At Grunauer, the best of times and the wurst of times
The biggest misperception about Viennese cuisine,” Peter Grunauer says, “is that it’s German. Viennese food is lighter, less greasy.”
A glance at the menu that Grunauer has created for his namesake restaurant in the Crossroads might add to the confusion, though. Much of the fare on the menu is as traditional to Deutschland as beer, Beethoven and bratwurst. Grunauer’s best-selling dishes right now are Wiener schnitzel and Schweinebraten. If the serving staff were made up of busty Aryan babes in dirndls — a staple of cinema scenes set in Berlin beer gardens — instead of swarthy men, you might suspect Grunauer, the restaurant, of being more of a cultural novelty than a culinary innovation for the Freight House District.
The 1974 edition of The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire explains that during the apex of the once-sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, the most important culinary contributors were “those encompassed by present-day Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.” A similar dish made in Budapest might taste completely different in Vienna, the cookbook writers note, because the Hungarians use more spices.
But no one will say that Grunauer, who learned to cook while watching his mother at work in the family restaurant, keeps a heavy hand in the spice cabinet. His restaurant’s house-made sausages are mild (though one of the wursts is served with a sultry curry sauce), and even his Hungarian beef goulash, which bears absolutely no resemblance to the American bastardization of the dish, is prepared with a discreet hand on the paprika jar.
A charming host and raconteur, Grunauer learned early the ways of the American palate. His journey has taken him from Vienna to a cruise ship — he celebrated his 21st birthday at sea, surrounded by bottles of expensive champagne from his crewmates — to the legendary Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, where he earned more money in one night than in a week as a server on the cruise ship. In the early 1970s, he worked as a mâitre d’ for that era’s best-known disco restaurateur, Regine, and saved enough money to open his first restaurant, Vienna 79. It was a high-end venue and very snobby, according to The Restaurants of New York, 1981-82, which calls the staff unctuous and reports that “some of the dishes on the menu are actually Viennese, at least vaguely.” Most of the critical reviews of Vienna 79, including Mimi Sheraton’s, were positive, but the economics of Manhattan were changing, and Grunauer closed that restaurant in 1989, turning his focus to his less-expensive bistro, Fledermaus (which closed in 1996).
Grunauer married a pretty TWA flight attendant and had two children, Elizabeth and Nicholas, who were raised — during their teen years, anyway — in Kansas City. Now adults, Nicholas and Elizabeth, are running the day-to-day operations at Grunauer, which has slipped into the former City Tavern space with very little redecoration. In fact, the space that owner Dan Clothier originally created for his steakhouse — brick walls, antique mirrors, distressed wood floors, soaring ceilings — turns out to be an even better setting for a culinary concept that evokes 19th-century Europe. Peter Grunauer serves only Julius Meinl coffee (a Vienna roasterie dating back to 1862) and imports his Sacher torte and apple strudel from the New York City outpost of the historic Demel patisserie, which was the official bakery of Emperor Franz Joseph.
Even though Kansas City was settled by a large German-American community, the cuisine of Deutschland and the Austro-Hungarian empire has never been fully embraced here. The only remaining German restaurant in the metro, for example, is the Rheinland in Independence. “Who wants to eat sausages and potatoes?” grouses one friend of mine. “And bread and butter!”
Well, I would, for one. I’d probably like Grunauer just for the bread — made every day in the restaurant’s kitchen — and butter and a big bowl of frittaten soup, a mahogany-colored broth decked with thick ribbons of grilled crepes. Fattening stuff, yes, but there are times when I’d rather splurge on something ridiculously decadent, like Grunauer’s cream-based paprika red-bell-pepper soup (ask for a splash of pumpkin-seed oil on top), than on a trendy burger with truffle fries.
The food here isn’t dreadfully expensive, and you can make a meal of selections from the starter list, such as the platter of Austrian salads or Grunauer’s extraordinary version of Rindfleischsalat, a Viennese cold salad made with strips of fork-tender beef marinated in the same nutty-tasting pumpkin-seed oil and red-wine vinegar with slivers of red, yellow and green peppers. It’s only an appetizer here, but I’ve eaten it as a meal — with lots of bread, butter and a big slab of apple strudel — and enjoyed every glorious bite.
Steak is on the menu, of course, and it’s actually pretty good, served under a cloud of fried onion ribbons. And there’s even a Viennese version of fried chicken, Wiener backhendl, which isn’t as delectable as a Stroud’s plate but is crispy, surprisingly ungreasy, and delicious with a mound of sweet red cabbage and buttery mashed potatoes.
I liked the Austrian beef hotpot — succulent, thick slices of slow-roasted beef in a restorative broth with potatoes and noodles — but Peter Grunauer says he won’t be happy with the dish, tafelspitz, until he can serve it in a traditional copper pot. “We’re still waiting for them to arrive.”
The night I polished off the tafelspitz and two bratwurst sausages (served with stone-ground mustard and plenty of head-clearing horseradish), my friend Bob raved about a hunk of perfectly grilled Norwegian salmon, which came with fresh green beans that had been sautéed with savoy cabbage and bits of crunchy bacon.
It’s sort of sinful to finish off such a robust meal with dessert, but Peter Grunauer insists that a sweet finale is “the Viennese way.” The Sacher torte and strudel are overnighted from Demel — by way of NYC — in carefully packed Styrofoam boxes. And Grunauer will take on any critic who complains that the chocolate-enrobed cake, which bears the famous name of baker Franz Sacher, is slightly dry. “It’s one of the few customer complaints we ever get,” Grunauer says. “But this cake is not supposed to be very moist. There’s a thin glaze of apricot jam under the coating of Belgian chocolate, and it’s supposed to be eaten with lots of schlag.”
Schlag — real whipped cream — is what makes the Sacher torte special, Grunauer says. I agree: It’s the only way to eat the bittersweet-chocolate pastry, though the gorgeously moist apple strudel, also from Demel, is even better, with or without schlag.
The coffee is wonderful, too. “We’re getting our own coffee roaster from Julius Meinl,” Grunauer says. “You’ll be able to smell our coffee before you even step into the restaurant.”
In Vienna, even coffee is liberally sweetened with schlag, and the Grunauer staff is more than happy to bring out a pile of freshly whipped cream for that use. I prefer my coffee black — something that seemed to scandalize our server.
It was tempting, God knows. But it’s already too easy to go overboard at Grunauer, where it’s always the best of times and the wurst of times.