Just Call It 'Gesamtkunstwerk'
By Aaron Hicklin
Photos: Ellen Silverman. Gutenbrunner and his signature drinks: Tomato Pepper Martini, Pomegranate Fizz, and the Vienna 1900
It’s been more than 10 years since I first dined at Wallsé, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s attempt to recreate the tastes of his rural childhood in Austria, in New York City’s West Village. Even at that point, less than two years after it had opened, Wallsé had the feel of a confirmed neighborhood establishment, so sure and certain, its diners so relaxed and content. Then, as now, it struck me as the very definition of timeless. Like Gutenbrunner’s other restaurants -- including Cafe Sabarsky, at the Neue Galerie, and Blaue Gans -- his more casual dining spot in Tribeca, Wallsé is classic without being stodgy. The food is certainly important -- simple, with a focus on a handful of quality ingredients -- but it was the Tomato Pepper Martini that I dreamed about for weeks after. The flavor of a delicate and piquant Bloody Mary, it felt like a conjuring trick (Gutenbrunner uses tomato water, gently solicited from chopped and salted tomatoes). The cocktail, of course, was only part of it -- the décor and ambience, the invisible but attentive service, and the way the music was at just the right level combined to make that martini memorable.
“That’s what we call gesamtkunstwerk,” said Gutenbrunner when I met him at his most recent venture, Cafe Kristall, on Mercer Street (it’s adjoins the Swarovski store, which lends Kristall its motif and extravagant light fixtures). Gesamtkunstwerk translates as “total work of art,” and it’s how Gutenbrunner approaches the diner’s experience. At Kristall, he invites me to touch the gently beveled marble surface of the table, then gestures to the chairs, made by the Austrian chair-maker Thonet, which had a near monopoly on the cafes of Fin de siècle Vienna.
“For a chef, the dish doesn’t end at the kitchen door -- it’s the experience you have with it in the dining room,” he says, and then tuts at the no smoking sign behind the bar. “It drives me crazy looking over there right now, and the frames are not straight.” Was he this way as a child? “I drove my mother crazy about cleaning, organizing, because everything has to have its place,” he says. “It’s probably why I left this little village of two-and-a-thousand people when I was very young.”
Recently, he passed his test for American citizenship and says that New York has been too good to him to think of leaving. He remembers arriving in 1988 and falling in love with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Now, some of his musical idols are among his most loyal customers. On the morning after September 11, he sat down with Lou Reed and wondered how he would survive -- Wallsè was in a restricted zone and strictly off limits to all but local residents. “Lou said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re all going to be there,’ and he was right. We had 45 covers on September 12, and I kept everybody employed.”
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