Schmatz Move

A restaurant aims to conquerHouston with Austrian open-faced sandwiches

I also recommend all three of Sitter's potato salad side dishes ($2.25 each), none of which is what I expected. The Austrian version is the one that's served warm; like the sauerkraut, its dressing is bouillon-based, dotted with bacon bits and onions. The German version, which I thought would be either mustard-dressed or heated, is served cold, with a yogurt-and-mayonnaise dressing. And then there's the as-yet-unnamed version, also served cold, made with cucumbers and bell peppers and a sweet -and-sour dressing. Maybe this one should be dubbed the Gulf Coast potato salad -- it's a refreshing choice in hot weather.

I had to overcome another of my food prejudices -- that rib-eye steaks should be served only thick, rare and unmolested -- before I could learn to love Sitter's Vienna Onion Rostbraten ($14.90). He slices and pounds the innocent rib-eye to within half an inch of its life, then pan-fries it with caramelized onions. The onions are so thinly pared and beautifully browned that they curl appealingly all over the steak like angel hair. It grows on you, I promise.

The whole Schmatz experience grows on you, in fact. Johann and Megan built the place together from scratch, hand-painting the ceiling sky blue with fluffy white clouds, and "planting" artificial ficus trees, one of which sprouts from the middle of a family-style table for ten. After school, the Sitters' young son entertains his friends, big and small, with toys from the next-door burger franchise; Sitter's fellow Austrians and Clear Lakers alike gather in the evenings to eat, drink and visit in a leisurely fashion. "I hate it, really, when people feel they must rush off after the last bite," says Sitter. "They should stay, relax, slow down."

But beneath the hospitable façade of the Austrian host beats the ambitious heart of an American businessman. Sitter envisions an empire built on schmatzes. He's got a lifetime's experience in the restaurant business, having owned 14 restaurants in Europe at one time; he sold them to finance a fresh start in the United States. "I want to open three more restaurants here in Houston," he says, "the next one closer to downtown." He pictures the new restaurants as charming little Viennese houses, neatly painted yellow and green. "And I will perfect my menu -- I have already changed it three times in six months to get it just right. Then after that, I will be ready to franchise."

So remember the word schmatz: You heard it here first.

Schmatz, Inc., 3020 Marina Bay Drive No. E, League City, (281)334-0781.

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