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Lately, a lot of good foods have appeared on the Houston restaurant scene in delectable little packages. It started with hand-rolled bouquets of sushi; then burritos blossomed into wraps; and now Spanish tapas are center stage in the eye-candy competition. The trend delights me; at heart I'm a nosher, a grazer, a picker-and-chooser. So I'm feeling quite smug to have discovered the latest entry in diminutive dining -- and to have found it in an out-of-the-way spot in League City. I'm now willing to bet that the next miniature food craze will be -- drumroll, please -- "schmatzes."
Okay, I admit that a schmatz sounds like something you might chase under the bed with a vacuum cleaner. So what is it? The coiner of the term, Viennese restaurateur Johann Sitter, laughs uproariously when asked, and says, "It's hard to translate! A schmatz is a loud kiss, a buss, a smack with the lips. It's the sound an Austrian will make in appreciation of something beautiful and perfect, a pretty girl or a fast car. So that's the name I chose for my little dishes."
At Schmatz, Inc. (3020 Marina Bay Drive No. E, League City, (281)334-0781), Sitter presents his creations: artful arrangements of top-notch ingredients on thick slices of french bread, as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. Though the schmatzes resemble open-faced sandwiches, Sitter objects to the terminology. "Please don't call them sandwiches! Anybody can make a sandwich; you can get a sandwich anywhere. These are schmatzes." He makes the kissing sound. "They are special."
In their South Shore storefront restaurant, Sitter and his wife Megan assemble 16 kinds of schmatzes on the soft french bread that they bake themselves, pulling long loaves fresh from the oven every two hours. Schmatz toppings range from the simple to the sublime, from the mustardy, parsley-sprinkled egg salad in Mom's Secret to black caviar; prices run from 90 cents to almost $5.00 (for the caviar, of course). Because the palette is so small, each ingredient must be of the best quality -- and it is.
I like the Vienna Classic schmatz ($1.50), with its thin slices of sweet smoked ham on buttered bread, topped with circles of fresh tomatoes and onions. (My German grandmother always buttered ham sandwiches.) The Mountain Climber ($1.95) is good, too, made with tender, moist roast pork, grainy brown mustard and fanned slices of crisp baby gherkins. Cheese-based schmatzes include the Swiss version ($1.60), its layers of big-holed Emmentaler cheese decorated with red grape halves and walnuts; the "Bree" schmatz ($1.60) is covered with generous slabs of creamy French brie, the rich flavor punctuated with dabs of tart cranberry sauce on top. The smoked salmon ($2.90) is thick, smoky and tender, crowned with dollops of black caviar and sprinkles of chopped raw onion.
But there's more to Schmatz than schmatzes. Sitter also offers hearty, authentic Viennese specialties like Wiener schnitzel, bratwurst and rostbraten. Though an Austrian cookbook might share some nomenclature and ingredients with a German one, Sitter is quick to point out the differences. "The Austrian empire once included most of Eastern Europe, like Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and the Balkan States," he says. "So our cooking reflects all of these influences. German -- well, it's just German, and that's all."
To make his Wiener schnitzel, for example, Sitter slices and pounds a pork cutlet exceedingly thin, dredges it in flour, then egg, then very fine bread crumbs, fries it in butter, and dishes it up with Austrian oven-roasted potatoes. "Some of these German places, they serve Wiener schnitzel with sauerkraut," he huffs. "That's like a kick in my ass! You can't do that. The taste of sauerkraut is too strong. It overwhelms the main dish, and it's just not right. It would be like drinking a Pepsi with it instead of beer or wine."
Wiener schnitzel can be made with any kind of cutlet, Sitter points out; it doesn't have to be veal. He prefers to use pork because the veal he's tried here in America "just doesn't taste so good." Recently, he's been working on a beef schnitzel, another Viennese classic; but only if he can find better veal will he consider adding what he calls a "Holstein schnitzel" to the menu.
The current Wiener schnitzel is delectable, with its remarkably tender, moist pork encased in a crisply browned outer crust. And it's a bargain at $5.90 for a large dinner-sized serving. But I realize I've been in Texas too long when the dish reminds me of a chicken-fried steak, naked without gravy.
I decide not to share this thought with Sitter. He's still worked up. "And there used to be a restaurant here in America," he vents. "They called it Der Wiener Schnitzel -- it should have been Das Wiener Schnitzel; their German isn't even right -- and they served hot dogs to kids! Now everybody in America thinks Wiener schnitzel is a little hot dog for children." Sitter pauses to ponder the enormity of the mistake. "I was shocked," he adds.
For obvious reasons, you shouldn't ask Sitter for sauerkraut with the Wiener schnitzel, but he'll happily serve it alongside regular or smoked bratwurst ($5.90) or roast pork ($8.90). And Sitter's sauerkraut is wonderful; his method of long, slow cooking in beef bouillon reduces the sharp, sour taste that often overwhelms lesser krauts. The cabbage is soft and richly flavored with bacon and onions. Sitter's plump sausages are equally good; trained as a butcher himself, he's found a local shop to make bratwurst and knackwurst to his exacting specifications.
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.