If you want a good primer on the romance of white asparagus, that luxurious harbinger of spring that sweeps Europe this time of year but is less prevalent, to say the least, in the States, you might want to check out New York Times contributor Elaine Sciolino’s recent account of harvesting the vegetable and then cooking it alongside a formidable French chef. She captures in that essay the excitement, mystique, culture and decadence that surrounds the milk-hued stalks, from the delicate digging that frees them from their sandy planter to their smooth, mild flavor.
If you then want to sample white asparagus (affordably!) in all of its sweet, juicy glory, head for Cafe Katja, the Lower East Side Austrian restaurant that’s currently paying homage to weiben spargel with a special menu that has a blink-and-it’s-gone lifespan.
Order any of the dishes off that list and be treated to tender albino stalks as fat as a late-harvest carrot and as sweet as sugar snap peas, with none of the bitterness that characterizes white asparagus’s green sibling. As opposed to the French, who dress these shoots with hollandaise or vinaigrette, Katja’s version comes unobstructed — with drawn butter and new potatoes — as well as showcased more substantially with smoked salmon or speck. There’s also an iteration on the list that marries the asparagus with a much more popularized spring ingredient, the ramp, which is puréed into a vibrant green sauce.
Owners Erwin Schrottner and Andrew Chase celebrate this season every year, and it’s always a fleeting moment: Katja tells us white asparagus will likely be on the menu for just another week or two since the produce gets expensive and low-quality toward the end of the season in June.
Schrottner adds that he’ll likely run out of his current stock tonight, and then he’ll get another 10-pound case on Wednesday — and he’s not sure what’s coming after that.