Gunk Haus Restaurant, Highland
Where to eat in 2013: Old World Bavarian in Ulster County
Brat pack: Some of the offerings at Gunk Haus
Photographs by Jennifer May
Don’t be fooled by the Highland address — that’s just the post office talking. The Gunk Haus is actually nestled in the middle of apple orchards in Clintondale, on a winding Ulster County country road with drop-dead views of the Shawangunks.
Though the brew flows plentifully, there are no brightly lit beer signs or promotional banners and definitely no TV tuned to the sports channel.
Instead, the quietly charming 19th-century building painted a luminous mustard yellow and woodsy green seems lost in time. With its magically charged Brothers Grimm atmosphere, it’s the kind of place where you might have a romantic date or even get engaged.
But it’s not all about location. Ever since Chef Elizabeth Steckel and Dirk Schalle, her Bavarian-born husband, quietly opened their 76-seat restaurant over Memorial Day weekend of 2010, locals have been storming through the doors and rhapsodizing about the food.
Although authentically Old World Bavarian, the menu is tweaked for modern tastes: A very peppery Hungarian goulash has been “crazy popular,” says Steckel. Instead of serving kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats) with traditional bow-tie pasta, Steckel substitutes rye spaetzle (a noodle) with hazelnuts for richer flavor.
The classics are all here, too. Try the Wurst Platter — fresh, all-pork, freshly ground sausages made by local meat artisan Mark Elia. And don’t miss the strudels, both savory and sweet. A vegetarian sweet potato and goat cheese version with local mesclun greens is a fall classic. But you can also hold off for the dessert strudel: local Empire apples wrapped in a flaky packet and topped with espresso-caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream.
Pretzels pop up in unexpected places. Burger on a haus-made pretzel bun and hot dog on a pretzel roll please kids and adults alike. “When we first opened, everyone thought the pretzel only came in that twisty shape and they were baffled by our pretzel breads,” says Steckel. “But now pretzel bread is huge.” (See more on the pretzel explosion here.)
Why the seemingly sudden interest not just in pretzels, but in German food in general? Steckel traces it to the huge popularity of craft beer over the last decade. “Up until now, everyone was really concerned with pairing wine with food, so now that they’re into craft beer they want to pair it with cuisine, and the entry point is German cuisine because they’ve been doing it for so many eons.”
Accordingly, Gunk Haus offers a gamut of microbrews — both domestic and German — on tap behind its imposing wood bar, from full bodied and richly malted to smooth and subtle.
“We want there to be something for everyone,” says Schalle. Especially popular and always available: Mother’s Milk, a roasty, chocolaty stout produced by Keegan Ales of Kingston.
Truth be told, beer was really the restaurant’s inspiration. For years, the couple had been visiting Schalle’s family in Germany and sampling the brews in a gästhaus (similar to a bistro). “Any gästhaus you went to had a range of styles so you could pick the appropriate beer for your food, so we kind of knew that’s what we wanted to do,” recalls Steckel, a Detroit native who met Schalle (a former software expert) in D.C.
So much has happened in just three years: The basement has become a catering kitchen. There is now a patio bier garten and an outdoor dining deck that seats 60, with even better views of those marvelous ’Gunks (look for the hidden pretzel out here, too, cleverly incorporated in the iron gates).
But the latest news du jour is that a retail bakery opened in October; it also serves as a place to pick up your to-go order or simply drop in for a cappuccino and pretzel croissant. It’s a place for casual noshers to graze on breads, cakes, strudels, and cookies or enjoy a quick lunch: Wouldn’t a goulash-stuffed pretzel with a little pint of cole slaw hit the spot right now?
The minute the couple announced this bakery on their Facebook page, loyal followers began beseeching Steckel for her nemesis: chocolate-filled pretzels, dubbed “schatzis,” something that she offered for a limited time and which were widely hailed to be the best thing ever invented. “They are just too labor-intensive,” she moans, while her husband chuckles mischievously. “There is just no way I’m bringing them back.” She’s added a pretzel-covered chocolate cookie as a substitute. But people keep asking; only time will tell if her adoring public gets its way.
Highland. 845-883-0866; www.gunkhaus.com