Restaurant Review: At Koloman, Elegant Schnitzel and Other Viennese Wonders
For the past year or so, all the restaurant obsessives I know have been particularly obsessed with figuring out what post-pandemic diners want. Convenience or ceremony? No-contact ordering or tableside trolleys? Service charges to fund higher wages or smaller portions to allow lower prices? Nobody agrees.
For all the predictions floating around, I don’t know a single person who guessed that “painstakingly precise European hotel food in a former pub given a Viennese makeover” would be packing them in this fall, but that is roughly the formula of one of the fall’s most avidly attended openings. The restaurant in question is Koloman, and it appeared on West 29th Street inside the Ace Hotel in September.
The space used to be the Breslin, which was got up to look like the dining room of an old English country inn that had been bought and partially redecorated by a defunct British folk-rock band. Now it’s gone all Viennese modernist. Wallpaper in elegant, hypnotic geometric patterns covers walls that were until recently coated in glossy dark paint and electric green accents. The converted gas lamps that used to dangle by long chains from the ceiling are gone, and light now comes from gleaming replicas of fixtures by Josef Hoffmann. And an enormous transparent clock floats in a space behind the bar that was once occupied by a wooden pig.
The new name comes from Koloman Moser, the graphic artist who helped found the Vienna Secession art movement and the design workshop known as the Wiener Werkstätte.
Much as I admire Moser, I did not predict that reservations at a restaurant named for him would be as hard to get as they have turned out to be. But when I heard that the chef would be Markus Glocker, I knew the food would be very good. And it is.
Mr. Glocker was the original chef of Bâtard, in TriBeCa. His menu there was as fastidiously classical as you’d expect when you hear that his family was in the hotel business in Austria; that he cooked in demanding, formal restaurants in Vienna and Berlin; and that, apparently deciding his training hadn’t been rigorous enough, he worked under Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s in London.
While some chefs with similar backgrounds end up with the mistaken idea that technical prowess is its own reward, Mr. Glocker understands that skill in the kitchen matters only when you use it to make people happy. His cooking at Bâtard was delightful, before anything else, and so is the menu at Koloman. If you want to get out your jeweler’s loupe to admire all dozen or so thin shavings of braised and roast beef floating in jellied beef stock in a slice of terrine about the size of my iPhone, don’t let me stop you. When you’ve put down your loupe, though, you should really taste it so you’ll know how the miniaturist details come together to produce the deep and reassuring flavors of the Austrian boiled dinner known as tafelspitz. Dredge a forkful of terrine through the dome of soft-cooked egg yolk and pop it into your mouth. It’s fantastic.
Koloman’s salmon en croute may be even more impressive. I found myself calculating how long the tramezzino-style white bread, which takes the place of pastry crust, spent in the sauté pan; it’s crisp and golden, and yet the fish inside is medium-rare all the way through. And how exactly does one make the parsley-scallop mousse that forms a thin, delicious condiment sealing the bread to the salmon? Maybe living through the lockdown — when time seemed to expand, and it was possible for the first time in our lives to devote ourselves to wildly demanding kitchen projects that took days to complete — gave us a fresh appreciation for labor-intensive, minutely detailed cooking like Mr. Glocker’s.
Austrian tradition echoes through the kitchen without quite turning the place into an all-out spaetzle-fest. Bâtard loyalists will be happy to see Mr. Glocker’s superb veal schnitzel on the menu at Koloman. Fried in clarified butter, it’s served with potato salad and cucumber salad, each far more elegant than you’d expect.
Nobody I know is predicting a comeback for pastry chefs, seen by many restaurants as an expensive indulgence even before the pandemic. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to find that Koloman’s owners have hired a good one, Emiko Chisholm. I love how much apple flavor she gets into a fairly classic strudel, and I’m impressed by the imagination she used to turn palatschinken filled with fromage blanc into something that looks like a head of garlic in cross section and tastes like cream, vanilla and sugar: complete, charming simplicity. To puncture that sweetness, there’s a citrus salad and a grapefruit sorbet infused with bay leaves.
Ms. Chisholm contributes two soufflés to the menu. One, a dessert, is baked with lingonberry jam inside. The other is made from cheese and comes with mushroom jam that you feed into the soufflé through a hole in the crust. One night I hope to eat both soufflés in one sitting. I’ll warm up for the event with an order of the little gougères that Ms. Chisholm also makes, airy little cheese tornadoes laced with shallots cooked in reduced red wine.
Once upon a time, formal cooking like this would arrive at the tables with matching formality. Silver cloches would rise in unison, and so on. You don’t get that from the folks at Koloman; they’re pleasant and eager, but rarely as careful as the kitchen. Sometimes they give the impression that they’re not entirely sure what they’re doing. One night a server walked from one end of the bar to the other holding up a plate and asking, “Did anybody here order a soufflé?” (Nobody had.)
Skilled servers are hard to find these days, everyone agrees. But Koloman’s owners also seem to be betting that many customers are put off by synchronized cloches and the rest of it, and would prefer a little chaos. It’s something like the spirit of TikTok, where mistakes make you relatable.
They may be right. Bâtard’s service had more finesse when Mr. Glocker was still there, but people seem to be enjoying themselves a little more at Koloman. There’s always hope that the front of the house will get it together later. Meanwhile, the kitchen already has. I can do without the silver cloches if I can still get that schnitzel.
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