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 Wallse, 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, Wallse 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, Wallse 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 decor 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 siecle 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 -- Wallse 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."
COCKTAIL RECIPES (Taken from Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna, by Kurt Gutenbrunner)
Tomato Pepper Martini (Paradeiser-Pfeffer Martini) This is one of Wallse's most beloved cocktails. People often look at the name and think it's some kind of Bloody Mary hybrid. It's not. Pepper vodka is mixed with a dash of Tabasco and homemade Tomato Water then strained into a chilled glass. The result is a fantastic, icy martini with a delicate tomato flavor and a touch of spice. Ingredients
2 Tablespoons of tomato water (see accompanying recipe)
1/2 tsp celery salt
2 dashes Tobasco
1 oz pepper-flavored vodka
1 oz plain vodka
1 cherry tomato
1.Using a spray bottle, spritz a chilled martini glass with the vinegar, if using. 2.Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the Tomato Water, celery salt, Tabasco, and both vodkas and shake well. Train the cocktail into the glass. Garnish with the cherry tomato, and serve.
Tomato Water (Paradeiserwasser) Making Tomato Water is a great way to distill the essence of tomatoes into a limpid liquid. It can be used in a variety of dishes, sauces, and drinks, but I especially love it in the Tomato Pepper Martini. Just make sure you get ripe, juicy tomatoes, or you won't get enough liquid out of them. Makes Two Cups
5 pounds very ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 oz gin
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Dash of fresh lemon juice
1.In a blender, combine the tomatoes with all the other ingredients, and puree until smooth. 2.Line a colander with a large piece of cheesecloth and set the colander over a large bowl. Pour the tomato puree into the colander. Using kitchen string, tied the cheese cloth into a loose bundle. Transfer to the refrigerator and let the tomato water drip into the bowl overnight. 3.Pour the Tomato Water into a bowl and reserve the puree, if desired.
The Vienna 1900 I love the Viennese Earl Grey we get from our tea purveyor, Harney & Sons. It's a black tea similar to the regular Earl Grey but Darjeeling is added to the base blend. In this cocktail, it infuses gin for a delicious highball. Tea-infused gin
1 cup loose Earl Grey
1 quart gin
For each serving:
I tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tarragon sprig
1 lemon slice
Simple syrup (one cup sugar to one cup water, see below)
1.Make the tea-infused gin: In a quart-container, combine the sugar and water, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Let the syrup cool slightly, then refrigerate. 2.Make the simple syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Let the syrup cool slightly, then refrigerate. 3.Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add 1/4 cup of the tea-infused gin, the lemon juice, and a splash of the simple syrup and shake well. Fill a highball glass with ice. Strain the drink into the glass and top off with tonic water. Garnish with tarragon sprig and lemon slice.
Pomegranate Fizz An Austrian take on the classic gin fizz, this colorful cocktail is prepared with pomegranate juice and a splash of elderflower syrup, which makes the drink both sweeter and tarter than the original.
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice
1 oz gin
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Splash of elderflower syrup
1 ounce Sekt or other sparkling wine.
1.Fill cocktail shaker with ice. Add all the ingredient apart from Sekt, shake well, and strain into a tall Champagne flute. Top off with Sekt, and serve.