Red Alert: Alternative Schnitzels

Red Alert! Random Eastern European dishes are invading our streets and restaurants! Should you duck and cover, or welcome the enemy?

Red Alert - Alternative Schnitzels

Zagat says alternative schnitzels are trendy in NYC. For proof, the duck schnitzel at The Marrow:

When Harold Dieterle reached for his mallet at newly opened West Village joint The Marrow, he didn’t start hammering veal or pork into a thin patty. Instead he reached for some duck, taking a dish that doesn’t vary much from restaurant to restaurant and making it into something exciting again. His version of this Austrian comfort food is served with quark spaetzle, hazlenuts, cucumber-potato salad and stewed wolfberries. The dish is at once different and familiar, providing a fresh take on a plate that can easily feel tired.

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Bakery Review: Andre’s Hungarian Strudels & Pastries

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

After reviewing the savory menu at Andre’s Café last week, I am back to report on Andre’s Hungarian Strudels & Pastries. The pastry shop has three locations, the “flagship store” being in Forest Hills. I visited the 2nd Avenue branch, a.k.a. Andre’s Café — the only branch that serves savory food in addition to the desserts. (FYI, I noticed on Google Street View that the Health Department gave the 1st Avenue outpost a C, the first C I’ve ever seen so far! It has since been changed to an A, even though the mice violation remains).  Of course, all the pastries can be had to go, and the web site will even ship anywhere in the US.

We started with a few Hungarian  classics. The Dobos torte, a sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with a hard caramel glaze, contained too much sponge cake. In general, this is really a dessert that would benefit from an update. Nobody’s impressed by buttercream anymore, and what’s the point of having 5 layers if they’re all identical?

The Rigo Jancsi, a cake with a chocolate and cream filling sandwiched between two layers of chocolate sponge, was a bit heavy and too rich. The recipe is over a hundred years old and you can tell. The original is supposed to include a very thin apricot jam layer, but I didn’t taste any of it here. The chocolate glaze on top also had an unexpected mint flavor, and it just so happens that I don’t like mint with chocolate.

The hazelnut triangle, a dense hazelnut cake coated in chocolate, was equally disappointing, as the hazelnuts made it pretty dry.

There were a couple of other chocolate desserts which I suspect were more appetizing than really tasty. I know for a fact that the chocolate mousse cup was made of the same heavy filling as the Rigo Jancsi.

In a completely different category, the sour cherry and cheese strudel was very good. The strudel dough was excellent (just like in the savory strudels), and combined with the filling, it was certainly the best of the desserts we tried.

The plain cheesecake was of the dense, cream cheese variety — why am I not surprised! — not the ricotta kind. This wasn’t a bad thing, and I do expect cheesecake to be rich. Even though the sponge cake at the bottom wasn’t my favorite, the cheese mixture tasted good, and the “burnt top” added some extra flavor.

The fruit rugelach contained raisins, nuts, and candied fruits. They also come in a sugar-free version, just in case you’re having some regrets after that giant and not-so-yummy chocolate dessert. Here again the dough was very good, but we kept wishing the filling was chocolate instead. Chocolate rugelach is just plain hard to beat (it’s pretty good hangover food, too).

There are really 2 groups of desserts at Andre’s: the chocolate ones, which are just passable, and the rest, which ranges from good to very good. Choose wisely!

Cuisine: Hungarian
Picks: strudels, rugelach
Avoid: chocolate desserts
Food: 6/10

Restaurant Review: Andre’s Café

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Once upon a time in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, there was a whole Hungarian neighborhood centered around the Hungarian House and its library, and a handful of churches such as the Church of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the Hungarian Reformed Church, the St. Stephen of Hungary School and Parish, and the First Hungarian Baptist Church.  There is unfortunately very little of it left in terms of ethnic food. Mocca Hungarian Restaurant, one of the last Eastern European restaurants in the neighborhood, shut down in 2004 after more than 25 years of existence. The Hungarian Meat Market closed after a recent fire (but is hopefully reopening soon). The only remaining options are to buy a ticket to Budapest at Molnar Travel, or eat at Andre’s Café.

Andre’s Café is both a restaurant and a bakery, but I will focus on the savory food in this review. Passed the pastries in their refrigerated windows, a room decorated with Hungarian bric-a-brac seats about 20 people, a good half of which are likely to be Magyar (the other half includes a sizable contingent of other Europeans). There’s even a sort of bar with three lonely stools in the back.

The menu lists a number of sandwiches, wraps, panini and salads geared toward the lunch crowd. Things get a lot more interesting with the dinner courses, including sections dedicated to savory palacsinta (pancakes) and strudel, and exclusively Hungarian entrées.

In the cold appetizers, the country platter featured some great (though not house-made) Hungarian salami and smoked, spicy sausage.  The rest — hard boiled eggs, cooked ham, tomatoes, green peppers, red onions and muenster cheese — could have come from the nearby supermarket and was just average.

The smoked ham and potato strudel was wrapped in perfect, crispy dough, and the filling was good but mostly meat, with not enough potato. Of course, there had to be a miserable leaf of lettuce on the plate. It just goes so well with strudel.

The meat palacsinta was probably made fresh that day, but it arrived so hot inside that I’m pretty sure it was reheated in the microwave. The filling of ground meat with potatoes was nice but quite peppery.

The hortobagyi palacsinta, a pancake filled with stewed chunks of chicken and served with a creamy paprika sauce, was probably microwaved as well — that would explain why the sauce was broken! While the pieces of chicken were tender and tasty, the sauce was  a bit thin and lacked paprika.

What is it with Eastern European restaurants systematically stuffing their customers with 2 pieces of schnitzel? I worked in an Austrian-American restaurant for several years, we always served a single piece of meat, and nobody ever ordered a second entrée! The meat here was too dry, the potatoes were OK. Notice that the miserable lettuce leaf was back.

The veal goulash was very tender, maybe a bit too seasoned but fine when eaten with the nokedli (Hungarian spaetzle). Purists will certainly notice that this looks more like a pörkölt than a typical gulyás.

The “layered potatoes” consisted of not-so-layered but perfectly cooked potatoes mixed with 2 kinds of tasty sausages and hard boiled egg, with sour cream on the side. A simple dish very well prepared.

Similarly, the noodles with farmer cheese and bacon (plus a generous dollop of sour cream) provided simple satisfaction. Good bacon, good cheese, addictive pasta.

It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant offers a small selection of affordable and refreshing Hungarian wines — my personal preference goes to the Hárslevelű and the Tokaji Aszú.

The savory dishes at Andre’s Café are all about Hungarian comfort food. No modern cuisine here, everything is very traditional, the strudel dough is exceptional, and the most rustic entrées tend to be the best. There are pros and cons of course: the execution is pretty good, but then, that’s not all that hard.

I’ll be discussing the desserts separately, in my soon-to-come Bakery Review!

Cuisine: Hungarian
Picks: strudels, “layered potatoes”, noodles with farmer cheese and bacon
Food: 6.5/10

Restaurant Review: Korzo Haus

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

From the outside, Korzo Haus just looks like another hole-in-the-wall located in a forgotten block of the East Village — in so far as there is such a thing. Even the blackboards simply advertise your usual brunch, coffee and burgers.

However, if you pass the short-order kitchen in front and inspect the diminutive dining room (which consists of a few tiny two-tops and a communal table that isn’t much bigger), you may notice the picture on the wall and wonder why the President of Slovakia chose to visit this place. You may also wonder which person on the picture is really the president (hint), but that’s beyond the point.

The explanation comes when you read the menu: the dishes seem to come straight from a café at the trijunction between Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. Austrian bratwurst and potato salad shares the scene with Slovak halušky with bryndza, and Hungarian langos and goulash. Many of these specialties are then rearranged into egg or burger offerings. There is no wine to rinse down the food, but there are about a dozen kinds of beer, mostly from Central Europe and the US.

If you choose to start the meal with the potato salad and happen to be sitting at the bar, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that the salad is prepared à la minute, entirely from scratch:

Okay, à la minute is a bit misleading, as it will take quite a few minutes before the dish finally hits your plate. But the result is worth the wait! I don’t hesitate to say this is the best potato salad I’ve ever had, mixing delicious potatoes with sautéed onions, bacon dice, and just the right amount of mustard.

The bratwurst is served either on a roll, or with the same potato salad and some sauerkraut. The sausage was tasty and appropriately greasy, though not excessively so.

Moving on to Slovakia, we ordered the halušky (the Slovak version of spaetzle), which come with either bacon and chives or bryndza (a cheese similar feta). Simple but good.

More halušky, deep-fried this time, arrived with the goulash, adding an interesting crunch to the spicy Hungarian stew that you see bubbling on the back burner in the kitchen. I found the beef brisket very tender, but too much caraway in the sauce overpowered the dish.

We completed the meal with a couple of the truly unusual Korzo burgers, which occupy half of the menu and change regularly. All of them are wrapped in langos (Hungarian fried bread) and served with the ever popular deep-fried halušky and an assortment of green apple, red cabbage slaw, and aioli. Looking in the kitchen, we saw that the one-man-show chef first grills the patties, lets them cool, then wraps them in the langos dough and deep-fries them:

“The Original” came with bacon, emmentaler cheese, mustard and pickle. “The Slav” was topped with slow-cooked pork neck, saeurkraut and bryndza. Both were good and pleasantly decadent, and you hardly needed an appetizer before them. My main reproach would be that the meat was too packed (later on, I actually noticed that the chef was pressing those patties a lot). Ground meat in burgers is best if it’s pressed just enough to not fall apart. And while the deep-fried halušky went well with goulash, they were less satisfying with burgers. Not to mention I was reaching halušky saturation. Surely, there must be a Slovak fried potato specialty that could be tapped into instead.

There were no desserts, and I don’t know where the kitchen would find the space to prepare them. Too bad — a slice of strudel would have fit perfectly.

Cuisine: Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian
Picks: potato salad, Korzo burgers
Food: 7/10