Oktoberfest, the annual celebration of German heritage, cuisine and beer, is in full swing. Jager Haus (833 Conti St., 504-525-9200; www.jager-haus.com) has, for the past six years, honored Teutonic traditions with a special menu. This year, it's available throughout October. Chef Tomas Lejba is a native of the Czech Republic who came to the U.S. 15 years ago and arrived in New Orleans in 2007. For Oktoberfest, his menu includes Bavarian pretzels, sausages and beer and cheddar soup.
What's it like to cook traditional German food in a city that's more familiar with French and Creole fare?
Lejba: Many times we've faced a problem when we try to make really authentic food, because people in New Orleans didn't seem to care much for it right away. If we make traditional sauerkraut, for example, some people find it a bit too sour. So we make a version — the one that's served on our Oktoberfest plate with three different sausages and sides — that's more on the sweet side, and when people taste it they really enjoy it. But on the regular menu, we still have the bratwurst sandwich, where we use Berlin-style sauerkraut, which is very sour, heated up with bacon and served on top of the sausage.
If diners are hoping to go beyond sausages and pretzels to get a feel of other traditional German specialties, what should they look for on the Oktoberfest menu?
L: My favorite is the beef rouladen, a slow braised, stuffed beef dish that is very popular in Germany, which we serve with red cabbage and spaetzle. We make the spaetzle in house. It's the owner's mother's recipe, and it's really good. In Germany, you're going to encounter all kinds of spaetzles and other sides. Our version is a little bit different than most of the kind you'll find — it's more like nocken or gnocchi, a little bit softer, and it goes really well with the food.
Your special menu also features schweineshaxe, a beloved Bavarian dish of whole, skin-on, slow-roasted pork shank that New Orleans diners might not be familiar with. Can you tell us more about it?
L: We've tried to do schweineshaxe for the last five or six years, but the hardest thing was finding the part of the pig that we wanted. We couldn't find a single local company that cut the pork shank in the traditional German way that's needed to make this dish — it was cut too low or too high, or it wouldn't have the skin on it, which is such an important part of the recipe. So we found a company in Wisconsin that has their own pigs and cuts them to order the way we need to make the schweineshaxe. Some places here would cut it the way we wanted, but the first thing they'd do is remove the skin. We need the skin. Without the skin, it wouldn't be schweineshaxe. The opposite of that would be our braised pork shank dish, which is skinless Lots of people enjoy it because it's very soft and marinated, and it has a really great flavor. But the schweineshaxe has a totally different taste, a different look on the plate. There's more fat, because it has the skin on it, which makes it very flavorful, and we add nothing to it when we roast it in the oven except for salt, pepper and beer. Very simple. — SCOTT GOLD