Heavy Mettle

There's nothing delicate to be found in Old Heidelberg's deliciously Teutonic soul

The same cannot be said of the Eisbein ($10.95). Even the Germans don't know why Eisbein is called Eisbein. Pronounced ice-bine, it translates as something like icy leg. What it means is a knuckle of pork so huge and heavy that the plate seems to weigh at least ten kilos, and the amount of food is enough to feed a family of five. Served atop a mound of sauerkraut, the meat is so unlovely to look at that it seems like a mean-spirited caricature of German food -- direct from the pig to you. But give it a chance. This Teutonic version of Irish corned beef and cabbage is not to everyone's taste, but it is at the very least interesting. The melding of the pork's smoky-salty taste and the deceptively complex flavors of the sauerkraut is worth a try. The recipe, which is a specialty from Butt's home in the area around Ksln, requires ham shanks to be cured in salt for at least a week. The meat is then boiled and finally baked until it becomes crusty, at which point it's served piping hot atop the pickled cabbage.

At Old Heidelberg, the sauerkraut is one more homemade item. Seemingly simple, it's actually subtle and complex. The Germans supposedly got the idea of fermenting cabbage from the Roman legions -- just before the Teutons ran them out of Central Europe -- and have been perfecting the recipe ever since. Shredded white cabbage is immersed in a secret mixture of salt, apples, juniper berries, dill seeds and Butt only knows what else, then given time to ferment. It's tart and still vaguely crisp, with undertones of many elusive flavors.

The dunderheaded desserts (all $3.75) aren't worthy to follow such an entrancing dish. The apple strudel, which you'd expect to be pretty darn good in a place like this, is soggy and tasteless. The alleged Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake) is a travesty. And the carrot cake, which was actually pretty good, looks like it came from the bakery department of the Rice Epicurean Market down the street.

Pass on the desserts and try an after-dinner liqueur instead. Kick back, talk to friends or friendly strangers. Listen to, dance to or sing along with the nightly live music and enjoy the convivial atmosphere. That's what gemYtlichkeit -- and places like Old Heidelberg -- are all about.

Annemarie's Old Heidelberg, 1810 Fountainview, 781-3581.

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