It's 6:45 p.m. on a weeknight at Günter Seeger in Manhattan's West Village, and there are only five people dining in the 34-seat restaurant. Sitting in the too-quiet room feels discomfiting, like watching a play in an empty theater, but the emptiness makes it easy to take in the space's cool, controlled beauty. Two canvases of colorless, textured scribbles echo the white brick walls on which they're mounted. Hardwoods zigzag across the floor in a herringbone pattern. Translucent fabric chandeliers cast a shivery mauve light. This place could be the great room in the home of a wealthy art dealer, or it might be a Bond villain's lair.
Tonight, the front-of-house staff outnumber the guests. They are a serious crew, formal in their friendliness and uniformly reserved, whether delivering cocktails, discussing bottles of Riesling, or announcing artfully plated dishes like corn soup with lobster mousse, salmon with baked Gala apple, or yogurt sorbet with mint oil. Servers hurry these plates from the far end of the dining room, out of a kitchen so striking in its steely brightness that it looks medical in form and function. The master surgeon, German-born chef Günter Seeger, bends over pans on the stove, his mop of curly brown-gray hair falling over his forehead while his cooks stand close, observing and assisting.
Occasionally, Seeger moves to stand, unsmiling, at the edge of the kitchen, as he monitors the crew's every movement, the guests' every bite. He looks displeased to be feeding so few people. Never a schmoozer or a glad-hander, Seeger is a chef who is happiest when he's so consumed with the act of cooking that he can't spare a single moment for idleness. Günter Seeger NY opened in May, though the chef is still struggling to connect with the Manhattan audience that he has been working toward serving for years. And his is a talent that deserves more of a crowd.
Eating at his New York restaurant has unusual resonance for me. I've been eating Seeger's precise, elegant cuisine since the 1990s, when he ran his first eponymous restaurant in Atlanta, where I live. Most New Yorkers are just hearing of Günter Seeger for the first time, but in Atlanta his name (which he spelled as "Guenter" back then) still commands respect in the culinary circles, even a decade after he left the city. Seeger arrived in Atlanta in 1985 to lead the kitchen at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, turning the hotel's restaurant into an accolade magnet. He was the first chef in the city to win a James Beard award, and he earned the Dining Room its five Mobil stars. He essentially put Atlanta on the national dining map. And long before "farm-to-table" was a tired platitude, twenty years ago he helped establish one of the city's most successful farmers markets.
Seeger stayed at the Ritz for nine star-making years, before venturing out on his own with Seeger's, a restaurant housed in a craftsman bungalow converted into a hushed, minimalist warren of dining rooms. Seeger's closed in 2007, after a decade in which the chef defined haute gastronomy for Atlanta, but also divided its dining community. Devotees rhapsodized over his studied, Old-World-meets-New-World creations — tomato gelee and sorbet with horseradish snow, foie gras bonbons covered in pecans, loup de mer with almond mousse.
But Seeger also had a famously stern demeanor that came through in his work; detractors recoiled at the room's chilly austerity, the stiffness of the service, and the experience's lofty prices. I understood those objections, and sometimes cringed myself at the chef's rigid brand of hospitality, but I could never deny the brilliance of his meticulous approach to cooking, his obsession with clarity of flavor and his unexpected juxtapositions of ingredients.
Seeger hews to a disappearing sense of luxury: sumptuous trappings, flavors that lean more to the sublime than the edgy.
Seeger moved to New York after his Atlanta restaurant closed, and proceeded to consult for international grocery chains. In a 2011 interview with Atlanta magazine, he admitted to feeling that the Southern city where he made his name didn't have enough disciples of haute cuisine to support his uncompromising vision. He spoke of aiming for the day when he would cook in Manhattan, where he might be truly appreciated.
Of course, during Seeger's nine years away from the professional stove the world of tasting-menu restaurants changed irrevocably in New York (and everywhere). Per Se slid. Modern tasting menu game-changers like Momofuku Ko, Semilla, and The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare upset the old guard with casual counter seating in the dining room and high-low riffs from the kitchen that show off individuality and experimentation.
Seeger's cooking has always been distinctive, but he also hews to a disappearing sense of luxury: sumptuous trappings, flavors that lean more to the sublime than the edgy. I can't imagine that changing. At sixty-seven years old, Seeger is not a Madonna-style reinventionist; he's more in the vein of Joni Mitchell — a nonconformist. He has a history of remaining true to his lofty vision, no matter the praise or rebuffs that follow.
Years ago, I had a couple of lonely meals at Seeger's Atlanta restaurant, dinners eaten while I was on food critic duty, when I would find myself among only a handful of other customers on a Tuesday night. So the quiet room I encounter during my first meal at Günter Seeger NY feels awkward and tense, but also surprisingly familiar, almost nostalgic. I've been waiting almost a decade to eat Seeger's cooking again — and I find plenty in my meal that makes it worth the wait — though I didn't expect culinary history to repeat itself in quite this way. I'm guessing Seeger didn't, either.
Seeger set a dauntingly high price for his New York debut. At first the nine-course tasting menus, booked ahead of time through restaurant-ticketing startup Tock, cost $185 per person with tip. Over the past five months, after some disappointing reviews (including two stars from Pete Wells in the New York Times), Seeger dropped the pre-paid tickets altogether and tinkered with the restaurant's format. Just in the past weeks, he's started serving $95 four-course menus, with choices for each course, as well as a ten-course set menu for $148.
In September, a few weeks before the four-course option would become available, I experienced a ten-courser with a few friends. The meal began with cherry tomatoes from Campo Rosso Farms, a vendor at the Union Square Greenmarket who grows out in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The tomatoes arrive still on the vine, along with bowls of anchovy cream — a stripped-down interpretation of bagna cauda. I enjoy this as a kick-off snack, the fresh pop of the fruit against the briny twang of the fish. My friends shrug. It's a little too no-big-deal for them. I laugh to myself. One dish in and we're fully returned to Seeger's domain, the opinions around his food as polarized as ever.
Seeger is not a Madonna-style reinventionist; he’s more in the vein of Joni Mitchell, a nonconformist.
Here's the highlight over which we all rave: roasted black sea bass sidled up to a tuft of wilted Malabar spinach. Underneath is a sauce of pureed sea urchin and truffle juice. Cardamom-infused honey drizzled over the fish slowly runs into the sauce below; it teases out the sweetness of the urchin and equalizes the truffle's pheromone funk. Masterful. I love Seeger's linkage of choosing Malabar spinach, a green that proliferates in South India, in the same setup where he uses cardamom (which thrives in the same region) to such wizardly effect.
The course that preceded the fish was one of Seeger's Atlanta staples: an egg custard, served in an egg shell barely cracked at its crown, flavored with maple cream and scattered with bottarga. In this context it slyly foreshadowed the sea bass dish's musings on sweet and oceanic flavors. But what comes after the sea bass shifts our course entirely. Rounds of beef tenderloin have been poached in a mixture of red wine, port wine, and Madeira; they come with a sauce made from the poaching liquid and some blanched haricots verts. "This meat has no texture," one of my buddies grouses. "It's a refined take on sauerbraten," I respond, referring to the Germanic pot roast. He pauses. "Okay," he says. "That helps me appreciate it."
Not every course set itself up for such easy defense. Earlier, two oysters arrived nicely zinged with apple and ginger, but also topped with piquant whole chilies that obliterated any taste of the bivalve. And lobes of gently smoked Columbia River salmon paired with baked apple are cooked exactingly, but don't leave much of an impression. In this restaurant era of bold, global bombasts on the plate, subtlety can too often tip into dullness.
The pattern of my first meal holds steady at a second, slightly longer meal at the chef's table, which sits perched on the very fringe of the kitchen, underneath an intricate iron chandelier fashioned by Seeger's grandfather. It's a Saturday, and the restaurant is full; the servers are more relaxed, having found their rhythms, and the room feels merrier. Again the German-inflected meat course — this time, venison scented with juniper berry alongside crisp-soft red cabbage — comes through as the dinner's spiritual center. There is smooth chestnut soup with shaved truffles, the essence of autumn, and a wonderful sturgeon mousse bolstered with trout roe and purple potato chips.
Would that those spuds could have loaned texture to the utterly mushy beef tartare that came a few courses before. And a broth of matsutake tea with nasturtium leaf is meant, I know, to showcase the mushroom's delicate, slightly spicy earthiness, but the volume on the flavor is turned too low. It needs more overtness, more umami.
In this meal, though, I'm also picking up understated allusions to the South in some of Seeger's cooking, echoes of his time in Atlanta — it's heartening that Seeger hasn't entirely eschewed the region that gave him his first flush of success. Okra relish brings vinegary bite to grilled abalone. For the featured cheese in the course that precedes dessert, Seeger often procures from two standout Georgia producers, Sweet Grass Dairy and Many Fold Farm. And the egg custard tart, tingly with nutmeg, is a sweet finale that Edna Lewis would have championed. (Seeger's pastry chef, Emily Hall, is a talent to watch: She also created a terrific raspberry Savarin, like a fruit-accented baba au rhum, that I relished. In an elegant visual move, Hall’s desserts are served on plates decorated with a riot of florals, a subtle contrapunto to the minimalist plateware of Seeger's savory courses.)
And now that he's in New York, sometimes the South comes to him. While I'm sitting at the chef's table, I watch a couple approach the chef. "We flew up from Atlanta!" the woman says, and then gestures to her companion: "He's 50!" The man chimes in: "Well, we had our first fancy-dinner date together at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead." Seeger gives them a stilted nod and says quietly, "Did you enjoy your meal?" What I love about this exchange is that this couple knows who Seeger is, both as a chef and as a character, and obviously don't not expect any show of warmth or gregariousness from him. It is enough to eat his food and say a quick hello to their city's departed culinary hero.
I hope New York will also come to recognize his strengths. The current four-course option on the menu seems right as an introduction, the right price and pace to home in on the German flavors, go for the gamy meats, indulge in some classic luxuries, and savor the comfortable chairs. Günter Seeger NY is, without question, more Le Bernardin than Momofuku Ko. But at a time when cream and classicism may be returning to favor (witness this season's sensation, the Franco-Continental Le Coucou in Soho), Seeger and his subtlety do have a place in the city. He just needs to figure out how to butter up the locals a bit more.
GETTING TO KNOW GÜNTER SEEGER
Günter Seeger NY
641 Hudson Street, New York
(646) 657-0045 / gunterseegerny.com
Dinner Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Four-course prix fixe: $98 per person, with an additional $68 for wine pairings. Ten-course tasting menu: $148 per person, with an additional $125 for wine pairings. Expect precise, Old-World-meets-New-York cooking with formal service in a crisp room with serious art. For wines by the bottle, let the sommelier guide you through the range of Rieslings, a natural fit to the German-born Seeger's finessed cooking.