139 Duane Street
(at West Broadway)
Noise Level: High, but not unreasonable
Wine List: Short, international, good Austrian vintages, plus beers on tap
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, $18 to $24
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight
“Don’t eat any more!” a young woman next to me on the banquette told the man sitting across from her.
“I can’t help it.” He took another mouthful from a silver bowl on his table.
He looked over at me. “Chocolate-covered almonds,” he said. “You’d better take these before I finish the whole lot.”
I was sitting at a corner table in Blaue Gans (the name means “blue goose”), a new Austro-German bistro that has opened in Tribeca in the premises that used to be Le Zinc. It’s the latest venture of Kurt Gutenbrunner, the Austrian chef whose empire includes Wallsé in the West Village, Café Sabarsky and Café Fledermaus in the Neue Galerie and the popular Thor at the Hotel on Rivington on the Lower East Side.
Blaue Gans is as gemütlich and unpretentious a place as you could wish for, with an eclectic clientele that runs the gamut from Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson to babies in high chairs. Mr. Gutenbrunner has left Le Zinc’s décor virtually as is, with its polished zinc bar, curved white ceiling, and walls covered with unframed posters by artists such as Francesco Clemente, Kiki Smith and Brice Marden. Why change what’s already just about perfect? The long, softly lit room is lined with comfortable red banquettes and black wooden tables (including a long communal one in the center).
Sunday night, it seems, is family night. As we sat down in the corner, a small child came crawling towards us before being whisked away by its mother. At the next table, a couple of children were quietly playing video games and another briefly played ball with my husband, using a scrunched-up piece of paper.
It’s not surprising that kids like it here. Blaue Gans offers four kinds of sausage, a couple of schnitzels and a fried chicken served with potato salad and lingonberries—a menu that’s a sure-fire deterrent for any youngster ever wishing to darken the doors of McDonald’s again. The wursts, supplied by a German sausage-maker upstate, are terrific. Weisswurst, bratwurst and burenwurst (pork and beef sausage laced with cheese) come with the most delicate sauerkraut this side of Canal Street, tasting as though it had been braised in champagne. The blutwurstgröstl (blood sausage) is wonderful, crumbled with roasted fingerling potatoes, sprinkled with fresh, grated horseradish and served on a circle of that wonderful sauerkraut.
If you’re lucky, when you sit down you’ll be served a chunk of dark rye bread with Liptauer cheese, a creamy farmer’s cheese laced with herbs, onion and paprika. On my first visit, the bread never came. Service here is a little scattered: dishes that you haven’t ordered brought to your table by a person who’s not your server, and, of course, the inevitable “Are you still working on that?” (which invites the response: “Yes, it’s more labor-intensive than I’d thought”).
The food, under the direction of chef de cuisine Martin Pirker, who was formerly at Wallsé, isn’t labor-intensive, though. It’s graceful and refined, and the plates are gorgeous. The food here is not a reinterpretation of Austrian and German cuisines; the dishes are classic. Some, like the pork belly with crackling, red cabbage and brioche dumplings, are pretty hefty, while others, such as the smoked trout, are very light. The trout is layered with horseradish crème fraîche on crêpes, cut like a wedge of cake and served with baby red and golden beets and frisée. Paper-thin slices of duck breast are garnished with huckleberry compote and chestnuts. The thick, peppery goulash soup is superb, but the beef consommé, floating with semolina dumplings shaped like small zeppelins in a parsley-laden broth, is a revelation.
The schnitzels are not for wimps. The pork schnitzel nearly fills the plate. It’s like its Italian cousin, veal Milanese, with a crisp, greaseless breadcrumb crust, and is served with an excellent potato salad. Jäger schnitzel, with mushrooms, bacon and spätzle in a cream sauce, is also good and seriously filling. The boiled beef shoulder arrives with the best creamed spinach I’ve ever tasted, a smooth, unctuous pool served on the side. The only disappointment was the sautéed brook trout, which was salty and dry.
The short, international wine list has a good selection of Austrian wines at reasonable prices. Zweigelt is like a Beaujolais, light and agreeable, and there are several selections of the redoubtable Grüner Veltliner, which has replaced sauvignon blanc these days as the vin du jour.
Apart from a leaden Sachertorte, desserts (mit schlag) by pastry chef Pierre Reboul, who was previously at Wallsé and Café Sabarsky, are not to be missed. When you put your fork into the Salzburger nockerl, three heavenly clouds of egg-white soufflé, you find a compote of tart huckleberries. The apple strudel, the palatschinken with caramel sauce, and the airy quark dumplings with orange salad are all wonderful. One evening, the dessert special was kaiserschmarm. “In Austria, it’s a popular dish to eat after a light lunch,” said our waitress.
A very light lunch. Several small bread puddings arrived in a bowl, served with a ramekin of stewed apples garnished with a cinnamon stick. We had also ordered quark dumplings. But tonight I’d been recognized, and two more desserts were brought to the table.
As my son made his way through the better part of four desserts, he remembered the Monty Python sketch in which the fattest man in the world is finishing his meal in a restaurant. “And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint,” says John Cleese as the maître d’. “Nah,” replies the man. But the maître d’ persists until the man eats the mint—and bursts like a popped balloon.
Wisely, no one brought us chocolate-covered almonds with the bill. Blaue Gans is a delightful restaurant. I just wish it took reservations. Be prepared to wait for a table. It’s worth it.