Entries in Kurt Gutenbrunner (5)


Blaue Gans

blauegans.jpgThis time last year, it looked like super-chef Kurt Gutenbrunner was veering dangerously close to over-exposure. Within three months, his two-restaurant empire (Wallsé, Cafe Sabarsky) doubled, opening THOR on the Lower East Side in September 2005 and Blaue Gans in TriBeCa in December.

Perhaps Gutenbrunner realized that he’d stretched himself too far. He pulled out of THOR—the restaurant least like the others—leaving himself with three unique but strongly related restaurants. At all of them, the focus is on Austrian food, a niche that Gutenbrunner has nearly to himself.

Blaue Gans (pronounced BLAU-uh gahnz), which means “Blue Goose,” is the most casual of Gutenbrunner’s trio of restaurants. It occupies a space that was once the restaurant Le Zinc, and Gutenbrunner made only minimal changes on taking it over. The walls are covered with vintage posters, most of which are unrelated to the Austrian theme. There are no table cloths, butter knives, or even bread plates to go with the excellent bread service. Servers, many of whom seem to be Austrian imports, tend to get stretched when the restaurant fills up—as it does, at least on a Friday night.

The surroundings at Blaue Gans may scream “casual,” but Gutenbrunner still takes his Austrian cuisine seriously. The chef himself was in the house on Friday night, which suggests he didn’t open Blaue Gans merely to make a quick buck. I suspect the restaurant may be his laboratory, with the more successful dishes graduating to his West Village flagship, Wallsé. (A short list of handwritten specials accompanied the main menu.) As far as I can tell, the Wiener Schnitzel you get at Blaue Gans is the same Wiener Schnitzel you get at Wallsé, except it costs $8 less.

Appetizers at Blaue Gans are $8–12, but there’s a separate menu category for sausages, which are $7–8. My friend and I tried the pork and beef sausage and the smoked pork sausage (both $8), served with sauerkraut and horseradish mustard. We thought the smoked pork sausage was a tad more interesting, but I would happily try either one again.

For the main course, my friend ordered the pork belly ($21), which must have been one of the largest helpings I have ever seen. I ordered the pork schnitzel ($22), which was wonderful—as Frank Bruni described it, “The meat had been dusted with flour and cooked with veal stock, cream, button mushrooms and bacon.”

Like everything else at Blaue Gans, the wine list has many reasonably-priced entries. We settled on a bottle of gewürztraminer at $36 that was more than satisfactory for our hearty, casual meal. The bill came to $103 with tax, before tip.

One positive development is that, as of January, Blaue Gans now takes reservations, a convenience much more helpful to those of us who want to make definite plans. And I am reasonably certain my future plans will include Blaue Gans again. As my friend put it, “I could eat like this every day.” Well, maybe not: the food here isn’t exactly lo-cal. But when you’re in the mood for a calorie splurge, it doesn’t get much more decadent than this.

Blaue Gans (139 Duane Street between West Broadway and Church Street, TriBeCa)

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½



wallse.jpgI visited Wallsé about a week ago for a special occasion. I’ve reviewed this restaurant twice before (here and here). My enthusiasm for it remains undimmed, so I’ll just get to the food recap.

The four of us chose the five-course tasting menu ($70). There were two choices for each course:

First course: foie gras terrine with plum compote; or cauliflower salad. My girlfriend and I both had the terrine. It’s hard to screw up foie gras—and the restaurant didn’t—but the silver dollar-sized portion was gone all too quickly.

Second course: spicy lobster soup with lobster ravioli; or sea scallop. The scallop, accompanied with glazed onions, was as tender and flavorful as one could want. The lobster soup, of which I tasted a bit, was an unusually spicy preparation, but I thought it worked well.

Third course: Wiener schnitzel with potato-cucumber salad and lingonberries; or fried sweetbread. I was the only one at my table with the guts to try the sweetbread. It was much larger than I remembered it in the past, and lightly breaded, to allow this juicy delicacy to speak for itself. I didn’t try any of the Wiener schnitzel, but everyone else at the table was pleased.

Fourth course: Kavalierspitz (beef shoulder) with creamed spinach, potato rösti and apple horseradish; or grilled venison loin with red cabbage, wild mushrooms and elderberry sauce. Once again, feeling adventurous, I took the road less traveled by—the kavalierspitz. While there was nothing wrong with this dish, frankly it was rather bland. After tasting a bit of the venison, I realized quite plainly that I’d made the inferior choice.

Dessert: Viennese iced coffee with vanilla ice cream and espresso sabayon; or grilled pineapple. Three of us chose the iced coffee. I thought it was just fine—the taste of iced coffee and espresso foam is pretty predictable—but my two companions considered it a dud. The grilled pineapple was also fairly uncomplicated, but I tasted several bites and found it a sweet treat.

Neither dessert option was as impressive as the rest of the meal, but the first four courses were up to Wallsé’s usual standard. I didn’t care much for the Kavalierspitz, but when you are being adventurous, you must be willing to accept some risk. Service was up to the usual standard, and we were quite happy with an Austrian white wine at around $50 a bottle.

Wallsé (344 W. 11th Street at Washington Street, West Village)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


Wallsé Revisited

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Wallsé.

On Friday night, my friend and I went to Wallsé. Since my last visit, chef Kurt Gutenbrunner has opened two new restaurants — THOR and Blaue Gans — bringing his New York restaurant total to four. I had to wonder if the logistics of looking after four places would mean a reduction in quality at the flagship Wallsé, which now has a Michelin star to its name.

Well, there was no need to worry. Chef Gutenbrunner is still very much on top of his game. My friend and I both had the excellent foie gras terrine with gold leaf pears ($20). I had a salmon dish from the market menu ($32), while my friend had the classic Wiener Schnitzel ($30), both impeccably prepared.

When you’ve been in a few noisy restaurants, you appreciate a place like Wallsé where the surroundings are as rarefied as the food. We noted that service was always there when you needed it, but never intrusive. Wallsé is one of the city’s gems.

Wallsé (344 W. 11th Street at Washington Street, West Village)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***



Update: This is a review of THOR under Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who has since departed. As of 2008, THOR was on its fourth chef, with Jesi Solomon (a former sous chef at Stanton Social) having replaced Mark Spangenthal, who replaced Kevin Pomplun, who replaced Gutenbrunner. Later Update: THOR closed in May 2009. It was replaced by a new concept called Levant East.


THOR is short for The Hotel on Rivington. It’s also the name of the restaurant that occupies the ground floor of that hotel. I don’t know what possessed somebody to put a 21-story hotel on the Lower East Side, although it is surprisingly easy to reach (just 2 blocks from the F train’s Delancey St stop).

The building sticks out like a sore thumb in this trendy, but still gritty neighborhood of low-rise tenements. Who could be staying there? You get no immediate idea of the hotel clientele when you visit, because the entire ground floor seems to be occupied by the vast lounge and restaurant. Indeed, you wouldn’t even know that it is a hotel, except for the name. There is no check-in counter, bellhop, or concierge to give it away.

The host that greets you seems oh-so-annoyed to have landed in the maelstrom of a successful restaurant. You get the sense that he’d be happiner in a far less hectic profession. Just beyond his station, a capacious lounge area awaits, filled with beautiful young bodies sipping their drinks. Loud music thumps in the background. “This is very Lower East Side,” my friend remarked.

The seating area is just beyond the lounge, and it is not far enough. I have not seen a serious restaurant that goes to a more sustained effort to ensure that your ears will be battered and assaulted during your meal. THOR’s 21-foot ceiling offers plenty of hard surfaces for the sound to bounce off of, and the sound happily obliges. Your eardrums may need a medical checkup after the meal is over. The large tables (apparently the same ones you find at BLT Steak) offer plenty of room for the food, but to communicate you’ll have to shout.

If you survive the aural onslaught, you’ll be treated to some of the best and most creative food in New York. Of restaurants I’m familiar with, only nearby WD-50 offers a comparable exercise in culinary experimentation on this level. Practically every dish on THOR’s menu offers surprising combinations from superstar chef Kurt Gutenbrunner.

I had my doubts about THOR, because Gutenbruner is now on his fourth restaurant (with Wallsé, Café Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans also in his stable). Perhaps, like many a celebrity chef, he’s taken his eye off the ball. But Gutenbrunner is obviously as good a manager as he is a chef. THOR’s kitchen staff turns out his creations expertly, and the service (despite the din) is nearly perfect.

Gutenbrunner told Frank Bruni that “he considered Thor the culinary equivalent of a chance to move from orchestral music to rock ‘n’ roll.” You can see what he means. At his flagship Wallsé, the Austrian cuisine is excellent, but largely traditional. At THOR, he lets his wildest urges run wild, with spectacular results.

The menu is needlessly confusing. My friend, who hadn’t researched the restaurant in advance (and one shouldn’t have to), was initially baffled. In a preface, Gutenbrunner explains that there are plates of various sizes, allowing you to construct a tasting menu of your own design. But there is no indication of which plates are small, and which are large. Instead, the menu is in sections labeled “Cold Plates to Start,” “Warm Plates in the Middle,” “From the Market on the Side,” “Hot Plates” (a fish list and a meat list) and “Sweet to Finish.” Since when did the traditional captions — “Appetizers,” “Entrées,” “Side Dishes,” and “Desserts” — need to be replaced?

Anyhow, after all that my friend and I each ordered a “Warm Plate,” a side dish, a meat course, and a dessert. And we were transported. To start, my friend ordered the “Grilled shrimp skewers with green tomatoes, peppers and quark powder” ($14), and I the “Ravioli with farmers cheese, mint and hazelnut butter” ($13). My dish came with three ravioli, and they were wonderful; the ingredients worked marvelously together.

The side dishes are all $7. Many of them are traditional vegetable sides, but a terrific mushroom risotto is offered, which my friend and I both ordered. This is one of THOR’s better bargains, given the intensive labor required to make a risotto. It could have been an appetizer in itself, but it came out with the main courses.

I hardly ever order calves liver; indeed, I can remember ordering it only once before in my life. It wasn’t a bad experience, but calves liver is simply one of those dishes that you don’t want every day. “Glazed calves liver with apples and scallions” ($24) seemed too intriguing to pass up, and my willingness to take a chance paid off. If all calves liver dishes were this good, nobody would be ordering foie gras.

My friend had “Roasted rack of lamb with broccoli puree and 14K golden nugget potatoes” ($28), which offered two hefty chops, which she said were spectacular.

For dessert, I tried the pumpkin cheesecake with maple syrup ice cream ($9), which Frank Bruni had described as “a happy nose dive into the heart of autumn.” My friend ordered the petits-fours ($5), which come with what looks like a tube of toothpaste, but it actually contains hazelnut chocolate, which you squeeze into a small basin in the center of each cookie. WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason would be kicking themselves, and wondering, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

The wine list is organized by region, but there is also a section labeled “Sommelier’s Discoveries,” featuring growers and/or regions that don’t get a lot of publicity. The friendly sommelier came over unbidden and made a wonderful suggestion from that section. It was a 2003 Blaufrankisch by Feiler-Artinger, from Burgenland, a region of eastern Austria. Better yet, I had requested a wine between $35-45, and it was $39. Sommeliers who don’t try to gouge every last dollar earn my everlasting respect. The restaurant uses stemless wine glasses from the Austrian firm Riedel. Somehow, you feel strange drinking wine from a stemless glass, although the Riedel catalog is in fact highly regarded, and pricey.

The individual dishes on the menu are all reasonably priced, but if you heed Gutenbrunner’s advice to construct a “tasting menu,” the bill can mount in a hurry. Our meal of an appetizer, side dish, main course, and dessert apiece, plus wine, was $192.56 (including tax and gratuity). Had we ordered cocktails, more tasting plates, or a different wine, it could easily have been a lot more. For cooking this good, we considered it money well spent.

THOR is full of contradictions. Kurt Gutenbrunner’s serious cuisine finds itself in a clubland setting designed for twenty-somethings who probably don’t realize how special it is. Many of those who would appreciate it are no doubt put off by the location, the clientele, or the noise. (We are in our forties, and seemed to be among the oldest people there.) But if you can put up with the racket, you’ll find that THOR is serving some of the finest food in the city.

THOR (107 Rivington Street, between Essex & Ludlow Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: ***
Service: **½
Ambiance: *
Overall: **½



Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Wallsé.

Last November, a friend and I went to Wallsé. It’s a beautiful restaurant that could pass for an art museum if it wasn’t serving such wonderful food. On a cold fall evening, Wallsé offers the perfect getaway from the elements.

To start, I had the Spätzle (a kind of Austrian pasta) with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and tarragon ($15). Our server guided me to this, and he wasn’t mistaken: it was a wonderful dish. Both my friend and I were beguiled by the crispy cod strudel with a stew of carrots and ginger with black trumpet mushrooms ($27). Cod is the humblest of fishes. The highlight of the dish is the light, flakey, almost ethereal strudel crust that surrounds it.

I don’t normally have dessert, but who could resist when things were going so well? We shared the Quark “cheesecake” with chilled quince consommé and elderflower sorbet. The menu puts “cheesecake” in quotes because it’s made with a very light cheese, giving the cake a consistency just slightly more solid than whipped cream. The quince consommé came in a separate dish, and it almost seemed superfluous to the excellent cake. Perhaps combining the quince with the cake would produce an even more successful offering.

When Wallsé called to confirm our 6:00pm reservation, they asked if we wouldn’t mind showing up a little closer to 5:45. This happened to suit our plans, but I was mildly insulted by the suggestion. Although the request was phrased politely, the intent was obvious enough: “we’re trying to turn the table.” My feeling was that they offered a 6:00pm reservation, and they should stand by it: serving the next customer was their problem, not mine. Indeed, I was just faintly aware that the efficient service was perhaps too efficient (the appetizers arrived just moments after we ordered them).

None of this should take away from what Wallsé achieves, which is creative Austrian cuisine, prepared to near perfection. Appetizers are priced from $11-19, entrées from $26-35. All desserts are $9. We had a tough time deciding what to order, which may mean that we have to go back!

Wallsé (344 W. 11th Street at Washington Street, West Village)

Food: ***
Service: **
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***