Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Roots and Wings New York City Entry #67

Wallsé is Aquavit on Strudel. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner takes Austria as his inspiration, just as Aquavit is Stockholm on the Hudson. Labeling Wallsé Austrian as precise as suggesting that Tabla is a Delhi deli. New York takes indigenous cuisines, reaches for a mixer, and turns on the juice. The outcome is recognizable, if cracked. At its best, the mash is sublime.

Wallsé, in the heart of the West Village, serves nicely as a poster child for post-fusion cuisine. Whereas once restaurants competed to see how many continents could be contained on a plate, chefs are now drawing on their heritage and on their international training. They show their roots and wings.

The Wallsé space is as pleasing as any upper-middle restaurant. The two rooms are filled with contemporary art (works by Julian Schnabel and Alfred Olin, among others), pieces that set off the white brick walls and black carpeting. If the room was once minimalist, today it bounces and sizzles with color and drips.

Perhaps it is Germanic clockwork, but the staff rushed us through dinner. Our appetizers arrived moments after the order went in, and the time between appetizer and entree was barely sufficient to lay down our forks. No amuse for us. We had the impression that our 7:00 table was to be turned over by 9:00. If two seatings are required, early reservations should be scheduled at 6:30 and later ones set for 9:30. The crowd at the bar suggested that the late shift might have applauded our exit. Restaurant clocks should always measure soft time.

I began with Spicy Lobster Soup with Lobster Ravioli. The dish was admirable, but not orgasmic. It didn't tingle. The liquid had nice heat, but the spicing was too heavy on the salt. The soup had a roughness that didn't detract from the pleasure of its dense lobster, but served as a marker that this was not David Bouley's kitchen. The ravioli was pure lobster and laudable, although its purity was overwhelmed by the competing spice. It was an commendable broth, a step from distinguished.

Crispy Cod Strudel with Braised Leeks and Black Truffle Sauce is a marriage of the Outer Banks and the Inner Ring. Let no one castigate cod in the hands of Chef Gutenbrunner. Cod, when cooked properly, is ocean essence. Forget salmon, swordfish, or trout. Cod is Fish. And this was a beautiful piece, framed with delicacy by the braised leeks. Given this headstart, I was disappointed with the strudel. The top was properly crisp, but the pastry base was thin and soggy. The black truffle sauce must have existed in the chef's imagination, because it was absent on the diner's plate. Perhaps he used an atomizer. With work, this could be a classic dish.

Dessert began with a scoop of marzipan sorbet. This is not a misprint. Not gelato. Sorbet. I admired that the pastry chef Pierre Reboule (if he is still the dessert chef, he is not listed on the website) was willing forgo a heavy sugar base. This was iced almond, not sticky toffee.

The startling and remarkable Green Apple and Celery Sorbet with Horseradish, Sea Salt, and Olive Oil was triumphant. Having recently eaten dessert flavored with sea salt and olive oil at Otto, what seemed a curiosity is fast becoming a trend. Of all the dishes that shouldn't work, this combine ranks high. Yet, the sweet, hot, salty, and bitter ingredients not only collaborated, but fused. This choral cuisine will long vibrate on my tongue. I tremble at the chef's inspiration.

As we were leaving my companion and I agreed that despite the bum's rush and despite a few culinary infelicities, Wallsé is a restaurant to which we would return. The room is striking and the menu is filled with surprises that we have only began to explore. New Yorkers are blessed by restaurant workers converging here from the World Beyond. Chefs and dishwashers deserve our gratitude for their mettle, showing pluck to provide for Gotham's table.

344 West 11th Street
Manhattan (West Village)

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