and Vladimir, can relate.
"You want to have a quick drink while you're waiting for children to come home," he said, "where you're not eating a huge meal but you're satisfying yourself, having a nice beer."
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