My parents just emailed a couple of days ago from Wien to tell me that they saw Manon at the Staatsoper. My eyes turned green.
You know, the last time I was at the Staatsoper, I had to endure a tortured, post-modern rendition of Elektra in nose-bleed SRO. A wedge of mediocre sachertorte during intermission across the street at the Hotel Sacher saved me from total insanity.
My parents are probably having some fantastic schnitzel without me too.
But that bratty little aside is less a formal introduction and more of a weak segue into pointing out the fact that I adore Austrian cuisine.
I’m compelled by its balance of fat and acid.
So, as soon as Seäsonal Weinbar & Restaurant opened in New York on the tail end of 2008, it went on my list.
At Seäsonal, you will find an edited menu of Austro-German food.
It’s not so heavily edited as, say, the menu at The Modern, where Gabriel Kreuther totally re-imagines and repackages his native cuisine with the same flavors and ingredients.
Seäsonal’s co-chefs, Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Freuneder, are more loyal to the original text. They’re merely revisionists.
You’ll find a lot of usual suspects on their menu, embellished for a more modern audience and a more refined setting.
There’s a steaming bowl of “Spätzle,” for example, stringy with Berg Käse and painted beautiful shades of pastel with vegetables ($23). Tender pieces of wild mushrooms were threaded throughout. Comforting on a cold, rainy night, as it was, this vegetarian option was one of the better dishes of the night.
And the “Wiener Schnitzel” here is outstanding, two tender escalopes of veal puffy with a golden crust ($28). Softened with a dollop of lingonberry jam, or cut with a tangy, creamy cucumber and dill slaw, it was my favorite dish of the night, notwithstanding the cold scalloped potatoes underfoot.
The four of us (my childhood friend Fitz, his wife Palmer, my friend Houston, and I)* ordered from the a la carte menu. CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the individual course titles to see each dish.
White Asparagus Soup, Rock Shrimp, Morcilla, Spring Onion. ($14)
Trout, goat cheese, pumpkinseed, radish. ($15)
Soft Poached Egg, Lobster, Maitake, Porcini. ($15)
Porkbelly, Sauerkraut, Fennel, King Oyster Mushroom. ($14)
Veal Cutlet, Potato, Cucumber, Lingonberry. ($28)
Egg Pasta, Wild Mushrooms, Zucchini, Berg Käse. ($23)
Lamb, Sweetbread, Celery Root, Onion. ($34)
Haricots verts. ($7)
Schokoladen – Haselnuss Souffle
Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Souffle, Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream. ($10)
Rhabarber – Streussel
Rhubarb Crumble, Yoghurt Ice, Pecan. ($10)
The white asparagus soup seemed more appealing to me than to my companions (Spargelsuppe $14). I agreed with Houston that the soup should have been either warm or cold, but not tepid, as it was served. But overall, I appreciated its austerity – dominated by an honest bitterness – contrasted with bursts of flavor from the bits of morcilla.
Actually, everything we ordered was delicious. And, except for the minor temperature issues I’ve mentioned, everything was cooked precisely.
Slices of lamb were rosy and tender, coupled with fried sweetbreads, molten and creamy. Haricot verts were crispy, glistening with a buttery sheen. And exceedingly fresh slices of ruby trout were silky, sweetened against whipped goat cheese.
But I thought quite a few dishes were over-embellished.
My “Tafelspitz,” for example, was excellent, if not downright Saturnalian. It was practically a buffet, with side dishes orbiting about in excess. [Tip: order this dish and you'll get to sample half of the "Side Dishes" on the menu, each listed at $7.]
But, as scatter-minded and over-the-top as it all was, each member of the collection was great.
The two, thick slices of boiled chuck were impossibly tender, veined with melting collagen, and soaking in a rich and flavorful oxtail broth. The vegetables were sturdy and fresh. And the rösti were crisp and light, accompanied by horseradish cream and applesauce.
Now, I pause on the creamed spinach, another rider to the tafelspitz. This spinach wasn’t just creamed, it was pureed. What was I to do with the soupy stuff? The beef had plenty of flavor from the oxtail broth. I hardly needed a sauce, much less add more fat to the already rich dish.
I’d rather have had a big bowl of freshly shaved horseradish, sharp and pointed, which I consider di rigueur in tafelspitz eating. I missed it.
Some of the dishes were delicious, but odd.
“Pochiertes Ei” ($15) found diced lobster meat together with a poached egg and what appeared to be dessicated mushroom crumbs. I’m not sure that I loved it, but I know I didn’t hate it.
“Schweinebach” ( $14) featured two beautifully breaded and fried cubes of pork belly, which were doing very well sitting atop a pile of shredded, crisped shoulder meat. But the addition of sauerkraut puree and seafood ragu threw me for a loop. I couldn’t really object to any of it, but I wasn’t thrilled with them in concert.
The “Jakobsmuchel” probably would have lost me too. But they ran out of that odd trio of scallops, chicken, and octopus.
They ran out of apfelstrudel too. That was disappointing, if not slightly surprising for a half-empty Austro-Germanic restaurant on a Sunday night.
But even more surprising is the fact that they don’t make their apfelstrudel in-house. They purchase it from an outside source. This was especially troubling news if you know that the apfelstrudel here doesn’t seem like the type of thing a Michelin-starred restaurant could (or should?) order from another source. Our server’s honesty about it all was at once slightly shocking and refreshing.
By the time we arrived at dessert, everyone’s eyes had rolled up into the back of their heads. Filled to the brim, they cried mercy.
So I pulled up my sleeves and salvaged the situation by ordering three desserts on my own. As I predicted, their eyes rolled back down temporarily to help me out.
If you’ve seen one decent attempt at a molten chocolate cake, you’ve just about seen them all, including Seäsonal’s misleadingly named “Schokoladen – Haselnuss Souffle” ($10). But as between that bowl of kaiserschmarrn and the “Rhabarber – Streussel,” the latter edged slightly ahead for me based purely on the merit of the tangy yogurt ice cream.
I worry about Seäsonal.
I liked my experience. But I don’t know that I liked it enough to go out of my way to visit that part of Midtown for dinner without another reason. Tucked away on an unremarkable street, it’s an incredible boon to concert-goers (say, at Carnegie Hall) looking for an upmarket bite early or late.
It seems to struggle for a wider audience.
I would, however, return to sit at Seäsonal‘s bar just to listen to their play list. If you’re between the ages of 30 and 34 (as we four all were), and you’re prone to episodes of nostalgia, you might just get lost in the incredibly age-specific melodies piped into the dining room. Whitney Houston and Joshua Kadison seemed to reappear, if for nothing else, to take Fitz and me back in time.
To read more about the restaurants I visited on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
Seäsonal Restaurant and Weinbar
132 West 58th Street
New York, New York 10019
* My friend Houston and I had quite the day. We met my friend the Wine Whisperer for lunch at Minetta Tavern. Thereafter, we caught the A train to way-uptown and met my friends Lois and Clark for a sunny tour of The Cloisters. From there, we high-tailed it back to Midtown where we reset and headed down to TriBeCa to my childhood-friend Fitz’s for a rooftop reunion and toast with his lovely wife Palmer. What a breathtaking view it was from atop their building. We watched as the dark clouds gradually grew darker and thicker. By the time we arrived at Seäsonal, it had begun to rain.