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It’s been nine years since Zum Schneider debuted on Avenue C, kindling a minor craze for German beer gardens. This being New York City, many are entirely indoors. Now you can snack on sausages with a foamy stein at a dozen rollicking places in the Lower East Side, Astoria, Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and the West Village. But in Brighton Beach? I was incredulous when I spotted KeBeer one evening as I descended from the Q train. The place sat at the foot of Coney Island Avenue, in a storefront formerly occupied by Eastern Feast, one of the city’s earliest slingers of Uzbek charcoal-grilled kebabs.
In fact, the 2000 Village Voice Best Of issue touting Eastern Feast still hangs on the wall, though the rest of the interior has been transformed completely. Big picture windows now look out on downtown Brighton Beach, where, unaccountably, two branches of Chase Bank face off against each other across the same intersection. KeBeer’s décor is positively medieval, with white tiles clinging to the wall behind a bar sprouting beer taps, and dark wood shrouding the balance of the sizeable room. Black iron fixtures with guttering candles dangle from the ceiling, and, as you go downstairs in search of the bathrooms, you can’t avoid the impression that you might find yourself in a dungeon.
The taps herald a dozen beers, mainly German, offered in half-liter steins at the unbelievable price of $4. Here’s the advantage of drinking German beer in a Russian neighborhood: Local patrons are not about to put up with dainty and expensive pours. Taps run from light (Hofbräu Original) to heavy as lead (Spaten Optimator), but favor lagers and pilsners. The menu also offers an impressive collection of bottles, including such fruity arcana as peach, cherry, and raspberry lambics. Showing a nice attention to detail, alcohol content is listed for each brew, warning us that Belgian Piraat triple ale has enough in a single serving to stretch some people out (10.5 percent).
While most beer gardens offer a rudimentary menu of pretzels and sausages, with a schnitzel or two thrown in to vary the terrain, KeBeer mounts a full Uzbek menu, along with accessory Russian, Georgian, Turkish, and Middle Eastern dishes. There’s even an Israeli Yemenite soup, featuring chickpeas, cow feet, and oxtails—but don’t think for a minute that this place might be kosher: Pork is available, though used sparingly compared to lamb. The menu also shows a penchant for puns—a burger made with lamb is referred to as a “lamb burghini” ($10), in a tip of the hat to the pricey Italian sports car. The burger is good in a mild, smoky sort of way, but the patty finds itself upstaged by the fries, which are mobbed with crushed garlic and fresh dill.
Want some Caucasus Mountains fare with your beer? The Georgian standard chicken tabaka ($11), sometimes facetiously referred to as “roadkill chicken,” is a whole pullet flattened, fried an appealing shade of brown, and paved with raw garlic. Need I say it’s beyond delicious? Khatchapouri (here spelled “hachapuri”) proves equally scrumptious, a hubcap of delicate dough enfolding more chewy, oozy cheese than the pastry can easily hold.
But Silk Road food from Uzbekistan predominates. This means charcoal-grilled kebabs, of course, available singly or heaped on platters. The best are lamb rib and dark-meat chicken, but you might be tempted to try the one dubbed “minute steak,” by which the chuckling menu writer meant an exceedingly tough piece of beef cut thin and beaten like a cur to make it palatable. The vegetarian Uzbek selections are surprise triumphs, especially the tomato-and-onion salad, drowning in its own sweet juices, with a name that sounds like a dainty sneeze: achuchu ($7.50). Most appetizers at KeBeer will satisfy three or four diners, so order accordingly.
While the purse-size Uzbek dumplings are too tough-skinned, the Russian pickled mushrooms proved superb—tart oyster mushrooms and shiitakes sprinkled with fresh dill. KeBeer even attempts German food from time to time. Thus, a trio of absurdly long wursts is sometimes offered as a special: One tastes like chorizo, another like kielbasy, and the third might almost be mistaken for a knockwurst—if you could ignore an unwanted spiciness.
As a friend who lives in Brighton Beach noted, “After two world wars in which the Germans were the aggressors and millions of lives were lost, the Russians are willing to go only so far in re-creating a German institution.”