334 West 11th Street (off Washington, a block from the river)
212 352 2300
The Austro-Hungarian Empire ended long ago, but its wonderful food lingers on at Wallse, an elegant restaurant not far from the Hudson in the Village. The old empire usually evokes memories of bombastic food and rococo architecture, instead of the subtle wonders of Wallse,s cooking and the simple elegance of its decor. But if Wallse is less true to the memory, it is more true to the spirit.
The restaurant is a charming space of whitewashed brick on a charming street. We had a warm welcome for ourselves and our two little nieces and were soon ready to celebrate the glories of the days when zaftig was not a veiled insult, and dumplings were a part of life. We started with spaetzle, those classic little chunks of pasta, in a rich rabbit and wild mushroom sauce and another dish, less traditional. This was one of their potatoes roesti, a crispy potato pancake, topped with raw salmon, baby greens and radishes, to balance the richness with spiciness. While Wallse respects the traditions, they are not afraid to innovate.
If you want a lighter appetizer, where "lighter" is a relative term, consider the savory chestnut soup.
The meal continued with tafelspitz, a surprisingly elegant variation on a New England boiled dinner. This was a favorite of Emperor Franz Josef in his day, but it is not clear that his version had such a wonderful, beefy stock base or such perfectly cooked vegetables. Like a good ratatouille, with each ingredient properly cooked to bring out its best, the Wallse version of this dish highlights each flavor to heighten the medley.
As you might expect, the beef goulash is also more than the sum of its parts, with its perfectly cooked and seasoned beef, mushrooms and roast garlic. This is served with another potato roesti and the best creamed spinach we have ever eaten. Another classic, wiener schnitzel is crisp, light and served with lingonberry sauce.
On our next visit, a few days later, we were back for the roast duck, a mittel European classic, served with cabbage and brioche dumplings. The duck was rich, but not greasy, and the brioche dumplings, seemingly cobbled together from slices of eggy brioche were to die for, if not die from. We also enjoyed the classic venison, with a potent dark sauce to match the flavor of its juices, served with a celeriac puree.
Desserts were the pride of the Austro-Hungarians, who are still famous for their magnificent pastries. At Wallse, the desserts are something special. The chocolate hazelnut souffle with ice cream was wonderful, but our hearts were stolen by the lighter than air noodle pudding soufflé - nockerl. This is made of noodles, cooked to perfection, and then torn to bits and made into a wonderful, buttery confection.
Our nieces just swooned on both visits, and not just for the desserts. They loved the chestnut soup, the potato roesti and the tafelspitz as well.
If the emperor were alive today, he'd be happy here. The spirit of the Austro-Hungarian empire lives on.