Long before Mario Batali, David Chang, Daniel Humm, even before Eric Ripert, Günther Seeger had a well-earned and well-established reputation as one of America’s finest, most inventive chefs. But unlike those other NYC-based chefs, Seeger made his indelible mark in Atlanta, first at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, then independently under his own name, which was my pick in Esquire as Restaurant of the Year in 1998.
Born and raised in Germany’s Black Forest, Seeger arrived in Atlanta in 1985, a city whose most prominent restaurants of the time included a slew of continental old-timers, The Abbey, where staff wore monk’s habits, and Nikolai’s Roof, a Russian restaurant where everything was flamed on skewers. Seeger’s introduction of nouvelle cuisine was widely praised, but his insistence on long tasting menus made dining at his restaurants something of a slog.
After leaving Atlanta behind in 2007, he did consulting out of NYC, but there was never any doubt he would one day assert himself in the Big Apple. Opened last summer, Günther Seeger NY just won its first Michelin star. The NYC food media, however, were not so inclined, finding the nine-course $185 tasting meal–no à la carte–off-putting and the service pretentious. Staff would boast of having Iranian caviar, when it actually came from China. By summer’s end, any novelty the place had had wore off, and few were the nights the dining room filled up.
As stubborn as Martin Luther at the start, Seeger saw the need to modulate, this fall instituting a four-course menu a very reasonable $98, and there’ll probably be some additional amuses when you sit down. A ten-course menu is also offered at a lower priced $148 + $125 for wines + tax + tip.
I found the West Village dining room quite beautiful, with a bright open kitchen to the rear where Seeger works intensely with his crew. The room is stark, with blond wooden floors, softened by a lovely chandelier said to be Seeger’s grandmother’s and more modern ones glowing pink; huge vases of flowers may put you in mind of La Grenouille, wooden beams and columns echo Seeger’s Black Forest childhood, and you’ll sit down on very comfortable chairs and banquettes. Glassware is exquisitely thin. Alas, there are no tablecloths, and if the room fills up, it will get loud.
The charge that Seeger’s service staff is pretentious is nonsense: They are a cadre of very well-dressed, slender young professionals with very good manners indeed, friendly and knowledgeable about both food and wine. The wine list, pricey as you’d expect, is one of the few in NYC that features German labels of excellent provenance.
Since there are two selections for each of the four courses, my wife and I ate them all, along with a luscious amuse of delicately steamed egg with a maple Chantilly cream and bottarga roe that gave it pleasing salty edge. Abalone was quickly seared on a hibachi, giving it a slightly smoky taste, then put back in the shell with maitake mushrooms, dashi and sea lettuce, though the broth it swam in was fairly bland. Silky foie gras took on the sweetness of poached plum and onion marmalade, two components that showed as much finesse as any other ingredient, and I’ve never had better prepared trout, with horseradish and apple, a dish that clearly derives from Seeger’s German background.
Another appetizer was a brown paper mat heaped with little, buttery ratte potatoes with Burgundy truffle, but there is the option of adding $75 to your bill if you want a few shavings of white truffle. Next time I’ll stick to the black.
Simplicity is key to Seeger’s cooking–nothing is ever extraneous on the plate–so you get the full flavor of fat grilled quail, impeccably rosy, with Japanese leek and dates. The real disappointment of the night was veal schnitzel, which, given Seeger’s DNA, should have has skin as crispy as the best Southern fried chicken but was instead limp and separated from the veal. A single carrot and some ginger did nothing to remedy its shortcomings.
For dessert you have a choice of Red Cow Parmesan with quince jus (these and other dishes change frequently), a pleasing apple tarte Tatin with cranberry sorbet, or a rich hazelnut crèmeux with delightful peppermint ice cream. Frankly, after four courses like these I cannot imagine going for a ten-course dinner, even if it had smaller portions.
Though Seeger’s cooking has never been flamboyant, it is now more restrained and focused, not dissimilar to certain aspects of Japanese cooking, and, within the white brick walls and soft lights, it all seems a very personal expression of the man, whose once doctrinaire approach has softened into a real desire to please his guests. “We want to get better and better and better,” he told me after dinner, and for a chef of his caliber, that is a promise he will keep.
Open for dinner Mon.-Sat.
641 Hudson Street