9/22/2006

Blaue Gans (Oktoberfest Has Begun)

When Blaue Gans first opened last year, chef Kurt Gutenbrunner was criticized for not even bothering to redecorate. The single, high-ceilinged loft dining room originally belonged to Le Zinc, which shut its doors after a suspicious hiatus by the owners "at the beach," as the chalkboard sign in the window once announced. It was terrible to lose not only Le Zinc's country-style pork paté with its grainy mustard and little cornichons, but the serene yet stimulating space it occupied. The old posters from art shows past - Clemente at the Guggenheim, Kiki Smith in Vienna - would presumably be demolished to make room for someone else's idea of cool.

Shockingly, the only thing different about the space are the floors - nicely refurbished with a mahogany stain - and the chairs and tables. The Clemente poster is still there, and the Warhol silkscreen poster of Marilyn Monroe. The music is jazz, the pace is leisurely but efficient, and any people watching is done on the sly. Just walking into Blaue Gans is a relief.

I came here in the first place because a friend recommended Gutenbrunner's other restaurant Wallsé, which, like Café Sabarsky, I have never tried, Wallsé because it's fancy, Café Sabarsky because it's mobbed. Gutenbrunner just left Thor, a restaurant that never seemed to fit in with the rest of his portfolio. Though the food was quite good, the dark, cold space, presumably designed by the Hotel on Rivington, had all the warmth of a Gattaca set.

Try convincing a mixed group to go out for plates of bratwurst. It's not an easy sell, because sausage and sauerkraut don't exactly fit into the "lite" theme of the moment. If you can put aside any memories of Christmas at Rolf's, where each entree represents approximately a week's worth of food, here you'll discover bratwurst that is actually light. Gently boiled then briefly seared, Blaue Gans's bratwurst bears no resemblance to the charred stubs of unchewable links that make their way off barbecue grills every summer. This sausage is a delicately balanced dish, served alongside crunchy sauerkraut and mustard with a real kick to it.

The smoked trout appetizer also demonstrates the same kind of balance: the fish salad is served very cold, sandwiched between crepes. Had I known smoked trout, like riesling, tastes so much better at near icy temperatures, I would never have eaten it lukewarm off a bagel. Next to the trout are sweet cooked beets, the perfect complement to the smoky savoriness of the fish, and a very fresh mache salad. Don't forget to eat the warm rye bread (this means you, carb-phobes) and order a draft of Hofbrauhaus Oktoberfest beer (ditto). Each flavor goes so well with the next; it is the kind of harmony that is almost always achieved by sticking within a certain region and a certain cuisine.

Which seems to be the real gift to Gutenbrunner's thinking. If it ain't broke, why fix it? There is nothing lacking in the old décor, just as there is nothing lacking in the Austrian cuisine he promotes. Instead of aiming for something so new-fangled it hurts, Blaue Gans reintroduces a European idea to New York with its casual, arty atmosphere and expertly prepared food, served in restrained portions on Herend-esque porcelain. Sometimes respecting tradition is the most revolutionary thing you can do.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mm, that sounds great.

joy said...

Let me muse on the sausage--is it not just another form of dumpling (meat product inside "skin" not dough), thus goodness incarnate?

I have never thought of smoked trout COLD before, either. Tres interessant...