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Paul Goebert knew he had a good thing going when he opened Max & Moritz five years ago. The Franco-American cafe with a German beer garden at 426 Seventh Ave. was an immediate success.

"I opened it on Dec. 18, and by New Year’s, we were fully booked," said Goebert.

Goebert, who hails from Austria, also started a monthly Austrian dinner. It was so popular, he decided to open an entire restaurant featuring Austrian fare. The result: Cafe Steinhof, half a block from Max & Moritz on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, opened its doors just two weeks ago.

Inside and out, Cafe Steinhof, named for an Austrian beer, has a European feel. Long and narrow spring windows with black metal frames curve around the corner of the cafe bringing to mind German "bier gartens" with a hint of British pub. Round tables on the sidewalk with large umbrellas suggest a French bistro, and the interior - all dark wood with a long bar along one wall - is a pleasant mix of hip and urbane.

The place is busy and alive, with a noise level that would preclude a quiet tete a tete. (We were there on a Tuesday night, and it was hopping!) Tables are so close together that a romantic interlude would also be out of the question.

Austrian cuisine is not one we are often exposed to in Brooklyn. French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese - we’ve all become fairly savvy about international food - but Austrian restaurants tend to be few and far between.

It was refreshing to look at a menu that was so different and yet so true to its cultural roots: potatoes, cabbage, dumplings, sausage. The approach to cooking is uniquely theirs. With spaetzle (small dumplings), schnitzel (meat that’s been dipped in egg, breaded and fried) and sauerbraten (beef that’s been marinated for several days and then roasted) on the menu - one needs a quick lesson in culinary terms before ordering.

We started with the innovative, chilled celery and potato soup - a beautiful, pale-green soup that highlighted the all-too-overlooked flavor of celery. It was silky, with the slight crunchiness of finely chopped celery, and it was topped with speckles of dark-brown pumpkinseed oil.

Next came the smoked trout and potato salad appetizer. The rich, smoky flavor of the fish was nicely tempered by the blandness of the potatoes, while the addition of chopped jalapenos lent a hint of piquancy.

I felt like I was in a New York deli when I tasted another starter, the chicken liver pate, so full-bodied was the flavor. But the addition of sour cherries was an elegant complement to the pate, creating an almost sweet-and-sour sensation.

For our main course, we sampled the two most popular entrees: wiener schnitzel and chicken paprika.

"These two dishes win, hands down," said Goebert. "I can never have enough of them on hand."

I was impressed with the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the food. The wiener schnitzel was made the way it’s been made for generations in Austria - with thinly sliced veal dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in a pan. The schnitzel is served with a side of parsley potatoes and a nearly pickled cucumber salad.

The chicken paprika, too, was simple, with those two flavors being allowed to speak for themselves. While there was a tomato base, there were no subterranean flavors, nor layering as is so common in our new American cuisine. The chicken paprika is served with spaetzel.

Goebert is the chef at both of his restaurants (though he has now trained another chef to man the kitchen at Max & Moritz).

"In Europe everyone knows how to cook," said Goebert, who, even while studying to be a lawyer, kept up with his cooking. "I learned from my mother and my grandmother."

He was also inspired by a stint in New Orleans where he learned about Cajun cuisine. "It’s a lot like Austrian," he said. "They like their food very spicy and cook everything in a big pot - the gumbos and jambalayas."

Also on the Cafe Steinhof menu is goulash, meatloaf and for the vegetarians in the audience, a buckwheat fettuccine with broccoli, quark (a sauce of unripened cheese with a texture like sour cream) and red peppers.

Cafe Steinhof also offers 10 beers on tap and five bottled beers that hail from Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and Britain as well as a short wine list.

The grand finale to our meal was dessert - chocolate custard and linzer torte. The custard was dense, dark and deeply, delectably chocolatey, with a dollop of whipped cream on top. The linzer torte (an elegant, rich tart from Linz, Austria, originally made with ground almonds, grated lemon rind, a buttery crust and jam) was the best I’ve ever had. This version, made with tart cherries, didn’t have the cloying sweetness some of those made with jam do, and was rich and subtle.

For anyone interested in a cuisine that really hasn’t been explored much here, Cafe Steinhof is the ticket. While it’s not the place for a romantic diner a deux, if you’re in the mood for a fun outing, the atmosphere is lively and young.

Cafe Steinhof is located at 422 Seventh Ave. at 14th Street. Entrees: $9 to $13. Cafe Steinhof also offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm. For more information, call (718) 369-7776. Accepts MasterCard, Visa and American Express.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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