Comfort Food in the Freight House District
I fell in love with cabbage last night.
So in love, in fact, that my date and I told our waitress we could have skipped the hearty portions of pork loin, pork shoulder and sliced beef that get top billing on Grünauer’s Viennese Classics menu and been blissfully happy with a deep bowl of the humble vegetable.
She shared a few tidbits about the recipe: beet juice keeps the color vibrant; lots of brown sugar keeps it sweet; hits of cinnamon and orange pulp keep it spicy and tart.
It’s not that cabbage is a new revelation for me: I grew up with a Volga German grandmother in a family with roots in Austria, Germany and Russia. Our Thanksgiving stuffing is more bread pudding than what we see in magazines and on cooking shows, and good meals are defined by hunks of meat, cooked simply but impeccably. So it’s no surprise that dinner at Grünauer felt almost like dinner at home, albeit with better cocktails, strudel and coffee.
I was immediately taken with the overall feel of the restaurant. Understated and warm, elegant yet welcoming, there were only a few tables available for an early dinner. We nabbed a spot next to a huge window, which gifted us with the best of both worlds: a view of the bar and the opportunity to watch the sun set over the Crossroads. The restaurant is cozy despite its size; chalk it up to the brick wall, the not-too-industrial chandeliers, and the high ceilings. Tables are spaced nicely and the music, while lovely, didn’t impede conversation.
We admitted to our waitress that we were newbies and asked for her take on the menu. She walked us through the appetizers and suggested two: Miesmuscheln nach Orientalischer Art ($15), mussels cooked in a red curry coconut broth, and Wammerl ($10), pork belly perched atop a light and airy, fried semolina biscuit, with a dab of balsamic onion jam on top. We chose the latter. It was delightful.
Choosing an entrée was nearly impossible: the three variations of Gulasch ($20-$22) are each popular choices, according to our waitress, as is Bauernschmaus ($26), a farmer’s plate with smoked pork loin, bacon, and bratwurst served over housemade sauerkraut. There are six Schnitzel dishes ($20-$24)—among those traditional, creamed spinach stuffed, mushroom-cream covered and fried egg topped—and Austrian variations on steak fillet ($25) and trout ($25).
We settled on two: Schweinebraten ($20), roast pork loin and shoulder served with bread dumplings and the aforementioned red cabbage, and Tafelspitz ($20), sliced beef served in a pool of consommé, accented with root vegetables. The Tafelspitz comes with a trio of sauces: apple horseradish, chive and creamed spinach.
There’s humility to the food at Grünauer; generous portions of meats, seasoned sparsely to let the natural flavors stand on their own, just as my doting, loving grandmother would have served in days gone by. While the atmosphere is definitely more upscale than my kitchen table and the vibe is decidedly chic, the food is unassuming and comforting in its simplicity. The flavors took me back to meals I loved growing up; those I took for granted then but now crave, the foods that remind me of home.
Make no mistake: it’s not easy to cook delicious food well and to show the restraint necessary to let humble ingredients shine. This is Grünauer’s strength, evident in the ability to turn shredded cabbage into a deep, seductive side dish and the talent to transform an apple and a handful of raisins to a sweet, perfectly-crisp strudel.
Speaking of the strudel–Apfelstrudel mit Schlag ($8), to be precise—know that the portion is generous enough to share, though you might not want to. Paired with a cup of Grünauer’s house brew, Julius Meinl Coffee ($3.50), it’s the perfect end to a perfectly lovely meal.