Thomas Ferlesch knows from cheeks. Long before the most assiduously man-bunned makers who walk among us could find a pair with both hands, Ferlesch was slow-cooking the awesome offal into meltingly silken stews. At Werkstatt (509 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-284-5800) , a charming, labyrinthine slice of Austria a few blocks south of the Prospect Park Parade Ground in Ditmas Park, he braises the meat in Zweigelt, a mild-mannered Austrian red wine, then plates an abundant portion alongside a buttery potato purée and a mélange of braised kale, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and green onions. The cheeks are offered as an occasional special —sometimes beef, sometimes pork — and arrive piping hot and fork-tender, pungently seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper and glazed in that velvety wine sauce.
New Yorkers first took note of Ferlesch in 1981, when Peter Grunauer promoted the young Viennese expat to executive chef at his Upper East Side restaurant Vienna ’79 — a move that prompted New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton to bump the nouvelle hotspot’s star count from three to four. Having helmed the legendary Café des Artistes before enjoying an eight-year run at Thomas Beisl across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then a detour to Hoboken, Ferlesch, now pushing sixty, is back in Brooklyn. (Coincidentally, Ferlesch’s mentor is reportedly set to open a new restaurant, Grunauer’s, in Yorkville later this winter.) Like the food, the décor, from the wood-burning potbelly fireplace to the chef’s personal collection of vintage license plates — not to mention an entire motorcycle — affixed to the wall, is well suited to an Alpine tavern, entirely free of pretense or tackiness.
While he saunters through his kitchen and dining rooms with cheerful purpose, his wife, Robin Wertheimer, does hostess duty, overseeing the front barroom, where cocktails are lovingly mixed and wines and beers abound — including a zippy grapefruit hefeweizen and a surprisingly smooth German Köstritzer black lager. The latter nicely complemented hearty plates of bratwurst made in-house from pork shoulder and belly, and beef goulash with spätzle ladled into appetizing crescents on the plate. Ferlesch’s stubby egg noodles also make for a glorious plate of macaroni-and-cheese-like käse spätzle, sporting equal parts browned crust and melted center. It’s served with or without bacon and with a quartet of cold pickled salads: lightly brined cucumbers, soft potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and cabbage loaded with caraway seeds.
Pay attention to the specials board: Daily compositions like just-cooked Scottish salmon with squash-truffle-honey sauce, or a pile of soft chicken livers bolstered by riesling-glazed apples, allow Ferlesch to flex his fine-dining muscles while maintaining a forgiving $18 price ceiling. And the man purées one hell of a soup, spiking lush butternut squash with curry and dill. He also knows his way around schnitzel (because of course he does), frying bulky portions of puffed-up breaded pork and chicken cutlets that won’t disappoint hungry diners. A celery-root schnitzel seemed humdrum by comparison, but not so the thin, savory palatschinken, which the kitchen fills with a mixture of creamy smoked whitefish and sauerkraut and covers in earthy mushroom sauce.
Vegetarians will delight in a starter of crisp brussels sprouts — the best I’ve had since David Chang first fried up a batch and doused them in fish sauce at Ssäm Bar. Werkstatt’s rendition is pan-fried with sweet and hot chiles, kissed with smoked paprika, and perched next to a cup of vibrant lemon-habanero aioli. Purchased as the entrée-size option ($9), the wee cabbages make a great counterpoint to Ferlesch’s pretzels. The giant baked goods arrive on metal trays that dwarf any surrounding plates. Rip off hunks and anoint them with zesty mustard or paprika-packed liptauer cheese spread.
Early in his career, Ferlesch trained in pastry and baking, and his sweets repertoire shows it. You’d be hard-pressed to find finer linzer torte or apple strudel. That or one of the dessert specials — say, a dense and vibrant apple-cranberry crumble with a tulip of vanilla ice cream — would end any night on a high note. But sated as I was post-stew and -schnitzel and -strudel, it was a treat to sip schnapps near the fire and gaze up at the copper-pyramid skylight with its inset wine-bottle chandelier. In this unassuming location, on an industrial stretch chockablock with auto-repair shops and drive-throughs, the chef, his wife, and an attentive staff make Werkstatt work.