Black Forest Taphouse looks nothing like the former Josef's Country Inn in Fallston, a fine-dining establishment that had white tablecloths and fussy decor. The new place has a stark, almost soulless design with bare tables, dark wood and plain walls.
Its saving grace is the mostly good food and beer it serves — and its homage to the past.
The new owners, Alex and Dana Theodoropoulos, are friends of Josef Gohring, who had operated his eponymous restaurant, known for German dishes, for nearly 30 years until it closed in 2015.
"We figured we could turn it into something of a tribute to him," said Dana Theodoropoulos, who has run nearby Fallston Seafood with her husband for 11 years.
The couple named it Black Forest in honor of the German-born Gohring's native region. The new restaurant opened to the public in early January and started serving a full menu in February.
It serves mostly pub food with German influences, a combination that works well.
The excellent Reuben skins were a good example. The soft potato shells were fleshy and topped with corned beef cubes, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. The flavors were a knockout.
The Black Forest oysters were another delicious starter. The baked bivalves were covered with onion, green pepper, Black Forest ham and mozzarella.
There are raw oysters, fried oysters and mussels in German stout available, too.
As befitting the restaurant's "taphouse" designation, a rotation of draft brews includes Dogfish Head Olde School, Bitburger, Duvel and Brewer's Art Resurrection. Wines are also on tap.
We made the mistake of asking to be seated in the separate dining room as opposed to the noisy, roomy bar area. It's a dim outpost with a pretty alpine mural on the wall that didn't fit in with the bare-bones decor. Even our waitress seemed to forget we were there at times.
There are several entrees, including a champagne salmon, a brat platter, crab cake and Oktoberfest chicken basket.
We were pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the pork schnitzel cordon rouge. A pork tenderloin was layered with prosciutto and Gorgonzola, rolled like a roulade, cut into four thick slices for our plate and draped with gravy. It was served with tender homemade spaetzle (German noodles) and a mixed green salad that was not an afterthought.
The pile of lettuces was tossed with goat cheese, candied walnuts, cranberries and ham. We recommend the sesame-ginger house dressing.
Given the quality of our dishes that night, we were confounded by the Chesapeake roll. It was a provocative sandwich with two buttered, toasted rolls spilling over with "house-made" crab salad — except it was one of the worst crab salads we've ever eaten. When we asked what type of crabmeat was used, our waitress told us it was lump crab. Maybe. But it was inedible, with a strong, off-putting sour taste that overpowered any seafood flavor.
On a return visit, we sat in the bar, a cavernous space with a cathedral ceiling and multiple TVs. It's bright in the daylight, and our server was personable and shared helpful details about the restaurant — like the tidbit that the kitchen uses a sieve from Josef's to make the spaetzle, and that the sausages come from Binkert's German Meat Products in White Marsh.
Our knockwurst, simmered in beer and onions, was outstanding. Served on a pretzel roll, the snappy-skinned wurst was heaped with sauerkraut, peppers and spicy mustard. It came with fries.
The Rhinelander burger was also terrific. An Angus beef patty was stacked with pepper Jack cheese, ham and sauteed onions on a pretzel bun lathered with spicy mustard. The restaurant's house-made waffle fries were salty and crisp.
The glossy dessert menu actually has photos. The sweets aren't baked in house, our waitress said, but they include options like a chocolate cake, New York cheesecake and a turtle cheesecake.
The triple-layer carrot cake was a great finish. The moist cake was enhanced with shredded carrots, pecan pieces and crushed pineapple and sealed with a rich cream-cheese butter icing.
The lemon-berry mascarpone cake, dusted with powdered sugar, was a refreshing combination with a tart sweetness and creamy texture.
We think it's great that Gohring's decades of restaurant service in Harford County will live on in various ways at Black Forest.
We just wish the place had more charm.