A visit to the Neue Galerie, a museum devoted to early twentieth-century Austrian and German art and design, may be the most thoroughly transporting museum experience in New York City.
Step off 86th Street into the 1914 Beaux-Arts mansion — designed by Carrère & Hastings, the firm behind the New York Public Library building on Fifth Avenue, 44 blocks downtown — and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been teleported to Vienna.
Most notably, the Neue Galerie is home to Gustav Klimt’s glittering, sumptuous “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” (Visitors can even leave smelling like Adele Bloch-Bauer I: the Woman in Gold perfume, on sale in the museum’s well appointed gift shop, is concocted by French master perfumer Calice Becker.)
On the ground floor, just off the elegant central stair hall, lies the oak paneled eatery Café Sabarsky. In a room where Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt once entertained her guests, you can sit at a banquette upholstered with Otto Wagner fabric, or else plant your tush on a bentwood chair, designed by Alfred Loos for Vienna’s Café Museum in 1899. Posteriors of the likes of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Otto Wagner sat on seats like these.
One poster for the Fledermaus Theater and Cabaret (graphic by Bertold Löffler) and another advertising the 1908 Vienna Art Show adorn the walls. Josef Hoffmann lighting fixtures are overhead, and in the corner sits a Bösendorfer grand piano. On a recent visit, the pianist regaled guests with renditions of such unlikely tunes as “Kiss from a Rose.” (The restaurant is also home to an exciting season of cabaret.)
In the rest of the museum, early-20th-century Austrian and German artists boldly and shockingly break with tradition. By contrast, Café Sabarsky is all about embracing culinary tradition, offering a soothing comedown after some of the shocking and distorted visions upstairs.
Café Sabarsky “draws inspiration from the great Viennese Cafés that served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life at the turn of the century,” said Michelin-starred executive chef Christopher Engel.
It’s predictable to say that the dishes at a museum restaurant are works of art. But how else to describe the splashes of pumpkinseed oil and smatterings of toasted pumpkin seed atop the honey-roasted butternut squash soup? Or the exquisite partnership of succulent beef goulash with a riot of egg noodle spätzle?
(The roasted duck breast is a sometime star of the seasonal menu. It is served with sauteed red cabbage and sweet, rich squash puree, and boasts a perfect meat-to-fat ratio. It is sourced from the last duck farm in Long Island, Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue.)
Arguably, it would not be an Austrian dinner without Austria’s favorite dish. The Wiener Schnitzel served at Café Sabarsky is crispy, golden brown, and served with potato-cucumber salad and lingonberry sauce. I couldn’t help notice that mine was shaped roughly like Austria. (In fact, there is a connection to Klimt’s most famous work: golden yellow breading in cooking is said to have been inspired by Venetians’ Renaissance-era habit of coating dishes in gold leaf.)
General manager Gerhard Kaltseis sums up the Austrian approach to entrees: “Big portions; great quality.” Just don’t reach for the ketchup. “If anybody eats it with ketchup,” he said, “you’re allowed to spill your drink on them.”
For dessert, why bother trying to resist the sachertorte? The classic Viennese dark chocolate cake was named after the 16-year-old apprentice chef who whipped it up for the guests of Prince Klemens von Metternich when the court pastry chef was off sick. The chocolatey wedge is as delectable as a piece of Bauhaus design, and best enjoyed with richly aromatic coffee courtesy of Julius Meinl, the historic Viennese coffee company founded in 1862.