When it comes to Austrian cuisine, American tastes tend to stop at wurst and wiener schnitzel, maybe branching out to Viennese pastries if a sweet tooth comes into play. However, Austrian cuisine has been evolving over the years and deserves another taste. The hearty stews, sausages, and sauerkraut of yore have given way to a sort of nouvelle cuisine focused on lighter dishes made from seasonally driven products. You can find examples of modern Austrian fare at Cafe Katja (79 Orchard Street; 212-219-9545) on the Lower East Side.
“The interesting thing is, Austrian food is perceived as heavy,” says partner Erwin Schrottner. “It’s not true, actually. Everything is freshly cooked with fresh ingredients, not processed food. Even though it’s not that light, it’s still healthier and lighter than a lot of other foods.”
The Austro-Hungarian Empire once stretched from Russia to the Mediterranean, but the cuisine was dominated by sturdy mountain fare from the north. Goulash was — and still is — common in many variations. Add to that numerous types of dumplings along with pork, the protein of choice. Schrottner grew up on a farm in Ligist, in southeast Austria, and like many other families, his slaughtered hogs in the early spring and late fall while the weather was still cool enough for air-drying. Every part would be cooked or preserved in one way or another. Wiener schnitzels, breaded and fried cutlets, came from leg or rib sections. Speck, dry-cured smoked pork similar to prosciutto, was made from the belly. Rendered pork fat was used for cooking everything from schnitzel to doughnuts. Sauerkraut was born out of the same preservation tradition. “It comes from the old days,” says Schrottner. “What else were you going to do with cabbage besides slice it and put it in wooden barrels? That’s how Austrians got their vitamin C in the wintertime.”
You’ll find these time-honored favorites at Cafe Katja. Sausages are made in-house, including bratwurst with sauerkraut ($10), emmentaler sausage (sliced and filled with cheese, accompanied by savoy cabbage and quark cheese dumplings), and berner würstel (filled with cheese, wrapped in bacon, served with cucumber-potato salad and rye bread). The menu has evolved over the past three years as the restaurant has grown threefold; it now includes wiener schnitzel ($25) and beef goulash with homemade spätzle ($24), as well as more nutrient-dense dishes.
Even a country with as deep and rich a culinary history as Austria is feeling the effects of changing perspectives on food. Modern refrigeration, a new understanding of dietary standards, and the globalized food system all play a huge part. While traditional foods are still respected, they’re transformed by modern chefs and cooks who aim to respect the natural flavors of individual ingredients. “Like French nouvelle or modern American, we have to evolve and go with the flow,” says Schrottner. “We still keep the tradition, but make it refined and lighter.”
Lard was once the fat of choice in Austrian food; it’s now pumpkin seed oil. Beans, cabbage, stinging nettle, and spinach are typical vegetables, the latter commonly served creamed. At Katja, vegetables are integral and have a seasonal focus. Spinach is highlighted in a creamed spinach dish with quark dumplings and poached egg ($16). One of Katja’s creations features stinging nettles in ramp sauce with new potato ($15/$24). “Behind my farm, there were huge fields of stinging nettles,” says Schrottner. “My mother would put on thick gloves to pick it. She treated it like spinach.”
Through May and June, white asparagus is huge in Austria (and throughout much of Europe). Schrottner gets shipments every Tuesday during growing season for his special spargel (asparagus) menu. Small and large portions are offered with hollandaise and new potato ($17/$27), in a salad with frisée and lemon vinaigrette ($15/$24), and with simple drawn butter and new potatoes ($15/$24).