Wallse, Oct. 28, 2005
344 W. 11th Street
I've had an incredible week of eating. Not often does someone like me get to eat at Babbo and Wallse within three days of each other. Which is a shame, because lord knows I appreciate it.
Entering Wallse at 7:00pm on a Friday night is akin to approaching a lion's den while wearing a blindfold. Velvet drapes, which by the way never move easy enough for the customer, hide a loud and packed house that is only further crammed by numerous people at the host stand. The white, brick walls spotted with artwork and the smallish bar area to the left in the front room were a complete blur as we were whisked to the nearly packed back room. This room, also with black carpeting, white, brick walls and the now well-known but still moody none-the-less, Julian Schnabel pieces was loud and offered very tight seating arrangements.
We sat between an older Austrian couple (to my right) and a younger couple in their 30s (to my left) and were able to hear every word of their conversations as the night went on, which to me is too close for comfort. The bench seat that Danna sat on was covered with comfortable moleskin-like fabric which satisfied her seating needs. My chair, a flimsy, lightweight and semi-comfortable piece of furniture was discouraging.
We got the menus and was happy to see some specials that I was unaware of on them. I knew I was going to try the rabbit and spaetzle dish for my appetizer but was pleasantly surprised to see the scottish partridge dish added for the evening and ordered that as well. Danna had the chestnut soup (a surprise, I confess) and had the poached lobster with spaetzle for her entree.
Danna, who's mother is a graduate of I.C.E. (actually, Peter Kump's), commented that her mother's annual chestnut soup at Christmas was thicker and in general, better.
My rabbit and spaetzle dish was creamy and flavorful without the gaminess but with a pleasant essence of the rabbit. I think the rabbit flavor was less pronounced than I'd have expected but made the dish a bit subtler, which was just fine. The hen of the woods mushrooms among other wild varities and sweet peas added great depth, flavor and texture to the dish.
Having had three rabbit dishes within three months (after never having tried rabbit before), I am happy to report the extent of which rabbit can be prepared so as to be completely different from one another. The Red Cat, Park Bistro and Wallse all cook rabbit excellently, and differently, and I'm not sure which one I enjoyed the most. Park Bistro's presented the essence of rabbit the strongest, Wallse the most subtle, with the accompaniments (the spaetzle) of the Wallse version rising up to the occasion the best. I would definitely recommend this dish - at all three restaurants.
Danna's slow cooked lobster with spätzle, corn and concord grape sauce was very tender and remarkably tasty. The lobster/sea foam that topped the dish was a perfect execution of the Ferran Adrian-inspired add-on. Salty and lobstery - it worked and more importantly, made sense. Danna was thrilled with this dish, which made the whole night worthwhile. This dish is hard to beat.
But my Scottish partridge gave it a good try. I have to check my notes as to what accompanied this dish (I plum forgot at the moment), but am happy to report that it was a solid effort and seemed to never end. A lot of meat in such a tiny bird, which was cut up and arranged in a deliberate stack to unveil the best, most tender breast pieces last.
During this course, the older gentleman to my right, started to perform one of the things I dislike the most, a result of which was no doubt bad karma coming back to me. About a week ago, as we were in bed after a night of drinking, Danna came down with a nasty case of the hiccups. I despise hiccups and cannot understand how people don't know how to stop them immediately. It was a trick I learned from necessity (I dislike the sound and was embarrassed by a sound like that coming out of my mouth) long ago. So why this 70-something year old couldn't stop it (even at his wife's suggestive pleading) I don't know. Danna, who knows my disdain for hiccups firsthand, as demonstrated by my unhelpful pleading to the point of arguing for her to stop a week earlier, held my hand so as to calm me for what she knew was driving me insane. Fortunately they were finishing up so I wouldn't have to hear it for long.
As for wine, we ordered a bottle of a Zweigelt (a cross of Blaufränkisch and St.Laurent grapes) of which I don't have the name and vintage in front of me. It was very nice, mild tannins, not overly fruity but not too dry either, though it did fall on the dry side. Went well with both of our entrees, specifically, but needed to be accompanied with food as it was a tiny bit drab on its own. One downside of the wine was that it never provided a buzz. This is clearly not an oeniphiles first need of a wine, but it was Friday, we were sort of celebrating, and a buzz would have been nice. The wine was very nice though.
For dessert we ordered the Salzburger Nockerl with Huckleberries, which for the uninitiated, is a giant pillowy cloud of marshmallow-like egg white souffle with oozing berries underneath. Delicious, remarkably sweet and too much to handle even for two people.
I ordered the special "small taste" which was a green apple and celery sorbet with horseradish, sea salt and olive oil. The celery sorbet was great and really offered an icy vegetal taste and served on a 2 inch high, 5 inch in diameter, puck of ice. The sea salt was a bit too underrefined. Too much crunch, unlike the perfect olive oil gelato at Otto. The slices of green apple and shavings of horseradish were questionable and perhaps unnecessary add-ons but made the dish more different, which was fine. Worth trying for the sake of trying.
Service was fine. Strict, to the point, but somewhat confusing. Too many people involved with getting us our food. The waiter gave us the menus. The maitre d' took our order and helped with the wine selection as well as retrieved our jackets, a server brought us our meals and took away the plates and the waiter came back to bring us the check.
Food was brought to us efficiently, plates, clean to the point of sparkling (it was all very delicious), were taken away promptly and our check ($183 before tip) was given, processed and returned quickly.
I will hopefully return to this restaurant to try more of Chef Gutenbrenner's delectable (but strict - how can food seem strict/regimented) Austrian fare but have to agree with Amanda Hesser's review that this is a 2 star restaurant. The outdated flower holder on each table, of which our neighbor's was cracked/niched and not even replaced (we've seen the same at the original Aquavit and I think they sell it at Bo Concept), the flimsy chair, the too cramped seating, the noise level and the cramped and cold feeling of the place (I'm not referring to temperature) bring the 3 star food down.