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RESTAURANTS | Critic's Notebook

N.Y.'s Wallse Is Riding the Crest of an Austrian Wave

March 01, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

NEW YORK — Quick, what's the latest dining trend to hit this city? No, the answer is not communal tables a la Philippe Starck. Champagne bars? On the wane. Peruvian appetizers? Close, but no cigar.

It's Austrian cuisine. Think Danube, David Bouley's tribute to haute Viennese cooking in a setting that could have been dreamed up by Klimt. Seductive as Danube is, it's a new, much more casual place in the West Village that's captured my heart. Wallse is named after chef/owner Kurt Gutenbrunner's hometown. He was chef at the Monkey Bar, and cooked for Bouley too, before opening this soulful neighborhood restaurant.

Wallse is sort of an Austrian bistro with linen panels at the windows, a velvet curtain just inside the door to keep out drafts, and huge black-and-white photos hung on the brick walls. There are just two small dining rooms, one with a bar. The place has a nice vibe and an interesting crowd too. No need to dress up. It's downtown, after all.

Everything my table of four tried from Gutenbrunner's winter menu was completely captivating, from the venison salad with celery root, walnuts and apples to a graceful artichoke and tomato terrine. His chestnut soup is magical: silky in texture, it's garnished with a swirl of foam and shaved black truffles and has Armagnac prunes lurking at the bottom of the bowl. I also fell in love with his herbed spaetzle with rabbit. The spaetzle, those squiggly free-form egg noodles, are the color of new grass, like spring in the bowl, and are mixed with pale tender morsels of rabbit and barely cooked peas.

We, of course, had to order a schnitzel. While thicker than it might be served in Vienna, the veal is flavorful and the breadcrumb coating is beautifully crunchy. It comes with a side dish of buttery pureed potatoes, and more of the herbed spaetzle. Venison goulash with cranberries and pears is redolent of paprika and spice, an ideal winter dish. He's got the classic tafelspitz, or boiled beef, too, served with creamed spinach and apple horseradish. That night's special was a rack of lamb cooked in a salt crust with pine needles inside. "It's like butter," our French waitress told us. And she was right.

To be honest, quark dumplings with clementines, made from a fresh, white cheese, were a bit gummy, and a frothy relative of kaiserschmarren laced with berries is too sweet, but a Trockenbeerenauslese from Austrian dessert wine master Alois Kracher more than made up for it. Wallse's wine list showcases Austrian wines, including the extraordinary Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners from the Wachau region, and even a few of reds from Burgenland.

When I called to get the menu, Gutenbrunner told me he'd been dreaming of California. Come on over.

* Wallse, 344 West 11th St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 352-2300; fax (212) 645-7127. Open for dinner daily; for lunch weekdays. Appetizers, $8 to $18; entrees, $24 to $30.

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