Photograph by Jeremy Kramer
On a trip to Bonn—many years ago, before the capital moved back to Berlin—my parents and I engaged in the standard Teutonic touristy experiences: We visited the cathedral in Köln, climbed up to the Schloss Drachenberg, perched high above the Rhine, and went south to wander in the Black Forest.
Never once did we say, “Hey, we’re in Germany, let’s eat some real German food!” It didn’t occur to us that Germany might have a culinary heritage worthy of its music, art, and architecture. I figured it topped out at sausages and pretzels, with the occasional pile of sauerkraut. Turns out, I missed out on some great food, as I discovered when I sat down at Bauer Farm Kitchen.
The impetus for the restaurant, according to Chef Jackson Rouse, came from former Saveur editor and Cincinnati native Keith Pandolfi, who asked, “Where is the good German food?” Here in Cincinnati, where our brewing heritage has been enthusiastically re-embraced, rustic German cooking is largely absent from the finer dining scene. Rouse decided to fill the gap himself after his former employer, The Rookwood, closed last December.
Like the rustic Franco-German cuisine that it features, Bauer (which means farmer) is a little off the beaten path. It’s actually in the basement space that once housed Jimmy G’s on Elm Street, and to be honest, is still finding its aesthetic identity (mirrored ceilings, barn doors to nowhere, and random stacks of firewood make for a slightly odd dining environment). Although the restaurant does serve traditional-sized entrées, the menu is dominated by smaller plates, meant to be shared.
The primary ingredient in peasant cuisine is time. The cook takes cheap, less desirable cuts of meat (oxtail and pig’s head come to mind), fresh, plentiful, in-season vegetables, and then adds time and natural processes to make them delicious—think fermentation, curing, and braising. In everything Bauer Farm Kitchen serves, I could taste the time spent, and it entirely justified the price of the meal.
The charcuterie and cheese plates, often a highlight of meals at The Rookwood, continue to dazzle. At Bauer Farm Kitchen, there were pickled eggplants along with a sweet, onion-packed oxtail jam, and a deliciously balanced whole grain mustard. The restaurant aims to get most of its vegetables and meat from within 25 miles, and some of the items on the board are simply as-is local produce: leaves of lamb’s quarters (an omnipresent wild farm edible), or sliced ninja radishes.
Just as diners custom-assemble their nibbles from a charcuterie plate, so should one order from the small plates menu, which features a variety of dishes that complement each other well. The spaetzle gratin, which was like a dreamy, half-dissolved mac-and-cheese, was set off nicely by the spicy-sour vinegar and mustard notes of the charred cabbage salad. The currywurst, made by Avril-Bleh, is blisteringly hot, and needs the accompanying bites of German potato salad and housemade sauerkraut (with tiny bursts of citrus from whole coriander seeds) to cool the tongue.
The entrées, with components served cheek-by-jowl in shallow steel dishes, seem designed to have flavors comingle. Messy oozings enliven whole dishes—the anise-laced gravy from the sauerbraten short ribs, dotted with springs of bright chervil, infiltrates the neighboring spaetzle, and the rich mushroom broth from the oxtail stew infuses the chewy wheat berries. The turnip hash in the sauerbraten even had some inedible woody bits to give it the genuine rustic touch. I suppose I could complain about this, but when you are wiping your fingers across the dishes to mop up every last taste of sauce, you don’t feel like niggling.
Bauer Farm Kitchen’s heart is clearly with its lovingly transformed meats—you can even order an entire pig’s head if you give them three days notice (I didn’t). The menu’s one vegan small plate, though, the ratatouille, is a surprising standout. Everything that makes Jackson Rouse’s cooking special is packed into this peasant dish of seasonal vegetables. Fresh, commonplace ingredients—eggplants, peppers, garlic, basil—and little attempt at needless reinvention. The eggplant and peppers are delicately charred, which keeps them from exuding too much water, and the basil is infused into an oil and sprinkled on the dish with a fennel confit. And they don’t skimp on the garlic.
Every bit of the ratatouille was gone before we touched the other plates. Even in good restaurants, it is rare to feel not just pleasantly full, but truly nourished. It was a reminder that great food comes not just out of the creativity of a single chef, or even a culinary tradition, but finally out of the land itself. When a dish like this works, it speaks not just to the palate but to the whole person, and shows why farm-to-table is always worth doing. Something special is happening at this restaurant and not enough people know about it yet. On the nights we ate there—a Friday and a Saturday—it was only about half full. In the distinctiveness of its vision and the care with which it is executed, Bauer Farm Kitchen is a triumph. It deserves a visit, and to become a fixture in a city where good German food is unaccountably hard to find.
Bauer Farm Kitchen, 435 Elm St., downtown, (513) 621-8555, bauercincinnati.com
Hours: Dinner Tues–Thursday 5:30–9:30 pm, Fri & Sat 5:30–10
Prices: $6 (zwiebelsuppe, onion soup)–$34 (sauerbraten short ribs)
Credit Cards: All major
Fills a yawning gap in the city’s culinary landscape, and does so deliciously.