Thursday, January 28, 2010
After many futile attempts to take my wonderful boyfriend out to dinner for his birthday (there were many factors at play and cross-country trips to compete with), in the beginning of January, we finally made it happen - and only 37 days after the fact! We walked in to Wallsé (pronounced Vall-Say) right on time for our 8:30 reservation, and we were greeted warmly by the hostess at the front. I left a note on OpenTable that it would be great to get a nice table since we would be celebrating my boyfriend's birthday (I was sure not to use "it is my boyfriend's birthday," since it was not, in fact, his birthday, but we were, in fact, celebrating - nobody likes a liar).
Wallsé is located on a very quiet Far West Village corner, as not many people find their way to the corner of West 11th and Washington unless they're there for a reason. But we had a reason, and the quiet corner seemed completely befitting the restaurant, which exuded a warm, welcoming vibe, giving it the feel of a fabulous neighborhood haunt. The space is outfitted in dark colors; the black carpeting and large paintings prompted Andrew to declare that he felt as if he were in L.A. I didn't get the same feeling, but the restaurant was very spacious and quite relaxing. We settled in to our corner banquette near the front of the restaurant, which was great, since it allowed us to sit next to one another without having to be one of those couples that sit on the same side of the booth.
We started with a bottle of Riesling, the name of which escapes me now, and I was clearly not diligent enough to jot it down or snap a picture at the time. It was a bit sweeter than we prefer, as we both tend towards dry Rieslings, but it was light and delicious nonetheless.
The menu is broken down into Appetizers, Fish, Meat and Sides. Since there were so many things on the menu that looked great, we decided to go with the four-course prix fixe - a great option since you're able to choose your own courses, with the only requirement being that one of your four courses has to be dessert. Since we're the sharing, generous types, we decided on six dishes that we both wanted to try and decided we'd split all of them; I think this approach threw our waiter for a loop a little bit, but it all worked out in the end.
Despite knowing how much food was headed our way, I cannot abstain from a bread basket - and I'm glad I didn't here. The whole wheat bread was the lightest I've had in a really long time, with large holes and a crisp crust, it was awesome.
For our first course, we went with the Spätzle with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms and Brussels sprouts and the Rösti with lobster, fennel and oranges.
The Spätzle is a signature dish at Wallsé - I believe it's been on the menu since the restaurant's inception - and it's a signature for a reason. This dish hit all the right notes: chewy, freshly made spätzle (a nostalgic favorite of mine), studded with tender, juicy hunks of braised rabbit and earthy, satisfying crunches of separated Brussels sprouts leaves. All coated with an unapologetically rich quark-based sauce and brightened by teensy shreds of basil, this dish was a home run. I would return for this dish again and again, had I no fear for the implications such a habit would have on my waistline.
The Rosti was another success - the lobster was meaty and tender, and while my feelings towards potato pancakes can be summed up by my always latke-less Chanukahs, this one was perfect. The crispy exterior gave way to pillow-soft insides and the bright citrus flavors and crisp fennel made the dish feel almost light. Though in comparison to that spätzle, macaroni and cheese burgers might even seen light - not that that's a bad thing, of course…that spätzle haunts my dreams.
We moved onwards to fish. The steamed halibut was fabulous - left pretty much raw in the middle, the purely white fish was accompanied on the plate by a shock of green in the form of a cucumber dill sauce, all topped with a mess of mushrooms. The halibut was as delicate as any I've ever had - though halibut is a meaty fish, the steam treatment gave it an impressively soft, silky texture, one that I don't think I've experienced with halibut before. The sauce was bright, heavy on the dill, and delicious - the perfect complement to the mild flesh of the fish and the earthiness of the mushrooms.
The wild striped bass was accompanied by sauerkraut, a pairing I don't think I'd seen before. The kraut was awesome, and the bass a shining example of a perfectly cooked piece of fish. Crackly skin gave way to a tender, moist white flesh. Another mild fish, the dish was amped up by the aggressive flavors of the sauerkraut, which might have been a bit too much for the meekly flavored fish had it not been for the depth of the black truffles cutting right through it.
For our third course, we went with the monkfish, which was served with a porcini mushrooms and a semolina quenelle, with a petit bowl of Styrian cabbage on the side. These mushrooms were undeniably addictive - at this point in the meal I was about ready to burst, but I could not keep my fork out of those mushrooms. My body said no, but I was not about to deprive my taste buds of those mushrooms - they were innocent bystanders in my destruction of my body anyway, totally undeserving of deprivation.
The cabbage seemed a bit disjointed from the monkfish, but, whatever - it was great too, finely shredded and dotted with juicy, salty bits of ham and caraway seeds, which I adore, it was light and fresh, serving to cut the richness of both this dish and the meat dish we ordered.
That lone meat course (I realized after the fact that it was a bit odd that we'd eaten so much fish given that we were eating in an Austrian establishment, and Austria isn't known to be big on the seafood, being landlocked and all) was a plate of veal cheeks, which sat atop a pile of roasted winter root vegetables and a fingerling potato puree, all crowned with a curl of veal tongue. The veal cheeks were tender, the pieces pulled away with the most minimal of fork-driven efforts. This dish was unmistakably Austrian - the deeply braised meat, fatty and rich, was hugely flavorful. The tender tongue seemed almost superfluous, but who am I to argue? It was delicious.
For dessert, we opted to share one dessert to share a cheese plate, which ended up being a great move since they brought the cheese plate out after we finished our dessert, serving to elongate the meal. The Salzburger Nockerl with huckleberries was brought to our table with a lit candle in a quenelle of schlag (a nice touch, considering I had been a delinquent girlfriend and totally forgot to ask them to put a candle in it, they were really paying attention to those opentable notes). Salzburger Nockerl is like a giant pouf of meringue, burnished in the oven until it achieves that beautiful golden brown crown. This was light, and very, very sweet - as one would expect of something made almost entirely of egg whites and sugar. The dish was definitely a looker, but it was rather one-note, especially once you we got past the slightly crispy tops. The huckleberries provided a bit of a tart foil for the sweetness, but they were rather sweet as well, and after a few bites, both Andrew and I had enough, which isn't to say it wasn't good, it was just a bit too much for both of us.
The cheese plate, which came with fig and - I think - apricot chutney, was completely unnecessary at this stage in the meal, given all that we'd already ingested, but I am a sucker for milk fat in all of its forms so I was not going to stay away. The cheese menu notes that the cheese on offer are Bergkäse Alt, a cow's milk cheese from Bregenz, Austria, a cow's milk Münster from Voralberg, Austria, a cow's milk Gunzesrieder from Allgäu, Germany and Noble Goat from the Austrian Tirol - so I presume that these were the four we were given (I was again, not that diligent, but hey, at least I have the excuse of being half a bottle deep at this point). The second from top in the photo above was my favorite - I believe, but don't hold me to it, that this was the Gunzesrieder, though I have a soft spot for creamy cheeses.
As if that were not enough, we were given a plate of mignardise, which comprised a raspberry macaron, a gelée of some sort, a chocolate-cakey petit four and a little cellophane-wrapped hazelnut nougat. The macaron was pretty good, though light on the filling, the outer shell had that nice crackle and that chewy interior that I love about macarons. Andrew devoured the gelée and claimed it to be delicious. The thought of chocolate at that point was too much for me to handle, so that poor little guy went untouched, while I pocketed the nougat for the next day (it was really quite good).
I have been to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants at this point, and I think there's a great variation in the quality of meals I've enjoyed in such establishments. Judging from this meal, Wallsé should rank very high on the list of one-star Michelin restaurants; it's definitely very high on my list of New York restaurants. The service was effusive, without being overbearing - everyone was treated as if they were a regular. There was none of that fake, haughty courtesy, but instead a warmth and appreciation that made you feel like making your experience exceptional was truly important to everyone involved.
Our server was incredibly helpful, the maitre d' stopped by to check on us and see how everything was going, and the hostesses engaged in very lively banter with us about Julian Schnabel and Lou Reed, who the hostess had chatted with as if they were old friends (turns out Lou Reed is just a regular) when they left the restaurant a few minutes before us.
Because of it's relatively out-of-the-way location, it seems that Wallsé is trying to cultivate regulars, and, had I the funds of the likes of Lou Reed, I'd be a regular in a second.
344 West 11th Street (corner of Washington)
New York City 10014