Here we have two restaurant cookbooks by chefs of rather different stripes and inclinations, though if you asked them, they might agree on a number of things. But it's apples and oranges here, really, and difficult to choose a favorite.
An Austrian chef in New York presents traditional dishes, some updated and lightened. A pair of Quebecois chefs offer mostly traditional, hearty French food, in generous portions. Two different styles of restaurant, but both seemingly spot-on, each in its own way. Except it's more than one restaurant each, for both proprietors have little empires. (Must we now refer to multiple-restaurant chefs as emperors, then?)
So, of course, I have heard of Wallse, Cafe Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans, the New York Austrian outposts of Kurt Gutenbrenner, but I have never eaten at any of them. My friend Michael always wants to take me but somehow it has never happened. Similarly, the restaurant Joe Beef (and its spinoffs) has been on my radar for a while, but I haven't been there either. This means that I was both eager to read these cookbooks but could be completely objective, critically speaking.
I will confess, too, that I haven't actually cooked anything from either book. This has never kept me from forming and pronouncing an opinion. I can say that I have taken both books to bed with me for the past several weeks.
Judging from the cover: Neue Cuisine is produced by Rizzoli, a publisher known for art books. This makes sense, given that Cafe Sabarsky is housed in the Neue Galerie, a museum of Austrian and German art and craft. The cool white slick pages contain beautiful examples of table settings from the Wiener Wirtstatte, and here and there paintings of Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele. There's a lot of praise for the Vienna of 1900, a history of Austria, the story of the founding of the museum, and the chef's personal story, as well as a collection of concise, well-written recipes.
The Art of Living (immodestly named, perhaps) has an enticing photo cover of Joe Beef — a picture-perfect bistro, not too fancy, with a blackboard menu and bare tables set with checkered cloth napkins and wineglasses. It is published by Ten Speed Press, known of late for interesting, well-produced cookbooks. Inside, there are lots of stories about living the good life with friends in a funky part of Montreal. Here you get Quebecois history, too, and tales of fishing, train trips, and the authors' early food memories, plus notes on regional wines and cheeses.
In a way, they are both lifestyle books, chock full of nostalgia and national pride, valentines to a homeland and culture. However, in one the nostalgia is for a Vienna and an elegant cafe culture that are long past. The other celebrates a lusty life-loving culture of eaters in French Canada from cooks who want to work (but not too much).
There are many dishes I want to make from Kurt Gutenbrenner's repertoire, among them Bavarian Pretzels, Paprika and Herb Cheese Spread, Goulash Soup, Blood Sausage Strudel, Veal Schnitzel Stuffed with Ham and Cheese, Quark Spaetzle, Dumplings in a Napkin, Linzer Cookies, and The Emperor's Pancake — in other words, Austrian classics.
I'm less interested in his modern updates like Lobster with Cherries and Fava Beans, or Chilled Crayfish Soup with Melon, or other dishes that seem cool, pristine, rarefied, and restauranty — even though they are undoubtedly delicious. It's obvious that all of the dishes in Neue Cuisine are delicately prepared by a deft-handed chef with taste buds and skill. Is it just that the tasting portion-sized Beef Goulash looks too elegant? In the end, it's about spaetzle, strudel, and schnitzel — at least for me.
Compare this with The Art of Living's Foie Gras Breakfast Sandwich, Marrowbones Cultivateur, Duck Steak au Poivre, Truffled Eggs with Everything Biscuits, and Hot Oysters on the Radio: you immediately sense a different lifestyle and energy. The Joe Beef boys are hungry, thirsty, and getting jiggy all the way. They're generously in your face.
Nevertheless, I don't want (and don't imagine ever wanting) a Sausage Martini, nor will I be trying the Eclair Velveeta. And I won't make their Marjolaine for dessert (ce n'est pas mon genre), but I will make the Financiers, and most of the variations except the red peanut version.
In the end, it's about two guys having a blast, drinking deep, French pastries, meat, trains, and a whole lot more. Because The Art of Living makes me hungry and has such an infectious joie de vivre, it's more fun to read. So apologies to chef Gutenbrunner. He wrote a beautiful book with great recipes. But the Joe Beef guys have won this round. I'm booking my ticket to Montreal.