Story by Norma Davidoff
Photos courtesy of Grünauer Bistro
Strudel and Schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn:
Just a “Few of My Favorite Things” at Grünauer Bistro
When I think of Vienna, violins, ball gowns, Lipizzaner horses, and elegant castles come to mind. I miss Vienna, and I also missed Vienna, if having a meal there is part of the experience. I never ate in that storied city.
I made up for it stateside at a Viennese restaurant. A journalist friend, who had been married to a diplomat stationed in Vienna, vouched for a new restaurant in Yorkville as the “real deal”. This part of town was formerly full of Middle European restaurants. Many called it Germantown. This may have been a new restaurant, but I wasn’t going to a novice restaurateur. Over 30 years ago chef/owner Peter Grünauer was at the helm of the popular Vienna 79 in Yorkville. Now he’s back with Grünauer Bistro.
The place feels Viennese because the room itself has dark woods, with subdued lighting and large color photos of Austria’s capital. Gentle music makes the mood. And the weekend brings live music.
As the song from Sound of Music goes, “crisp apple strudel, schnitzel with noodles”... favorite things and perhaps favorite foods. Grünauer Bistro delivers (literally it does make delivery.) To start, Grünauer treats its guests to liptauer -- quark cheese spread with chives and red onion on large slabs of bread. I tried a rosé made with zweigelt grapes, a little spicy in flavor and purple rosé in the glass.
My rotund, voluble waiter had a mittel European accent and a flair for words. He told me about a dish that Emperor Franz Joseph ate every day for lunch with different vegetables. Count me in on that! So it came to me in a burnished copper pan: tafelspitz. Walter, the maitre d’, who had worked at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna and at Vienna 79, doled out boiled beef, ever so tender. Accompaniments: applesauce enlivened with horseradish, creamy spinach, and sour cream brightened with chives.
I began to feel as though I were abroad. I was called “madame”ť in a special way... not obsequious or officious or reverential, but there was a distance. Ah, now I am away from New York. And I am about to eat dessert. A Swiss friend had told me about a dessert that is on the Grünauer menu: kaiserschmarrn. It is essentially a pancake, chopped up, and dusted with warm powdered sugar. Strewn with pale lingonberries and red with rhubarb, it was scrumptious.
The waiter offers me (madame) an eau de vie. Do I want apple or pear? That strong clear degustif settled my stomach. I confessed to myself a longing for a cookie when, what should appear? Again, as a gift from the restaurant, the waiter emerged with a coconut macaroon, a luscious horseshoe shaped butter cookie, and a semi-sweet pouf of chocolate, on pastry.
But once is not enough to go to Vienna of an evening. So I invited a friend to join me for a second meal there. I started with a beef salad... fresh with vinegary potato salad spiked with pumpkin seeds. A beet salad had arugula and tasty beets but perhaps too much cheese. It said summer... Calve’s liver was complemented with crisp bacon and perfect spinach.
Wiener schnitzel, crisp on the outside, tender inside, was good enough as a signature Viennese dish. I could have tried chicken paprikash, goulash, or a classic choucroute garni of roast pork, smoked pork loin, bratwurst, and Viennese dumplings.
There are other Viennese known quantities that everyone expects and loves... a few of one’s favorite things, as the song from Sound of Music goes. Unfortunately, the apple strudel wasn’t as crisp as in the song. The apples, however, were just right... not too sweet. A sacher torte, famed dessert of Vienna’s Sacher Hotel, is a winner, best described as superb... in just one word: chocolate.
I came back a third time to meet with the owner/chef. Peter Grúnauer has been in the States since 1970, and his family has had a restaurant in Neubau, the art district of Vienna, since 1951. Here in New York City’s Yorkville, he is returning to an area that formerly was filled with Central European cuisine... German, Austrian, Hungarian and Czech. And, according to Grünauer, his cuisine includes all of these plus Northern Italian. (There is a ravioli on the menu). Happily ensconced on the corner of 82nd Street, he says they’ve been turning away people on Saturday nights.
We talked about what special things one can look forward to at the bistro. By the second week in April, white asparagus, with their addictive flavor, should be available. Harvested at night, to retain their white color, they are flown in daily to arrive in the afternoon, within 24 hours. They are from an area on the Danube near Slovakia, known as the best place in the world for them, according to Grünauer. He likes to pair them with fish, crab, lobster and hollandaise or plain with white potatoes. It sold out every day with lobster and shaved black truffles. Says Grünauer, “The farmer never has enough of them. I have to beg”.
And that tafelspitz/boiled beef I enjoyed so much? At his earlier restaurant Vienna 79, “We were the first to bring it worldwide”. When Jackie Onassis was working on the Vienna 79 cookbook, she ate there 3 times a week, he tells me with pride.
Mr. Grünauer is also justly proud of his wines. He now is a partner in the Esterhazy Vineyard, collaborating on wine to make sure he serves the style he wants. He says the indigenous grape of Austria, grüner veltliner, is right for that soil, that terroir.
The Grünauer brand of reds and whites are the best sellers in the restaurant because they are a good value. Grünauer was a featured speaker about Austrian wines on a AMA Waterways River Cruise. What do you know? I was on that cruise earlier, which is why I so wanted to try this restaurant and bring Vienna back into my life.
I am learning about this while eating a smoked trout appetizer, its ever-so-delicate smoky flavor enhanced with a glob of horseradish-infused whipped cream. Mr. Grünauer tells me they smoke it downstairs. Gravlax is marinated there, too. An heirloom tomato appetizer is a rainbow on a plate -- yellow, green and red -- so fresh you want to slap it.
Next up, a main course of wild trout with just a whisper of the fish. Baby spinach accompanied it, garlicky, peppery and snappy. The beautiful lemon butter sauce is just enough for the meaty trout. I can hardly tear myself away from it; it’s that good.
Mr. Grünauer has chosen for my dessert kaiserschmarrn which means Emperor’s Nonsense or Whim. (He says it’s a surprise. The surprise is on him. I had already tried it before). This time it is plum compote on the pancake. The Vienna 79 cookbook says you can cook this with cranberry, apple or pear compote and stud it with golden raisins, a versatile way to end a meal.
Or is the end? An espresso, strong and acidic, is the perfect antidote to dessert. My favorite waiter supplied me with a pear brandy. I was still sipping it when he came by again. “My dear, before you leave... some cookies”. Out came a crunchy coconut macaroon, and a teeny linzer of superb pastry. At another table, someone was saying with enthusiasm “Zehr gut”ť. It’s as though I were in Vienna!
As I left contentedly, I was saying it to myself, too. Very good indeed!
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