Heartbreak in the East Village Imports Some Alsatian Gustation Elation
Once upon a time in the East Village, there was a restaurant called Roettele A.G. Located just off the southwest corner of Tompkins Square, the interior was cramped and labyrinthine, jam-packed with gilt cherubs, chandeliers, and dancing bears, the walls creepily painted in dark hues. Yet it opened up into a lovely backyard swagged with grape vines, which quickly became the haunt of literary types when the place first appeared in 1990. The menu, too, was unique to the neighborhood and the city, offering a combo of unfussy Swiss, German, and Italian food. There was nothing better on a balmy summer evening than a simple plate of viande des grison (Swiss air-dried beef) or a crock of melted raclette, served—rather oddly, we thought—with cold boiled spuds rather than bread.
The proprietor, Ingrid Roettele, eventually became weary of running a small restaurant, so she packed up and returned to Germany. Recently, though, she was lured back to serve as chef at Heartbreak, a new restaurant on the corner of 2nd Street and First Avenue. The bill of fare has been described as Alsatian (referring to a region of France on the German border), but the expansive menu covers all the Teutonic bases, also providing German, Swiss, and Austrian vittles. Taking a page from Pulino's, the giant corner storefront is heralded by a ridiculously large neon sign, constituting something of an affront and a romantic warning to the Catholic boys academy across the street.
The interior might be described as "bus station moderne," dominated by a bar with harsh dramatic lighting, cold concrete floors, and seating arranged in waiting-room rows. Red accents pervade throughout, perhaps an extension of the restaurant's lovelorn theme. While the city has had lots of German restaurants since the late 19th century (and Austrian ones more recently), never has there been anything quite like Heartbreak, which seeks to elevate the culinary status of peasant classics. Take the sauerbraten ($23). Instead of the usual floppy piece of sweet-and-sour shoe leather, you get a magnificent hunk of boneless beef rib the size of a sea-rail shipping container. It glistens with thick gravy, which waterfalls down the sides and into a puddle, where spaetzle swim like retirees in a warm spa pool.
29 East 2nd Street
Slideshow: Inside Heartbreak: Some Alsation Gustation Elation
Indeed, most entrées in the Meat section offer voluminous servings. Both the lamb and pork shanks represent enough flesh to provision an army, with gravy so dark that, when the restaurant turns the lights down low around 7 p.m. for dating couples, it reads as pitch black. These entrées come extensively sided, and I don't see why you shouldn't share one for two people. For less heavy fare, don't turn to the fish: The perch dinner consists of four hefty farm-raised fillets, served with spinach, roasted tomatoes, and an agreeable shower of toasted almonds. By contrast, the wienerschnitzel ($23) chooses to remain elegant in its austerity: The pair of perfect pounded cutlets—one on top of the other as if making love for the last time—nearly eclipse the plate, which holds nothing beyond a lemon wedge for lubrication.
Our two favorite apps included a house-smoked trout that came with a hillock of horseradish cream and comically small dab of lingonberry jam—which is really all you need. The other was a version of today's endlessly iterated fatty pork belly ($10), but in this case with a difference: The neat slices have been rubbed with herbs and fried dark brown on one edge, somehow rendering the fat fluffy and the meaty parts supremely flavorful. The most Alsatian thing on a lengthy and bewildering menu that includes Swiss fondues, hot and cold apps, salads, soups, fish entrées, pastas and dumplings, and numerous starchy sides is choucroute garnie ($23). This museum of pork products includes a bulbous sausage, smoked chop, and slab of smoked belly as big as a tombstone. The plate is garnished with sauerkraut and schupfnudeln—fried dumplings pointing like accusatory fingers.
Of course, if you really found yourself dining in a mountainside chalet (or in this case, a bus station) in the Alps, you'd rush through your meal to get to the Viennese pastries, which form the sweet heart of Teutonic cuisine. There's an apple strudel, of course, sided with both schlag (thick whipped cream) and raspberries dusted with gold powder. Even better is a version of the legendary Black Forest cake ($7), a chocolate-cherry delight configured like a round tower, or maybe a phallus. Don't get any ideas, dating couples—you're supposed to be breaking up.
More Photos: Inside Heartbreak: Some Alsation Gustation Elation
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