Zentral Time Zone

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May 16, 2014 // UPDATED 10:42 am - June 2, 2014
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar

Schnitzel and strudel, for sure. They’re the mainstays of Old Vienna, and they’re on the menu of Brasserie Zentral. But the new café in the reimagined Soo Building is a far cry from that magical city’s heavy coffeehouse and beer hall fare.

It’s as if “Fledermaus” got stripped of operetta oompah by Stephen Sondheim. Result? Food that’s an homage to traditional Viennese dishes but pared to the essence, given  playful tweaks, then presented beautifully by the kind of career waiters you’d find in Café Mozart, except these guys smile.

The setting’s simple (too simple, I’d venture, except for a few cushy velveteen booths). The food is not. It leaps from the brain of Chef Russell Klein, backed by his front-of-the-house partner/wife Desta, who operate St. Paul’s revered Meritage. The only question that arises from his current focus on the foods of Mittel Europa is — why not sooner? Bring it on!

The evening’s casual and relaxed, but not for the faint of budget (otherwise I’d move upstairs).

From the dozen mains ($25–$40), ranging from hearty plates like beer-braised pork cheeks with goulash, or duck with beets and crackling dumplings, to lighter inventions like halibut schnitzel and speck-wrapped trout, we dove straight for the beating heart of Vienna’s kitchen. First came The schnitzel (choose turkey or veal), thicker than some (and that’s just fine) within its tender, quick-fried, bubbly-brown overcoat of egg and flour. It’s accompanied by a scooplet of vinegar-brightened potato salad, a creamy cache of cucumbers to balance that assertion, and a sweet-tart spoon of lingonberry sauce. Loved every morsel.

Next, the kavalierspirz, which boils down to boiled beef, presented in a shiny kettle with bone marrow and pearly potatoes afloat in the rich broth, served with side dishes of creamed spinach (could double as dessert, it’s so addictive) and applesauce spiked modestly with horseradish. Sturdy, housemade rolls help capture the stewing liquor.

For starters, we shared plates of robust house-made spinach tagliatelle, mined with sweet bursts of peeky crab, moistened with uni butter, and given a textural wake-up with a scattering of pretzel crumbs. Even better: quark (a yogurt-like cheese) spaetzle enriched with nutty gruyere and nuggets of braised rabbit, bright peas and uber-meaty chanterelles. (Or choose gnocchi with red cabbage and lamb neck ragout, or cheese and nettle ravioli, $6–$13). Next time I’ll yield to my outrageous passion for white asparagus, on the menu with scrambled eggs, champagne sauce, crème fraiche and caviar. Can this guy can cook, or what?

Desserts ($10 range) represent pastry shop favorites including apple strudel, Black Forest cake, poppy seed cake with pistachio semifreddo, and our choice, Linzer tart. Its pastry comes painted with a rowdy raspberry-rhubarb filling under the sweet crunch of hazelnut praline and a nugget of soothing, anti-sweet chamomile ice cream.