The Early Word: Café Kristall

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Lauren Shockey
Crab meat with marinated fennel

Although its bona fide Austrian roots must please chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, the Swarovski store in Soho is an unlikely setting for a full-blown restaurant. Yet we stopped by Café Kristall (70 Mercer Street, 212-274-1500) last week while holiday shopping (and no, we weren't shopping for vajazzle accessories) and were pleasantly surprised. Although the ambiance is awkward, the food is much better than it needs to be, given that it's basically hidden in the back of a store devoted to sparkly gemstones.

The bi-level, white-on-white (but with shimmering crystals galore encased in the walls) space is probably best suited for a café or wine bar, and while it's possible to order just a coffee or white wine, we went for the whole experience.

We started out with a crab salad ($12, pictured above), which was an impressively generous portion of crab topped with shaved fennel. The crab meat was fresh and sweet, and we really could have eaten this as our whole meal.


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Lauren Shockey
Wild mushroom soup

But it was the mushroom soup appetizer ($8) that was the overall favorite dish that we ordered. Redolent with earthy wild mushrooms (including a bounty of chanterelles) and several speckknödels, or soft speck-laced dumplings, this rich soup was really more stew-like and is easily large enough to be an entrée.


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Lauren Shockey
Chicken strudel

Our entrees were decent, but somewhat less successful than their appetizing counterparts. Chicken strudel ($22) was essentially poached chicken wrapped in phyllo dough, and it yearned for more sauce or a little more excitement. It wasn't bad, just unmemorable, and the leeks that came with it didn't do much since they were both overly salty and on the cold side.


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Lauren Shockey
Späetzle

Späetzle ($16) were a better choice, tossed with broccoli and shrimp. While we're used to seeing späetzle drowning in cream or cheese, these were refreshingly light and almost Italian-tasting, as though an Austrian chef were mastering the art of gnocchi.

So would we go back? Maybe. If we were in Soho and wanted something warming, we'd come for the mushroom soup, or maybe opt next time for the goulash. It's not the kind of restaurant we'd go to for dinner or on a date, but if you need a recommendation for the ladies in your life who lunch, this isn't a bad option. Now, can someone tell us how to become a lady who lunches?


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