Seated at one of the communal tables on the roof of the new Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten in Asbury Park, the sun in my face, the ocean glimmering on the horizon, I took a bite of plump, garlicky weisswurst, lifted a mug of lightly fruity kölsch beer to my lips and thought, Ahh, the glory of summer!
A block from the bustling restaurant row along Cookman Avenue, Festhalle adds a welcome new dimension to Asbury Park dining. Actually, it adds a couple of dimensions. One is the roof deck, with its bar, food carts and ocean view, the only restaurant roof deck downtown. Another is the updated but still tradition-steeped Austro-Hungarian menu, the vision of Andy Ivanov, a native of Slovakia who has created similar Old World beer halls in Brooklyn (Radegast) and Hoboken (Pilsener Haus).
“I always look for places on the rise,” Ivanov, 40, told me on the phone after my visits, “and Asbury Park has a very interesting history and urban fabric.”
Festhalle can’t claim its retro, Euro-industrial look is entirely new in Asbury Park—Brickwall Tavern, which opened in 2006, got there first with about 20 taps of beer and mural-like reproductions of portraits by the great early-20th century German photographer August Sander. But the Festhalle’s large main floor breaks the mold in ways Brickwall doesn’t, replacing individual tables with long, wooden, communal tables with bench seats in a high-ceilinged space.
The big brick building that is now Festhalle was built in the 1940s as Lerner’s department store and later housed municipal offices and a marimba factory. It had not been long vacant when Ivanov partnered with Shore native and booking agent/hospitality vet Jennifer Lampert. With additional funding from a group of Wall Streeters eager to reinvest in their childhood playground, they set about transforming it into a beer hall. Minervini Vandermark architects of Hoboken broke up the featureless back wall with eight arched windows, each 13 feet tall, that look out on newly restored Wesley Lake. Artist Jan Pecarka painted replicas of historic European beer posters on the other brick walls.
“Presentation,” as Ivanov put it, “is the name of the game.”
With 30 beers on tap and more than 60 in bottles (including several from New Jersey breweries Ramstein, Kane and Carton), Festhalle not only offers a lot of beer but delivers it in festive glass steins and several specialized, often beautiful glasses designed by breweries for specific beers. In a nod to his heritage, Ivanov sought out, restored and installed a 140-year-old Pilsner Urquell tap. The Czech brewery, founded in 1842, is famous for its “milk” (or, in Czech, mléko) pour. The entire rounded mug fills slowly with a thick, tight foam. While it eventually settles into beer, I sucked mine down like a creamy, beer-flavored meringue.
At some beer gardens, food is an afterthought. Not so at Festhalle. Executive chef James Avery, a battle-tested veteran of the Gordon Ramsay TV series Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, commands a large, modern kitchen. From it, the Monmouth County native brings forth a local, seasonal menu. “You wouldn’t see asparagus, corn or tomatoes in Munich,” the 34-year-old chef told me in June. “But we’re not in Munich. We’re a beer garden by the Shore.”
Charred stalks of local asparagus were a highlight of an unforgettable roast-chicken platter ($17). Half an organic Bell and Evans bird, marinated in brine flavored with maple syrup and bourbon, was roasted until its skin was divinely crisp and flavorful. The rosemary- and citrus-infused meat was juicy—even better dragged through a swirl of puliszka, a coarse but creamy Hungarian polenta. Sherry-soaked cippolini onions caramelized in chicken fat provided the perfect counterpoint. (Avery lets the kitchen make extra trays of the sweet onions, because they’re the staff’s favorite snack.)
The maple-bourbon brine is also used to prep turkey breasts before they’re roasted, sliced and piled on thick country bread with sauerkraut and melted Emmentaler in open-faced Reubens, oozing rivulets of terrific house-made Russian dressing ($13).
Easier to eat by hand were the coarsely grated, well-browned potato pancakes. With a dab of sour cream and a spoonful of applesauce, each bite was hot, cool, salty and sweet. Another superb finger food was the blumenkohl ($9), turmeric-brined cauliflower florets that are panko crusted, fried and served with a piquant lemon-caper dip. A petite wheel of baked Camembert ($14) was similarly entrancing, the hot cheese oozing onto lingonberry jam and rosemary-toasted walnuts.
Wiener schnitzel ($18) was classic, made from house-butchered veal loin pounded thin, covered in breadcrumbs and pan fried. A squeeze of fresh lemon was all it needed to attain crisp, salty, tender perfection.
German beer gardens at their best are masters of wurst. Festhalle upholds a high standard, even though the sausages are not made in-house. Veal-and-pork-belly weisswurst display subtle flavors of lemon and garlic. The skin on the pork-and-beef frankfurter pops with a satisfying snap that releases intensely smoky flavors. The milder bratwurst, made of pork, plays well with lighter-bodied beers.
Giant pretzels are flown in par-baked from Germany and finished to order. Mine arrived hot, with a mahogany crust dotted with large crystals of crunchy salt. Each piece, twisted off with a satisfying tug, was enhanced with a dip in a mixture of Bavarian sweet-and-hot mustards or in thick, spicy, Liptauer-cheese sauce.
Portions are relatively large and easy to share. Beer-hall eating is, even with entrées, more like tapas eating than sitting down to a regular three-course meal. Groups order beers and a few dishes at a time, then a few more beers and a few more dishes.
That style of dining can put a lot of pressure on waitstaff, who have to weave through tightly spaced communal tables and keep track of several rounds of ordering. But Festhalle’s servers handled it all with aplomb. On a Saturday night, when the hall was filled to its (269-person) capacity, service was attentive and quick. If forks and napkins sometimes didn’t arrive until after food was set down, at least beers were already in hand (and some of the food is best eaten with fingers).
And then there’s the deck, where you buy $5 tokens that you exchange for pretzels, wursts, salads, corn, and of course, beer. (The full menu is available only in the dining hall itself.) But at this time of year, the view of the horizon and the sweet seaside breeze offer satisfactions of their own.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - European - German/Austrian
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$15; wursts and burgers, $12; entrées, $12-$25; desserts, $5-$7.
Ambience:Hip, hearty, resto-industrial
Service:Efficient and friendly
Wine list:Ten by the glass, mostly German, $8-$12; full bar featuring a dozen schnapps; 31 American craft and premium European bbers on tap, more than 60 others in bottles.