New York City has long harbored Austrian restaurants: In the ‘70s we had an international chain of six Wienerwalds focusing on chicken, oxtail salad, smoked pork loin, and sauerbraten that tended to be tough, according to Malcolm Forbes. A decade later we had higher-end Vienna 79 (where David Bouley once worked) from Austrian celebrity restaurateur Peter Grunauer, which received four stars from Mimi Sheraton.
By the turn of the century, the time was ripe for a Viennese revival, as the gilt-edged Danube waltzed into Tribeca, piloted by David Bouley. It received three stars from the New York Times in early 2000 and led the way for a renaissance of Austrian food in the city, which came to include Blaue Gans, Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, Café Katja, Klee Brasserie, Schilling, and Wallsé.
The fad had largely waned when Koloman came along recently. I loved it and wondered how its predecessor, Wallsé, was faring since I hadn’t been there in 15 years. So I went with a friend early one evening as the temperature dipped below freezing: nothing better on a chilly night than Viennese food.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of two West Village townhouses. The pair of dining rooms includes a lively corner barroom with a more secluded hideaway beside it, the windows partly obscured. Both rooms are plastered with avant-garde art that might have come from the Neue Galerie, including a portrait of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner in his younger days, by Julian Schnabel, whose surreal Palazzo Chupi is steps away on 11th Street.
An easy bonhomie pervaded the barroom as a friend and I were seated at a corner banquette, with a pair of priests close enough that we could make out their conversation (in German). Later, some neighborhood types drifted in and sat down to a formal caviar service ($110), furnished with crepes called palatschinken rather than blini. By 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, the place was filling up. This is one of the neighborhood restaurants where patrons still dine late, and by the time we left an hour later, Wallsé was thronged.
We went for caviar, too, though this time tiny heaps of it topping three stumpy palatschinken ($29) filled with smoked trout, served with a hazelnut-strewn endive salad slicked with a sharp sherry vinaigrette. Appetizers, one of three courses, also listed a beet salad, foie gras terrine with pear sorbet, and beef tartare with rye crisp and more caviar. We swooped toward the second section of the menu, which consisted of medium-size dishes, including a rabbit spaetzle ($30). Though the flavor was muted by excessive creaminess, the dish was as stomach-soothing as a hot water bottle.
Then the entrees arrived. As opposed to the practice in many modern restaurants, where the mains are of modest size and come unsided, at Wallse they’re giant plates of food that could serve as an entire meal — which is fortunate, because they are expensive, too. The wiener schnitzel ($44), of course, is the centerpiece. It consists of two veal cutlets, pounded into abject tenderness and cooked so they achieve a perfect medium brown.
Gutenbrunner knows not to fuck with the formula: Following convention, the schnitzel comes with a potato salad; a sharp cucumber salad; and a ramekin of lingonberry jelly, used sparingly to apply sweetness. The colors and composition of the plate are so pleasing I hesitated to dig in.
The venison stew wasn’t as good ($46). Yes, it contains generous hunks of deer in a midnight-brown gravy, but the hunks themselves are excessively fibrous and nearly flavorless. The gravy, however, is fabulous, tasting more of the hedge-hopping garden destroyer than the meat. The softball-size potato dumpling that comes alongside is perfect: Ask for two dumplings and gravy and skip the venison and you’ll have a fine meal.
The wine list is loads of fun (a deep collection from Austrian vintners from reasonably priced bottles to wildly expensive ones), but better still are the cocktails. Reading the list can be alarming — one features pilsner, apricot jam, and schnapps — but the ones we had were fantastic: mild, and not too sweet. I loved the tomate ($19), with tomato water and pepper-infused vodka, colored a ghostly white.
Austria’s desserts are perhaps more famous than its savory dishes, and they’re famous worldwide. As you might expect, there’s apple strudel, sachertorte, and black forest cake, but we selected the more obscure Salzburger nockerl ($15), a soufflé dusted with powdered sugar and underpinned with huckleberry syrup; the presentation is supposed to represent the hills that surround Salzburg. It proved the perfect conclusion to our meal, and one that was utterly satisfying, leaving a coating of powdered sugar on our lips as we nodded goodbye to the priests.