Maximilians Austro-Hungarian Restaurant is hidden away a few steps from the slowly gentrifying NoHo arts district. But on a sunny afternoon, with the sunlight bouncing off its crisp white tablecloths and a view to the garden through the dining room's arched windows, you could easily imagine you've landed in a village somewhere in Europe.
This isn't the sort of place that shows up on Twitter. But those of us who crave the occasional crisp-skinned roast duck or a micro-thin-crusted schnitzel fried quickly in pristine oil are elated to find, here in the land of a thousand sushi bars, the Austro-Hungarian culinary void so beautifully filled.
At dinner time, everyone in the room seems to know the chef, Laszlo Bossanyi. That's because for 20 years he developed a following for homespun Hungarian comfort food at the shuttered Hortobagy in Studio City.
One lunchtime, a whiff of garlic-laced smoke drifts through the dining room. Bossanyi, standing in the semi-open kitchen, is brandishing a pair of very long kolbász (sausages) as he chats with two men who appear to be regulars. "I'm making them with my smoker," he enthuses (he's also smoking the restaurant's duck breast and salmon and making foie gras mousse).
That he's been able to nail the sausages' elemental flavors while substantially reducing their fat content makes him a happy man. Because though his longtime patrons come to him for their fix of nostalgic comfort food, many insist they want to eat lightly.
Bossanyi loves the challenge. His roasted meats rest in ethereal pools of powerfully concentrated broths. His rich-tasting soups are not rich at all and his salads, kaleidoscopic arrangements of varied tastes, seem forgivingly weightless.
But don't expect everything to be light. Bossanyi serves plenty of meaty food culled from the belly-warming specialties of the Transylvanian countryside.
Offerings run the richness gamut from loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) in a delicate lobster ragout to the hefty Burgenländer platter for two. Served table-side, this dramatic bacchanal holds roasted pork loin and duck leg, slabs of Weiner schnitzel, ample lengths of garlic sausage, mounds of sweet-tart braised red cabbage, potatoes simmered in beef consommé, all of it countered by sauerkraut-stuffed sweet yellow peppers and Austrian pickles.
Similarly opulent, a whole roasted duck carved table-side comes with a parade of accompaniments that includes tender eggy spaetzle and a compote of plum mousse.
Bossanyi makes gulyas -- usually imagined by Americans as a dense, cholesterol-raising sour cream-laced stew -- in the light but classic pörkölt style. It arrives in a genteel-looking copper sauté pan in which velvety veal cubes sit in a brothy paprika-kissed reduction.
Rarely do customers finish a meal at Maximilians (which formerly housed a French restaurant) without one of the house-made Austro-Hungarian desserts: multilayered chestnut mousse cake, or the trifle-like simoli galuska that involves spheres of cake and Bavarian cream studded with fresh citrus zest, apricot compote and nuts swirled with a dark Swiss chocolate sauce.
Is there strudel? Of course. And it's a grand version. The texture, somewhere between the fragility of short pastry and the crackly-ness of filo, duplicates those made by a legendry Hungarian grandmother. Each bite through the feathery, many-layered exterior produces bursts of sweet-tart cherries or nutty-sweet poppy seeds.