After David Bouley opened Danube last fall, I expected to see chefs around town making free with the pumpkinseed oil and the paprika. But New Austrian Cuisine did not catch on like pan-Latin or Asian fusion. Now, however, Kurt Gutenbrunner, a Bouley alumnus, has opened Wallsé, a bistro in the West Village that serves modern Viennese food. (If you have trouble remembering the name of this restaurant, which is pronounced “vull-zay,” it’s because it’s a deliberate misspelling of Wallsee, the name of a village on the Danube about 80 miles from Vienna where the chef was born. He was afraid Americans would call it “Wall-sea.”)
But while Mr. Bouley’s Danube evokes the Vienna of Gustav Klimt with its glittering mosaic murals, velvet banquettes and fringed lampshades, Wallsé is about minimalism. The restaurant, on the corner of 11th and Washington streets, has two small, plain dining rooms with large windows, hardwood floors and white brick walls. The first room is dominated by a bar, the second is decorated with two enormous black-and-white photographs of mysterious-looking rooms in a castle. Wiry tungsten bulbs inside square copper-mesh shades designed by Joseph Hoffman hang from the ceiling, and the tables are set with bentwood chairs from Thonet Vienna by Adolf Loos. It’s the sort of place you could imagine Dr. Freud dropping in for a quick schnitzel between consultations.
Before Wallsé became trendy, that is. When a friend met me there for dinner, she was stunned by its transformation from the quiet neighborhood place she had dined in just the previous week. The rooms were packed and the noise bounced off the floor and ceiling, so our group had to shout to make ourselves heard. Yet the noise didn’t seem to bother the other people too much. They were an interesting mix, the sort of crowd you used to get at La Coupole: a group of tourists (Austrian) at one table, a well-known painter at another, a bearded TV newscaster in the corner. And what makes Wallsé special is that it’s a small place where the owner is the chef and he’s in the kitchen doing the cooking, not off at meetings with his accountant or planning his next TV series. Mr. Gutenbrunner cooked nouvelle cuisine in Vienna and haute cuisine at three-star Tantris in Munich before moving to New York, where he was at Cellar in the Sky at Windows on the World, before working at Bouley, Bouley Bakery and the Monkey Bar.
The hallmarks of Austrian cooking are braised meats, dumplings, pancakes and seasonings such as horseradish, pumpkinseed oil, elderflower and paprika. The menu at Wallsé is a mix of the classic and the new. The old dishes don’t have any of the heaviness associated with Viennese food. A Wiener schnitzel, made with tender pink slices of veal in a lightly breaded coating, with wonderful new parsley potatoes, would have been superb had it not been a bit overcooked the night I tasted it. But the tafelspitz (boiled beef) was perfect, so tender you could cut it with a spoon, served with apple horseradish, rousti potatoes and the best creamed spinach I’ve ever had: It was a thick, smooth emerald-green purée that tasted as if the spinach leaves were picked just hours before they were cooked. There is also rostbraten, a generous hunk of grilled sirloin with fried onions and a gratin of kohlrabi. The goulash was wimpy, served in an oversize white bowl, and the cubes of veal rather stringy with not much taste. Where were the caraway seeds, the paprika, the sour cream? my companion asked as she ate it. But the tiny quark spätzle (made with a cheese that has a sour-cream taste) were light and puffy and went nicely with their sauce.
How Austrian is Wallsé? Apart from those dishes, not very. You can start with one small soft-shell crab with corn, crunchy and sweet, or a delicate terrine of artichokes and tomatoes with fresh goat cheese (these plates are as minimalist as the decor). The tomato soup was extraordinary–thin and light but with a concentrated tomato flavor and a full, peppery aftertaste. It was laced with crawfish and basil oil. I also loved the smoked trout and silky pieces of eel tossed in a peppery watercress salad with slivers of apple. The only first course that wasn’t on the same level was a dull salad of Boston and iceberg lettuces with radish and pumpkinseed oil.
One evening the kitchen sent out a terrine made with creamy chunks of foie gras served with a sliced fresh, ripe peach. It was sensational. Another night they sent out a delicious riff on choucroute made with cod, chanterelles and sauerkraut in a Riesling sauce. That should go on the menu.
Mr. Gutenbrunner makes lovely cream sauces that are complex without being heavy, matched with lobster, chanterelles and fava beans or served with thin asparagus spears and chanterelles as a first course. His ingredients have that just-picked taste you get at the end of summer. Roast chicken was one of the best I’ve eaten, juicy under its glazed skin, served with corn, peas and artichokes. Grilled lamb chops were perfectly cooked, served with a salad of heirloom tomatoes and basil, the sort of dish you dream about in winter. Halibut arrived on what looked like a stained glass window, made with oiled paper-thin slices of cucumber with dill and wild mushrooms.
Wallsé has a well-chosen and interesting wine list of mostly French and Austrian wines, with many bottles under $40. The latter have come into their own in recent years, especially reds, and there’s a lot more to white than Gewurtztraminer and Riesling, too. Service was friendly and helpful; my only caveat was the habit– rampant in fancier restaurants than this–of keeping the supply of mineral water flowing, unrequested, at $8 a bottle. When I complained, they immediately took it off the bill and then, of course, I felt terrible.
Crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles–these were a few of Maria von Trapp’s favorite things. This particular song from The Sound of Music acts on my digestion like a slice of Black Forest gâteau. Not Mr. Gutenbrunner’s desserts, however. His cherry strudel is great, topped with vanilla ice cream. His warm chocolate and hazelnut sponge cake reminds me of one of my favorite things, English steamed pudding, although this is lighter and more refined. Poached peach with red currants is hardly a leaden dessert, nor is the delicious combination of elderflower sorbet and strawberries in elderflower syrup. The pancakes–stuffed with peaches, sprinkled with sugar and rolled and baked–are effervescent. And if you’re still not satisfied, you can wind up with Viennese coffee sabayon, a sort of espresso milkshake. The Trapp family would have been pleased.
344 West 11th Street (at Washington street)
Noise level: High
Wine list: Excellent, reasonable, with interesting Austrian vintages
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Main courses $19 to $29
Dinner: Seven days, 6 p.m. To midnight
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor