Two years ago, Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner opened Cafe Katja, a tiny Austrian restaurant and wine bar on Orchard Street serving big flavors and high spirits. Chase and Schrottner, who previously both worked at the Mark and the earlier incarnation of the Monkey Bar, have accrued a devoted following for their take on what’s been dubbed New Austrian cuisine, giving a refined, modern twist to classics like goulash, bratwurst, and spaetzle.
Chase, who lives on the Lower East Side, spoke with Fork in the Road about, among other things, his New Year’s Eve plans, the importance of using good vinegar, and why he remains loyal to Bereket, despite the varying quality of their fried eggplant salad.
So, how are things going at Katja?
Things are going great. I don’t want to jinx myself, but we feel really lucky right now.
Are you going to be open for dinner tonight?
We will be, but we’re going to close early because we found that people want us as a moderate-priced place to eat and not really as a late-night party place. So — and this is what we did last year — we’ll close maybe by 10 so everyone can get home and kiss their girlfriend or boyfriend later at night. That’s our plan, anyway.
Over the past couple of years, you guys have really established yourself as the quintessential neighborhood restaurant — who would you say your customers are?
That’s a good question. What makes this the best place is our customers: They’re awesome. There’s just such a mix — we get 20-year-olds through people like my mom’s age; she’s in her eighties. We get fewer of those people, but if I had to give a median age it would be 35 or something. We get such a diverse crowd, but the one thing I notice pretty much across the board is that they’re smart people who tend to be really interesting; they’re New Yorkers… And we definitely get the ex-pats. We’re flattered by that.
Do they ever request foods that they eat back home?
Mostly no. In the very beginning there were people that came and were kind of challenging in terms of, “Your Linzer torte isn’t genuine,” but we really get none of that anymore. We don’t get too much of, “Hey, my mom made this regional specialty, could you put it on the menu?” The one thing people would love is if we could do schnitzel. But we don’t have the space. I could make you one or two, but we have two induction burners and that’s it. Five orders and you’re screwed…If you go to Austria, everyone, and I’m not talking tourists, eats schnitzel like crazy. We eat it too. It’s just universally likable.
Since you and Erwin opened the restaurant two years ago, have perceptions of Austrian food changed at all in the city?
The wine has more than the food. People have their preconceived notions that it’s meat- heavy, it’s sausage and beer, and to be honest, a lot of our menu is. However, we have lots of vegetables and salads; you can eat light food. But when people are thinking about [eating light] they aren’t thinking about Austrian food. If you say you want to get Austrian, a lot of people won’t respond positively. Maybe I should be more hopeful — well, I am hopeful because I know when people come and eat at our place, I know that they’ll like it even if they’re vegetarian or whatever. I don’t worry about them finding something good to eat. But I do feel challenged at times just in terms of getting people in.
Although your stretch of Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand, certainly isn’t hurting for foot traffic.
It’s changed a lot, not in terms of restaurants, but just all the retail spaces. There’s that little row of stores across the street: Robert James, Wendy Mink, James Coviello, Pilgrim. And then the Vietnamese guys at An Choi have brought another element of young people to the block. And Casa Mezcal — holy crap, it’s going to be huge. Another thing that changed the immediate neighborhood is 10 Bells: It brings a lot more people. We don’t really share our customers that much — I guess a little bit, but it’s a totally different use. They come here to eat and then to 10 Bells to drink. If people ask me for a bar, I can tell them to go [there]. I love Barrio Chino took, but it’s also very full.
What are your menu’s biggest sellers?
It changes, but goulash is pretty huge. Emmentaler sausage is pretty
huge, and liverwurst is pretty huge. And when we do specials, like venison, people will buy that. And it’s funny — even though we only have a couple of mains on the menu, people will buy them a lot, which sort of surprised us: Even though our prices are good, they’re our most expensive items.
Anything that doesn’t sell?
Once we put this kind of Austrian head cheese on the menu, and people did not buy it. We’re too small to have items that don’t sell, so we don’t keep items like that on our menu; we can’t afford to.
On a sort of related note, which ingredients do you think are most underappreciated?
In terms of what we use, quality vinegar. That sort of thing can be detrimental to your cooking if you don’t use something that’s quality, but people don’t give a lot of thought to it. We’re in the middle of making our own vinegar; when I went to Austria last year I brought some mothers back from this incredible vinegar maker. Erwin, in his garage in New Jersey, used it to inoculate a bunch of cider. Hopefully, we’ll have our own cider vinegar by the end of winter. It’s kind of a long process, but once you get the first batch out you can replenish it. In Austria, another big thing is pumpkin seed oil. But here, a lot of times when you buy it from the store it’s rancid from sitting on the shelf because it’s not a popular item. That’s one big underrated ingredient. We buy it in small quantities and use it to make pumpkin seed oil cake. It doesn’t sell very well; we need to think of a different name or something. Olive oil cake doesn’t freak people out, whereas pumpkin seed oil cake is like, huh. By the time you’re halfway through telling customers about the ingredients, they’re like, whatever.
What’s in your refrigerator at home?
We cook at home, so there’s lots of vegetables in there, and lots of tofu — a lot of stuff to make quick meals. And condiments are things that help make something quickly — we’ve got mostarda, Sriracha, good mustard. And a Spanish olive oil, L’Estornell, that we love.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not at home or at the restaurant?
Frankie’s Spuntino on Clinton Street kicks ass; we love it. And we like to Bereket. It’s hit or miss, but my favorite thing is the fried eggplant. Sometimes it’s, like, fermented and a little fizzy, but basically I’m like, OK, the eggplant’s fucked up tonight. Yes, it should be inexcusable but for the most part it’s not fucked up. I know they’re not the best doner kebabs but they’re pretty damn good, and it’s close to home and I like the atmosphere. It’s not rarefied.
Where do you like to get a slice of pizza?
Honestly, because we have a car, we drive over to Motorino in Williamsburg.
And where do you like to go to Austrian food that’s not your own?
I love Blaue Gans. I wasn’t going to count Wallse because it’s three-star fine dining, but it’s Austrian, so whatever. Wallse too. All of Kurt Gutenbrunner’s restaurants. He’s a goddamned good cook.