By Nan Lyons
Most people read restaurant reviews as if they were searching for a combination of elements that will bring with them not only a confirmation that this is the newest, the hottest, the in-est place to exercise their credit cards but also the promise of one of the best meals in town. As for me, no matter what city or country I find myself in, I’m much more interested in what’s going on in the kitchen than what I’ve read on the printed page. And so, the quintessential question for me, before I part with my Amex number is: who is the chef , that is if he hasn’t already become a household name. Even more importantly, what is he thinking as he stirs, fries and sautés his heart out. Perhaps in the theater the plays’ the thing but in a restaurant it’s the man behind the pan who counts.
When I first met Kurt Gutenbrunner, a chef who has brought more than a hint of Vienna to New York, it was clear that he waltzed to a very different drummer. Much more likely to hear the strains of Schoenberg than Strauss as he oversees the kitchens of his growing culinary empire, Gutenbrunner believes restaurants should be influenced, in part, by the architecture and art that surrounds them.
His first outpost, Wallse, is named after the town in which he was born, just about one hour outside of Vienna. Opened almost 10 years ago, Wallse is the perfect minimalist setting for his innovative take on traditional Austrian cuisine. To further enhance it’s distinctive menu, Wallse is filled with the work of 20th century artists Julian Schnabel and Albert Oehlen. If you tend to equate a taste of Austria with gilded chandeliers and tapestry drapes, you’ve obviously come to the wrong chef.
For his next project, Gutenbrunner was approached by Ronald Lauder to head a classical version of a Viennese Café, at the Neue Galerie ( a museum dedicated to 20th century art of Austria and Germany). And so Café Sabarsky was born. The menu at the cafe is anything but minimalist. There are umpteen versions of Viennese Coffee and the Apfel Strudel is slathered with the maximum amount of Schlag (whipped cream) allowed within our borders.
Gutenbrunner has since gone on to open Blaue Gans ( Blue Duck), a much more casual setting with vintage posters on the wall and a relaxed atmosphere to match. He calls it a “Wursthaus”, which is not an opinion on the quality of the menu but a place to tuck into some of the best sausages in town.
A sparking creation called Café Kristall is his newest culinary bauble. It shares a space with the Swarovski store, in SoHo, which is aglitter with more crystals than you’re apt to find at any New Age convention. Kristall is meant to be a traditional Viennese coffee house with pastries to match. They even serve breakfast with an Austrian accent.
I asked chef Gutenbrunner if he collected anything aside from the stunning art he displays in his restaurants and, of course, the Michelin star that shines over Wallse .
“ I love chairs” he said, with a great intensity. “Any kind of chairs from any period”.
Judging from the long list of projects on his front burner, including a book coming out in the fall, sitting would be the last thing he had time for.
As we sat talking, it was clear the Kurt Gutenbrunner is a chef with a mission. And apparently, not an impossible one. He’s a proud Austrian but he insisted “ I don’t ever want to be pigeon holed as just a maker of Sacher Torts and Weiner Schnitzel”.
Still, I came away from our meeting with the feeling that you can take the chef out of Vienna but you can’t really take Vienna out of the chef.
Wallse/344 West 11th st/212-352-2300/ Café Sabarsky- 1048 5th ave./212-288-0665/Blaue Gans- 139 Duane St/ 212-352-2300/ Café Kristell. For more info visit KGNY.
Nan Lyons is the co-author of “Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe” and the author of “Gluttony” and “Around the World in 80 Meals.” She lives in Manhattan.