A Beisl Burgeons in Brooklyn:
Chef Crosses River, Loosens Tie
Beisl is the Viennese word for “bistro,” and this new restaurant, which opened three months ago across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is as casual and relaxed a place as I’ve been in a while. “I wanted to create a comfortable, warm feeling, not uptight” says the chef and owner, Thomas Ferlesch. “In Vienna, there has been a renaissance of the beisl, where you get authentic Austrian food, where there’s no dress code,” he went on. “The postman and plumber are drinking at the bar, a university professor is at the table-and there’s always a metal bowl for the dog at the door.”
This is still New York City, of course, and dogs are as ganz verboten in restaurants as cigarettes these days. But besides that, the look, the food and the customers at Mr. Ferlesch’s new restaurant certainly fit his description of a typical beisl. On a recent evening, a group of colorfully dressed art students of Arab descent-three young men and a woman, a Pratt Institute folder on their table-were having an animated conversation in German. Across the room, beneath a giant mirror and an enameled street sign that reads “Kaiser Franz Josef Strasse,” sat four women in their 60’s-the pearls, high cheek bones and well-cut suits signaling the Upper East Side. A red-haired waiter, sporting a pony tail and a blue sweater, carried a dessert topped with a flickering candle to their table. The women sang “Happy Birthday”; everyone clapped, and the chef-who was not in his kitchen, but sitting in the corner with a friend-went over to the small celebration and drew up a chair.
It turns out the women had been Mr. Ferlesch’s loyal customers since the days of Vienna 79, the popular Upper East Side restaurant where, 24 years ago, he introduced New Yorkers to the modern, light version of Viennese cooking that’s now served at Danube, Wallsé and Café Zabarsky. Mr. Ferlesch then went on to spend 11 years cooking at Café des Artistes. Now, at his own restaurant, you can find many of the same dishes he used to serve there, for half the price. No main course is over $16. The food is old-style Viennese, the sort of “crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles” that were a few of the von Trapp family’s favorite things (and surely Dr. Freud’s as well, along with a big cigar).
The restaurant occupies a small building painted, as Mr. Ferlesch put it, “Hapsburg yellow, the same color as the Schonbrum Gelt, the castle in the middle of Vienna.” With the stone lions’ heads over the front door, the mahogany bar up front and the mirror scrawled with the names of wines and champagnes, the place looks as though it’s been around for years. The L-shaped dining room has wainscoted walls hung with beer signs, mirrors, photographs of old Vienna and a blackboard chalked with the plats du jour. The arched windows are crisscrossed with strips of copper, and the tables are set with paper over linen and heavy wooden school chairs Mr. Ferlesch found in an antique shop on Atlantic Avenue.
I first came here with a small group on a Sunday afternoon before going to see Uncle Vanya , and it was a testimony to the actors that, following our blow-out lunch, we didn’t fall asleep during the performance. Our meal included a pot au feu that was brought to the table in a green Le Creuset casserole. The waiter lifted up the lid and revealed a steaming broth with short ribs, leeks, carrots and turnips. On the side were grated horseradish, toast and marrow bones that came with a long, silver spoon for digging out the delicious, artery-clogging marrow. All of this could have fed a family of four nicely, but it was intended for just one-quite a feast for $16. The goulash was good, too, made with beef cheeks instead of shanks (Mr. Ferlesch says that’s how it was made it in the days of the Hungarian-Austrian empire; the shanks get stringy). The meat-which was served with a rich paprika sauce, pickles and puffs of fried spaetzle-was so tender you hardly needed a knife.
So I was surprised that the wiener schnitzel, made from pork, was disappointing: thick and heavy, although not the least bit greasy. I preferred the chicken “cordon bleu.” You should probably tie a napkin around your neck before tackling this. It was like chicken Kiev, only instead of butter spurting out when you cut into it, you found melted gruyere cheese and a layer of ham. Both dishes came with salads made from thin slices of cucumber seasoned with paprika, vinegar and garlic.
When I came for dinner, a special of the day was sauerbraten, made with beef shoulder marinated in red wine. It was served in a sauce enriched with mustard and sour cream, and accompanied by red cabbage and Viennese dumplings. Deep-fried onions and spaetzle garnished the perfectly cooked beefsteak (zwiebelrostbraten) and the liver (which was cut thin and, unfortunately, overcooked) with grapes. But the cod, with wild mushrooms that had been sautéed until almost caramelized, was excellent.
Deep-fried button mushrooms, a traditional Austrian dish, are great as a snack, and they were a hit as a first course at our table. Crispy on the outside and juicy within, you squeeze lemon on them and dip them in tartar sauce. Mr. Ferlesch also makes a fine, creamy chicken liver terrine served with a crunchy kumquat-cranberry compote, and a delicate head cheese in jelly topped with sliced, marinated red onions and garnished with quartered hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes. On the lighter side is a salmon tartare, or a seafood salad that’s made with sautéed shrimp, calamari, baby squid and braised octopus. Don’t bother with the tasteless arugula salad. Instead, go for the chunky roasted beets garnished with onions, goat cheese and celery, or the silky eggplant terrine layered with goat cheese and roasted red peppers.
The wines are as much of a bargain as the food. Mr. Ferlesch says he will be adding more Austrian bottles to his mostly French list. The Grüner Veltliner Tuerk, a white wine from Kremstal, is an excellent choice at $30, as is the Blaufraenkisch Zweiglet Lehrner, a red from Burgenland, for $32.
And now for dessert. If you wish, you can come here, have nothing but a “giant Beisl Burger” with French fries for $8, and leave. But you would miss the best linzertorte I’ve ever had. I’m not usually drawn to this dish, but Mr. Ferlesch’s is simply great: made with raspberry jam, half almonds and half hazelnuts, ground up and flavored with cinnamon, vanilla and lemon peel, and served, of course, mit schlag . Palatschinknen were also superb. The light crêpes were rolled lengthwise around apricot jam, or came folded into quarters filled with hazelnut chocolate and covered with chocolate fudge sauce and a heap of schlag. Specials of the day, an alcoholic tiramisu made with stroh rhum from Austria and a hazelnut parfait that was like a rich semifreddo, were also very good.
During dinner, the art students went back and forth out the front door for a smoke. By summer, Mr. Ferlesch is opening a garden that will seat 25. Despite the laid-back atmosphere, you won’t be able to smoke here, either. But if you bring your dog, you just may find a metal bowl at the gate. Thomas Beisl is that sort of place.