Bavarian Rhapsody

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

German food gets a bad rap in this town—the sainted if shabby memory of East 86th Street’s Ideal Cafe and a smattering of wurst-peddling biergartens notwithstanding. It comes across as coarse and gassy, doled out by stout little men with faces like ripe tomatoes whose culinary skills amount to boiling wieners and frying potatoes.

Austrian food, in contrast, is perceived by the cognoscenti as almost spalike—not only lighter, but subtler and more sophisticated. It’s Captain von Trapp versus Augustus Gloop in the popular culinary imagination. While German cookery seems destined to live forever in kitschy, oompah-thumping, lederhosen-wearing infamy, Austrian cooking has managed to achieve grand status at places like the long-gone Vienna ’79, David Bouley’s Danube, and Kurt Gutenbrunner’s Wallsé. Gutenbrunner, in fact, has parlayed his Wallsé success into a mini Austro-American empire with the elegant Café Sabarsky and Thor at the Hotel on Rivington. So, imagine the Underground Gourmet’s surprise to learn that the Austrian-born chef was billing his latest venture, Blaue Gans, as a “German-Austrian” bistro of sorts.

It seems that Gutenbrunner, who once worked at the acclaimed Tantris in Munich, is out to dispel some myths and, while he’s at it, maybe fill a wide-open niche. “I think that there’s so much similarity between southern Germany and Austria,” he says, in a rough Schwarzenegger accent, “that it’s a logical move for me, and, besides, nobody has had the balls to explore Germany so far; I don’t think it’s a bad idea.”

Not bad at all, as it turns out.

Blaue Gans, or “Blue Goose,” is what Gutenbrunner humbly calls a wirtshaus, kind of like the German version of a British pub—simple and unpretentious almost to the point of affectation. Other than some carved wooden geese and new signage in the window, and a long black communal table where his artsy pals like to cavort, the old Le Zinc space is virtually unchanged. Blaue (sounds like wowie) Gans (like Hans) takes no reservations, and for a while purported to have no phone number. Which isn’t to say the place is a hole-in-the-wall or a faux secret clubhouse like La Esquina. Instead, consider it a Bavarian Balthazar—a convivial spot where Tribeca families, their moppets in tow, rub elbows with expat artists, assorted epicures, and denizens from all walks of life. Foodwise, it’s a rustic version of Wallsé at a discount—if a marginal one. In its brief, monthlong life, prices that started out on Underground Gourmet terra firma have crept up to what can still be justified by chronic cheapskates as a worthwhile splurge.

Prices aren’t all that’s been tweaked. At first, friendly and proficient servers lugged around chalkboard menus like frenzied stagehands, propping them on spare chairs and translating German and Austrian dishes into English. Printed and translated menus make things easier for everyone, especially at an establishment that traffics in tongue twisters like blutwurstgröstl and schweinsbraten. One thing that hasn’t changed is the bread—a hearty hunk of fragrant dark rye served with Liptauer cheese, the smooth, mild farmer’s cheese that’s seasoned with paprika, onion, and herbs. There are four thirst-quenching German beers on tap and two Austrians by the bottle; the brief Austro-German wine list is the work of Gutenbrunner’s stellar sommelier, Aldo Sohm, who, in his form-fitting Tyrolean jacket, stalks the room like a benevolent Rolf from The Sound of Music, eagerly suggesting off-the-list rarities to anyone willing to experiment.

The kitchen is run by Wallsé veteran Martin Pirker, whose cooking manages to be both heartily satisfying and refined in typical Gutenbrunner style. A pristine Bibb-lettuce salad is nicely dressed and scattered with pumpkin seeds. Beef bouillon is poured from a fine china tureen—like something you’d find in Grandma’s cupboard—over traditional semolina or liver dumplings, and goose breast (a German favorite) is sliced crudo-thin, then garnished with chestnuts. Even dishes that sound simple are presented with a high degree of finesse: That blutwurstgröstl, or blood sausage, is all crumbly baked goodness, mixed with roasted fingerlings, mounded on a fastidiously molded circle of tangy sauerkraut and sprinkled with fresh grated horseradish. And smoked trout is whipped with crème fraîche, spread onto multiple layers of delicate crêpes, cut into soft wedges, and sided with chiseled baby beets and a frisée salad.That plate—which wouldn’t seem out of place at Wallsé—is decorated with squiggles of sauce and shavings of radish that belie Gutenbrunner’s claim of simple, unfussy food. But in this unpretentious, urbane context, nothing seems the slightest bit overdone. That’s especially true for entrées like backhendl, or “Austrian fried chicken”—accompanied by vinegary potato salad and sweet lingonberry jam, a nice counterpoint to the crisp, salty batter. Pork schnitzel is just as delicately breaded, remarkably light and greaseless. And a toothsome beef goulash is served in enough paprika-infused gravy to put the springy spaetzle it comes with to good sauce-sopping use.

As good as the goulash is, the classic Austrian dish called kavalierspitz—boiled beef shoulder, topped with apple-horseradish relish and served with the velvetiest spinach purée imaginable—is better. A sometime special of wine-braised beef shoulder comes with schupfnudel, one of those wacky Germanic dumplings that look like elongated gnocchi and are as fun to eat as to pronounce. Next to these plates, the fish dishes can seem a bit anemic—a token gesture, perhaps, for those fat-phobic types who can’t be seen in public tucking into a nice rindsgulasch or one of the excellent wursts Gutenbrunner imports from a gourmet German-sausage maker upstate and serves with hot mustard and sauerkraut (the burenwurst, laced with mild cheese, is the best).

With Pierre Reboul (of Wallsé and Café Sabarsky) masterminding desserts, skipping one is like dining at Le Bernardin and forgoing seafood. There is strudel and Sachertorte, or course, but there is also poached and breadcrumb-dusted quark dumplings, soft and cheesecakey, floating in a cross between an orange soup and a salad. And the soft and cloudlike pillows of Salzburger Nockerl part to reveal a reservoir of sweet-tart huckleberries. Is it German? Austrian? Tribecan? Call it elevated quasi-ethnic comfort food. Gutenbrunner seems to think it’s just what New Yorkers feel like eating right now, and we’re inclined to agree.

Blaue Gans
139 Duane St., nr. W. Broadway; 212-571-8880

Blaue Gans
Address: 139 Duane St., nr. W. Broadway; 212-571-8880
Hours: Seven days, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $12; entrées, $18 to $29.
Note: If you see schupfnudel on the menu, grab it.
Ideal Meal: Blutwurstgröstl, kavalierspitz, quark dumplings.

Blaue Gans is Kurt Gutenbrunner at his simplest, most accessible, and, by our lights, most satisfying. It’s unpretentious but polished, and fills a culinary niche. Which is why Blaue Gans gets a solid two stars.

Bavarian Rhapsody