In 1981, New York Times dining critic Mimi
Sheraton bestowed four stars on a 23-year-old chef. The restaurant
was Vienna ’79, and the honor made Thomas Ferlesch the youngest
chef to be awarded quadruple stars in the history of the Times.
After an 11-year, much-heralded stint as executive chef at Cafe des Artistes, Viennese expat Ferlesch swapped the Upper West Side of Manhattan for Brooklyn, decamping to Fort Greene.
"I was walking my children to school one morning, and I noticed this empty space [formerly the New City Bar & Grill] across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music," Ferlesch said. "It had a nice area in the back for a garden. I called the landlord that day."
Fort Greene, not known for its Viennese community, has welcomed Ferlesch’s lovingly restored Thomas Beisl ("beisl" means bistro), based on the egalitarian gathering spots he remembered from abroad.
"In Vienna, bistros serve the young and the old, plumbers, doctors, artists, everyone," he said. With his proximity to BAM, Long Island University and Pratt, and a real estate market that leaves newcomers reeling from sticker-shock, Ferlesch’s dream is being realized.
Replicating the bistros of his memory meant a major renovation. What has evolved is a casual room with a comfortable bar on one side - perfect for a quick, pre-theater drink - on the other, is the dark, moody dining room with gold walls, mahogany wainscoting, dark wood tables and vintage posters.
Ferlesch’s one-man crusade to change the perception of Austrian cooking is working.
"When people think of Austrian food they think ’sausages.’ It’s really much more refined than that," he said. Purists will be pleased that wiener schnitzel, beef goulash and Linzer torte with whipped cream, or schlag, are on the menu. Those looking for a broader dining experience will appreciate Gallic onion soup, paninis, and a delicate cod filet with wild mushrooms and sauteed spinach.
Asked why he adds jalapeno pepper to his creamy spaghetti squash, Ferlesch commented, "Jalapeno is so much rounder and deeper than black pepper." He could not care less that the pepper isn’t an ingredient one associates with Austrian cuisine.
"I’ve been a cook for 20 years, and I’ve never stopped learning," he said. "If I find an ingredient that tastes better than what I’ve used before, then I add it."
Such is the case with the delicate house cocktail improbably named "The Schiele." Artist Egon Schiele’s work, with titles such as "Agony" and "Death and the Girl," would inspire something with a more profound after-effect, not this feminine elixir.
Brought to the table by the GQ-worthy host, the dry champagne cocktail - tinged with a pale celadon-colored gel - sparkles. Flavored with the essence of elderberry flowers and woodruff, the gel imparts a light, herbal note and the aroma of a spring breeze blowing across wildflowers.
The Schiele set the tone for a meal that was splendid dish after dish: an authentic and satisfying onion soup gratinee; a special sauerbraten, the beef marinated for "at least a week" in red wine and vinegar; and a glorious calf’s liver with grapes that is a tour de force of technique and flavor.
Desserts were everything you’d expect in a Viennese restaurant. If Ferlesch offered this meal in Manhattan, you’d blow your mortgage and thank him for the opportunity. In Brooklyn, the entrees top out at $16.
Maybe you’re harboring resentment toward the French. Ferlesch’s onion soup will allow you to forgive and forget. The deeply flavored broth, so sweetly tinged with soft strands of onions, and the pleasure of pushing your spoon through the sharp, chewy, Gruyere cheese crust will banish all bad feelings.
A richly flavored eggplant and red pepper terrine was garnished with a tart crown of goat cheese, and mushrooms in a crispy crust with homemade tartar sauce looked like ordinary bar food but were divine - the crust covering each mushroom as brittle as glass and the sauce pleasantly lemony.
Ferlesch enjoys pairing multiple sides with his main courses. While his mixes make for a busy plate, each component complements the entree. Calf’s liver is a dish that diners either love or avoid. If you’re of the latter category, give Ferlesch’s version a try. The liver, a poor man’s foie gras of sorts, is seared along its edges. The contrast of crispness and the liver’s fluffy, mousse-like consistency will make your taste buds deliriously happy. A seedless grape sauce, ever so slightly sweet, tempered the beefy, nuttiness of the liver, and a small mound of eggplant, red peppers and onions looked wrong on the plate - too much color and the undesired promise of sweet and sour - yet was a refreshing break from all the meaty flavors.
Sauerbraten is a dish associated with German beer halls and hausfraus. In Ferlesch’s hands, it’s a mildly sweet and sour, fork-tender delicacy. A serviette knödel, or napkin dumpling, is prepared like a bread pudding, rolled in a napkin (plastic wrap is the modern alternative) and poached. Ferlesch prepares his in a similar way, and then slices it. The rich dumpling pieces make a delicious foil for the sauerbraten’s sauce. A side of the jalapeno-flavored spaghetti squash, touched with cream, brightens the appearance of the plate.
Diet or not (and if you’ve made it past the entree then who are you kidding?), it’s insane to skip dessert in a Viennese restaurant. The milchrahmstrudel, less like a strudel and more of a light souffle, is made with lightly sweetened farmers cheese and is scattered with a few moist raisins. Order the palatschinken (Viennese crepes), with a cup of the bistro’s rich, strong coffee and you’ll return home happy. Eggy and almost transparent, the crepes are napped with a touch of bittersweet chocolate sauce and a hearty dollop of schlag (whipped cream).
Food isn’t the only thing that Ferlesch does right. The bar staff is friendly, and our pony-tailed waiter, so knowledgeable and charming, inspired my friend, two Schieles to the wind, to ask if he were married.
Technique plays an important part in turning raw ingredients into great food. Yet it’s that intangible something a chef brings to the act of cooking that transforms a great cook into a star. Four stars, in fact, for Ferlesch.
Thomas Beisl (25 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Fort Greene) accepts American Express. Entrees: $13-$16. The restaurant is open daily from noon to midnight, and serves brunch Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 am to 4 pm. For reservations, call (718) 222-5800.