"Welcome to the Jungle," reads a hand-painted sign on the front of the host stand at the Radler. It matches the pieces of plywood that adorn the walls, painted with fierce-looking images of a bear, a wolf, a chicken, and a boxing glove (artists from Galerie F, located next door to the restaurant, painted the wood when it was covering the outside of the building during renovations).
Aside from the art, there are few modern touches in Logan Square's first Bavarian beer hall. With its dark wood floor and furniture, exposed-brick walls, and trio of handsome grandfather clocks behind the bar, the space wouldn't look out of place in 19th-century Germany. Behind the clocks, there's even a mural advertising Bohemian Export Beer, which was brewed in Chicago in the 1890s by West Side Brewery. Exposed ductwork and a partially open, very modern-looking kitchen are the only anachronistic elements.
Heading up that kitchen are Nathan Sears and Adam Hebert, both formerly of Vie, who have set out to "update" German food using local ingredients—tweaking classics, often to make them a little more upscale. The menu, which advertises "fresh sausage and aged beer" (the aged beer isn't yet available), is divided into "snacks," "the best," and "the wurst."
To follow the menu's format, the "best" of the Radler: The food. The alcohol. The service. (We actually had the same server on both visits, and she was excellent each time.) Most of the important parts, really. The "wurst": When full, the restaurant is extremely noisy. On a weekend night, it will not only be full, but there's likely to be a long wait for a table. And the prices, while not outrageous, aren't cheap. A pretzel is $6 (but worth it—more on that later); a single quarter-pound sausage with several cute little accompaniments is $9. The larger entrees are around $15, but by the time you add on a side dish or salad it'll cost you at least another $6.
That slightly expensive pretzel, shiny with a liberal coating of oil, is accompanied not by mustard but barley-malt butter and blackberry jam. Barley-malt butter, as it turns out, is magical. Nutty, slightly sweet, and a little malty-tasting, it transformed the pretzel from a run-of-the-mill crispy twist of dough into something that I couldn't stop eating—I just barely restrained myself from ordering it again on my second visit. I was also impressed by the mushroom and cheese appetizer, which included cubes of Rahmkase (a mild cow's cheese) marinated in oil and vinegar with tiny enoki mushrooms and caramelized onions, served with dense buckwheat bread.
Onion pie with shaved brussels sprouts, bacon vinaigrette, chives, and pilsner soubise was another favorite, the rich filling reminiscent of a light, barely set quiche, the crust flaky and crumbly. Tender schnitzel with a crispy crust and mild veal flavor was equally well executed, but puzzlingly, arrived with pieces of honeycomb candy stuck to the bread-crumb coating. Against my better judgment, I tried the candy with the schnitzel, and was not rewarded for my efforts: the sweetness didn't mesh well with the veal flavor. At least the rest was pretty easy to pick off.
We encountered a few other missteps, mostly minor. The gingersnap pieces that accompanied the confit brussels sprouts seemed a little odd in context, though together with the slightly sweet apple-cider mayo they did help to balance out the bitterness of the sprouts, which were fried a tad too dark for my taste. The caramelized pearl onions in the braised rabbit stew weren't cooked through; when I first bit into one I thought it must be something else because I didn't expect the onions to be crunchy. Still, the herb-filled, lemony broth infused the parsnips and the shreds of tender rabbit meat with plenty of flavor. The one dish I disliked was the underseasoned potato salad, served ice cold. The bacon mayo on top helped a little, but the bits of bacon were too small to compete with the overwhelming blandness of the potatoes.
The other side dish we tried, though—spaetzle with brown butter, lemon, and herbs—more than made up for the potato salad's failure. Light, crispy, and buttery, it was the ultimate comfort food, and one of the best renditions of the German noodle I've tried.
The Radler makes four wursts: thuringer, knockwurst, boarwurst, and weisswurst. Each is cooked differently (grilled, smoked, seared, or poached) and three of the four are served with different house-made mustards (spicy, mild, apple). We tried all except the first one, and they were fine specimens of encased meat, complemented by the various jams, purees, and mustards that accompanied them. The soft, almost spongy weisswurst didn't have a lot of flavor on its own, but went well with the curry-roasted apples, oat streusel, apple sauce, and apple mustard. Mildly gamy boarwurst came with a caramelized onion and cocoa nib relish that melded beautifully with the boar flavor, and mild mustard provided a nice pop to contrast with the pleasantly chewy skin of the garlicky smoked knockwurst.
Desserts are fairly traditional; we had the Black Forest cake, which was more like a soft, chocolatey brownie baked in a small, shallow ramekin and served with cherry jam and whipped creme fraiche. I preferred the buttery, nutty Bee Sting cake, a round of almond cake sliced in half down the center and filled with a rich custard—though I would have liked a little more custard, the cake being just a bit on the dry side (or more of the "wheat beer syrup," though I couldn't detect any beeriness to the dessert).
Hebert has partnered with Flesk Brewery in Lombard to brew the Radler's "haus" beer, which was a helles on my first visit and had been replaced by a hefeweizen by the time I returned. Both were light, citrusy, and inoffensive, the kind of beer engineered to pair well with food and not fill you up too much should you opt for a liter rather than a half-liter stein (several other beers on the menu are also available by the liter). It's what's used in the house radler, a combination of beer and lemon soda that's also known as shandy. (Literally, "radler" means "cyclist" in German, which is reflected in the Radler's logo, a stylized lion riding a penny-farthing bicycle and drinking a beer.) A dark, roasty dunkel weiss brewed by Lake Effect is equally food friendly and more seasonally appropriate; the 20 taps include a few other locally brewed German-style beers (and several non-German ones) as well as a half-dozen brews from Germany and Austria.
For those who aren't interested in drinking beer with their pretzels and sausage as the good lord intended, there's a brief selection of wines by the glass and boozy cocktails. The Tourist (Espolon reposado tequila, St-Germain, yellow chartreuse) and the Corpse Reviver No. 2 (Beefeater gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, lemon) were both intensely alcoholic but well balanced, and barely sweet—the Corpse Reviver, in fact, was quite tart. Gluhwein, on the other hand, could easily substitute for dessert, the warm, fruity mulled wine sweet but not syrupy.
The bottom of the menu exhorts patrons to return soon, promising: "There is much, much, much more to come in the very near future." I'd believe it: only a few days passed between my first and second visits, and in that time a few dishes and beers had already been replaced or added. The aged beer program is still being developed, and D.A.S.—the Radler's restaurant-within-a-restaurant that will serve prix fixe menus of upscale Bavarian food—hasn't launched yet either. But while the Radler may be a work in progress, it's not suffering any growing pains yet. As long as it keeps up the level of food it's putting out now, it'll be just fine.