Chatting With Cafe Katja's Andrew Chase About Goulash, Why Good Vinegar is Underrated, and Fizzy Eggplant Salad at Bereket
Erin Gleeson/The New York Times Cafe Katja's Andrew Chase, second from left.
Two years ago, Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner opened Cafe Katja, a tiny Austrian restaurant and wine bar on Orchard Street serving big flavors and high spirits. Chase and Schrottner, who previously both worked at the Mark and the earlier incarnation of the Monkey Bar, have accrued a devoted following for their take on what's been dubbed New Austrian cuisine, giving a refined, modern twist to classics like goulash, bratwurst, and spaetzle.
Chase, who lives on the Lower East Side, spoke with Fork in the Road about, among other things, his New Year's Eve plans, the importance of using good vinegar, and why he remains loyal to Bereket, despite the varying quality of their fried eggplant salad.
So, how are things going at Katja?
Things are going great. I don't want to jinx myself, but we feel really lucky right now.
Are you going to be open for dinner tonight?
We will be, but we're going to close early because we found that people want us as a moderate-priced place to eat and not really as a late-night party place. So -- and this is what we did last year -- we'll close maybe by 10 so everyone can get home and kiss their girlfriend or boyfriend later at night. That's our plan, anyway.
Over the past couple of years, you guys have really established yourself as the quintessential neighborhood restaurant -- who would you say your customers are?
That's a good question. What makes this the best place is our customers: They're awesome. There's just such a mix -- we get 20-year-olds through people like my mom's age; she's in her eighties. We get fewer of those people, but if I had to give a median age it would be 35 or something. We get such a diverse crowd, but the one thing I notice pretty much across the board is that they're smart people who tend to be really interesting; they're New Yorkers... And we definitely get the ex-pats. We're flattered by that.
Do they ever request foods that they eat back home?
Mostly no. In the very beginning there were people that came and were kind of challenging in terms of, "Your Linzer torte isn't genuine," but we really get none of that anymore. We don't get too much of, "Hey, my mom made this regional specialty, could you put it on the menu?" The one thing people would love is if we could do schnitzel. But we don't have the space. I could make you one or two, but we have two induction burners and that's it. Five orders and you're screwed...If you go to Austria, everyone, and I'm not talking tourists, eats schnitzel like crazy. We eat it too. It's just universally likable.
Since you and Erwin opened the restaurant two years ago, have perceptions of Austrian food changed at all in the city?
The wine has more than the food. People have their preconceived notions that it's meat- heavy, it's sausage and beer, and to be honest, a lot of our menu is. However, we have lots of vegetables and salads; you can eat light food. But when people are thinking about [eating light] they aren't thinking about Austrian food. If you say you want to get Austrian, a lot of people won't respond positively. Maybe I should be more hopeful -- well, I am hopeful because I know when people come and eat at our place, I know that they'll like it even if they're vegetarian or whatever. I don't worry about them finding something good to eat. But I do feel challenged at times just in terms of getting people in.
Although your stretch of Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand, certainly isn't hurting for foot traffic.
It's changed a lot, not in terms of restaurants, but just all the retail spaces. There's that little row of stores across the street: Robert James, Wendy Mink, James Coviello, Pilgrim. And then the Vietnamese guys at An Choi have brought another element of young people to the block. And Casa Mezcal -- holy crap, it's going to be huge. Another thing that changed the immediate neighborhood is 10 Bells: It brings a lot more people. We don't really share our customers that much -- I guess a little bit, but it's a totally different use. They come here to eat and then to 10 Bells to drink. If people ask me for a bar, I can tell them to go [there]. I love Barrio Chino took, but it's also very full.