Oktoberfest may be the ultimate celebration of food and beer. Here in Charlottesville, though, the festival’s signature Bavarian fare can be hard to find. Enter Kardinal Hall. Opened last year by the team behind Beer Run, the beer hall and garden filled a gap in Charlottesville dining with food and drink it calls “Alpine.” Truth be told, Kardinal Hall does not tout strict traditionalism in its eats and suds, but instead blends in a healthy dose of innovation, with great results.
Two area experts on these topics are Jerome Thalwitz and Jason Oliver. Classically trained at restaurants in Bavaria, chef Thalwitz has spent the last three decades running the Bavarian Chef, the destination-worthy Madison restaurant founded by his parents, where German classics join inventive specials. Oliver, meanwhile, is brewmaster of Devils Backbone Brewing Company, among our country’s most acclaimed brewers of German-style beers. What better companions for a Kardinal Hall dinner during Oktoberfest?
Oliver calls German food “perfect for beer,” especially crisp pilsners, which he says counter the sourness of Bavarian pickles, and the fat, salt and spice of sausages and charcuterie. Take the charcuterie board that began our meal. On a large rectangular wooden board, piles of savory country pork pate, pastrami of Free Union Grass duck and smoked Autumn Olive Farms ham lay beautifully beside small white bowls of assorted house pickled local vegetables, which I consider among the best in town. “I respect that they use a lot of local ingredients,” said Oliver.
If German food is perfect for beer, so too is German beer perfect for food, and Kardinal Hall has the best selection of German beer in town, along with an assortment of American craft beer. “German beer is so approachable,” said Oliver. “It’s beer for the people!” The Rothaus Pils was such an ideal beer pairing for our charcuterie platter that Oliver said it was like another ingredient in the food. From food back to beer back to food, “there’s a seamless enjoyment of eating and drinking,” he said.
Next came a nod to tradition: a plate of Oktoberfest sausages with spaetzle and local oyster mushrooms. The sausages were from Binkert’s, the same Baltimore producer used by the Bavarian Chef. For one of them—weisswurst—Thalwitz requested a side of currywurst sauce, thus creating one of his favorite classic German street foods. Also a standout was the spaetzle, which reminded Thalwitz of dishes he made in Bavaria. “Paired with Weihenstephaner Festbier,” said Thalwitz, “it was a superb combination.” Other sausages on the menu are also well-sourced, from The Rock Barn and Sausagecraft.
Kardinal Hall’s chef Thomas Leroy is not from Germany but from France, where he trained before coming to Charlottesville to run adventurous kitchens like Bizou and Zinc Bistro (now closed). He has been with Kardinal Hall since even before it opened. “Leroy’s skill set, experience running a variety of kitchens and familiarity with classic European techniques made him a natural fit,” says Kardinal Hall co-owner Josh Hunt.
And so, while Leroy has the skills to nail the classics, he often breaks from tradition with playful riffs. This is the aspect of Kardinal Hall that Oliver likes best. It’s the same approach he uses for Devils Backbone beer: “inspired by tradition but not handcuffed to it.”
The signature pretzels, for example, are made fresh daily, and with a glistening golden crust, look just like ones you’d see in Bavaria. They even come with obatzda, a classic Bavarian condiment of brie, ricotta, mustard, onions and paprika. Take a bite though, and you’ll discover a twist. For the dough, Leroy uses a house sourdough starter. While atypical, Thalwitz thought it added a nice, subtle flavor to the pretzel.
A further break from tradition is Leroy’s favorite thing on the menu, and perhaps the dish of the night. For the spice-rubbed brisket sandwich, Leroy coats brisket in mustard powder, paprika, onion and garlic, smokes it for three hours, and then braises it in beer and broth for seven more. The brisket rests on Amoroso rolls from Philadelphia and is topped with mustard remoulade and a German slaw of red cabbage. Thalwitz said the delicious slaw was just like the one at Bavarian Chef, all the way down to the caraway seeds that studded it. “We serve it with practically everything,” he said. And, he loved the sandwich’s ingenuity, combining traditional themes like Bavarian slaw and Philly cheese steak rolls to create an “excellent, modern dish.”
In fact, that captures the whole experience. As Thalwitz said after our meal: “Kardinal Hall has the feel of going to a traditional German biergarten while tweaking old-world foods with local, trending ingredients.” Or, as Oliver put it, “Kardinal Hall is an American beer hall that takes its inspiration where it wants to, not where it has to.” Prost to that.