The great economic hurricane of ’08 (and ’09) has caused all sorts of well-documented havoc in the restaurant world. Grand old dining institutions have been consumed in the whirlwind, and countless chefs, waiters, and barkeeps have been tossed out of work. But every cloud, as the song goes, must have a silver lining, and if you’ve had a couple of nickels to scrape together to buy a decent restaurant meal in the last few months, you may have noticed a subtle, not altogether unpleasant, change in the air. The price of a good cheeseburger has skyrocketed, but just about everything else on menus around town is demonstrably cheaper. Formerly snippy “reservationists” are now oozing false charm over the telephone, and once snooty maître d’s have dropped their icy veneers. The glitzy, oversize, Vegas model of the go-go years has been swept away in favor of a more intimate, less pompous style of dining, and the insufferable chatter of hedge-fund wine geeks and their jewel-encrusted wives coming from the next banquette has mercifully ceased.
For a firsthand view of this new world order, I suggest you get yourself to the Seasonal Restaurant & Weinbar, on West 58th Street. This modest little ground-floor, railroad-space restaurant sits on the south side of the street, next to a Subway sandwich outlet. The chefs and their menu are Austrian, but the kind of gilded, neo-Hapsburg-era frippery for which ambitious Austrian restaurants used to be famous is absent. The two rooms are painted in basic white and decorated with just a few arbitrary knickknacks (handblown glass bottles, flowers, simple paintings). The curved bar is fitted with cruise-ship-style white leather chairs, but because it’s in the middle of the room, it makes the place feel more like a wine bar than a serious restaurant. The clientele are stolid pretheater folk, and a few random neighborhood gourmands who don’t look like they’re there because they’ve just read about the restaurant on a blog or in a review. They look like they’re there for the quaint, old-fashioned reason that someone told them the joint served really good food.
Another consequence of the great restaurant upheaval is that you now find talented, highly trained people in all sorts of unlikely, out-of-the-way places. At Seasonal, two expert cooks occupy the kitchen, not just one. Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Frauneder are graduates of the Vienna Culinary Institute, and they describe their menu as a kind of “new modern” take on that deceptively refined, staunchly traditionalist cuisine. This means my Allgäuer mountain-cheese ravioli, called Schlutzkrapfen, were shaped in perfect little half-moons, stuffed with a tangy, artisanal goat cheese, and dressed with a light Champagne foam. Fresh diver scallops, not an ingredient you normally associate with the rainy streets of Vienna, are plated with a tangle of sweet beet tagliatelle and chunks of sautéed maitake mushrooms. My friend the Steak Loon tasted a seasonal special of white asparagus served with hollandaise sauce and a twirl of Tyrolean speck, then put down his fork in surprise. “How rare is it that I like a vegetable?” he asked.
Not surprisingly, the Steak Loon also gave his benediction to a soft, crackly-skinned appetizer portion of pork-belly confit (Schweinebauch), which the chefs set in a salty-sweet jus flavored with caraway, braised onions, and a touch of Riesling. My traditionalist midwestern mother-in-law was less fond of a newfangled, crudo-style “mosaic” of salmon and raw halibut, and of the pea soup, which she considered to be needlessly foamy and weirdly sweet (she was right). But when the more-familiar entrées arrived, she began to perk up considerably. The potentially dreary boiled-beef dish called Tafelspitz is made here with high-grade flatiron steak, which is poached for hours to an almost unnatural tenderness, plated in a rich oxtail consommé, and served with two perfectly cooked, silver-dollar-size potato rösti cakes. That other old Austro-Prussian warhorse, Wiener schnitzel, is cooked in a puffy, golden crust, which my mother-in-law compared favorably to the legendary schnitzel of her youth served at the famous Berghoff restaurant in Chicago.
The chefs at Seasonal have a knack for taking these kinds of familiar, slightly sodden recipes and turning them subtly on their heads. Among fish dishes, the halibut is wrapped in a thin strudel crust, and my fillet of walleyed pike was nicely crisped on its top and set in a delicate, herb-filled soup scattered with morels and sweet pearl onions. The roast lamb is from Colorado and garnished, in nouvelle-barnyard style, with more maitake mushrooms and a smooth parsley-root purée. That old Viennese favorite Kaisergulasch is cooked with a traditional goulash sauce spiced with paprika, but instead of the usual cut of veal, the kitchen substitutes a pile of tender, perfectly braised veal cheeks. A delicious version of the classic beef-and-onion dish Zwiebelrostbraten is constructed with sautéed cipollini, a crown of frizzled shallots, and an excellent cut of strip loin from the famous Brandt ranch in California. “I bet they don’t have beef like this in Austria,” said the Steak Loon, as he cleaned his plate in a happy, google-eyed frenzy.
My mother-in-law also cleaned her plate, in her deliberate, midwestern way, and so did her dutiful daughter, who bestowed the ultimate compliment (“This is yummy”) on her appetizer, her entrée, and even her dessert. Wine geeks may be shocked to learn that there’s no sommelier at Seasonal, a fact that did not detract from our enjoyment of a very nice bottle of ’07 Grüner Veltliner “Kirchberg” from the Schwarzböck winery near Vienna. Nor, if you enjoy Viennese desserts, will you be disappointed by the sticky Schokoladen tartlet, which has a deep, grainy, chocolate richness to it, or the crêpelike Kaiserschmarrn, which are broken into little knots and scattered with powdered sugar and bits of apple compote. Best of all, though, are the fluffy quark-cheese dumplings called Topfennockerl, which the chefs at this polished, deceptively simple restaurant garnish with strawberries and make even more sinfully rich and creamy with a furtive infusion of American cream cheese.