Dumplings to Die for at Charivari
See how Chef Schuster sears that fine foie gras at Charivari in this week's slideshow.
I was 14 years old when I fell head over heels in love with spaetzle.
It was during a trip to Austria, touring around with a symphony orchestra during my years as a violist, where I was first presented with the eggy, rough-hewn dumplings at a restaurant in Innsbruck. I relentlessly ate my way through plates of the stuff during my two-week stay, not knowing if I'd ever be able to find them in Texas. I ordered spaetzle with absolutely everything, craving the slightest crunch on the tiny dumplings that had been seared brown on their bottoms and the soft, barely chewy texture of the ones that had somehow escaped the heat.
Back home, my mother generously allowed me to buy packets of Knorr spaetzle from the international aisle at Fiesta (which were as close to Austrian spaetzle as garish orange packages of Maruchan are to real ramen), and I continually attempted to replicate spaetzle recipes at home. But I failed every time and soon gave up altogether. The 14-year-old me would have been thrilled to find Charivari — where chef Johann Schuster makes the best spaetzle I've tasted in Houston or anywhere else — which I didn't discover till I was 23.
My eyes nearly rolled back in my head the first time I tasted Schuster's pale golden dumplings, knotty and twisted under a pile of meaty wild mushrooms and a dollop of emulsified crème fraîche. The crème fraîche retained its structure and tangy flavor but melted ever so softly into the pasta and mushrooms below, adding to the already rich butter sauce that lightly coated each perfectly pan-seared dumpling.
I've had this reaction to nearly every dish I've had at Charivari over the years, and am inordinately pleased — perhaps because of my own strong German heritage — to see the restaurant age like a fine wine. Ten years since my first visit, the Transylvanian (but really also German, Austrian, Romanian, Italian, French and Eastern European) Charivari is better now than it ever was. And considering how short Houstonians' attention spans are, the fact that Schuster and company have been this popular for this long is a minor miracle, too.
The name Charivari itself gives you an idea of the kind of food that chef Schuster serves. It's a French slang term that means "beautiful, good mix" or an approximation thereof. And that's what you'll find on Schuster's multinational menu of Continental cuisine. I like this for two reasons: The diplomat in me enjoys a menu that's broad enough to please a variety of palates, which Charivari can certainly do. You'll find everything from spectacular rib eye steaks — dry-aged for 20 days in-house — to Italian classics like tender, housemade bucatini in bolognese.
The other reason I enjoy this blend is that it's more representative of European cuisines than the ideologist's approach of serving only "German food" or only "French food." In reality, cuisines and dishes all blend together in this part of the world, the same way that Italian and other Mediterranean influences work their way into Provençal cooking.
Take the seafood choucroute that Schuster has been serving for a decade. It's a dish native to the Alsace region of France, which juts so far into Germany that it might as well still be a part of that country. France and Germany exchanged control of the state four times in only 75 years. That's why you'll find sauerkraut in this ostensibly French dish, cooked down in a buttery Riesling sauce — another Teutonic ingredient. But oh, what sauerkraut. This isn't the briny, overly pickled stuff from a dusty glass jar. This is homemade sauerkraut, sweet and tangy, the plump strands of cabbage flecked with caraway seeds. On top, Schuster plates three pieces of seafood: half a lobster tail and two small filets of salmon and red snapper.
Seafood and sauerkraut: It's a combination that exemplifies Charivari's joyful jumble, challenging Americans to reconsider what they think of as French or German food — ditto the parsley-poached Black Forest escargots with the plump, buttery taste of winter-fattened Gulf oysters — while appealing to the European expats who pack the restaurant nearly every night.
Indeed, Charivari serves almost as a second home to many expats, and you can find dishes and drinks that cater directly to that crowd: a raspberry-laced Linzer torte under a lattice of gingerbread that tastes like winter in Kitzbühel or aperitifs like Campari and soda from the well-stocked bar. Schuster even recently equipped it with draft lines, so now German brews and Texas-made beers such as Franconia keep company with the exhaustive wine list.
For certain American tastes, Charivari holds another kind of appeal: charmingly old-school service in an equally old-school setting where white tablecloths and carpeted floors keep the noise levels down even on nights (as with a recent Karneval dinner) when the restaurant can get a little bawdy. The billowy maroon drapes that have fronted Charivari's windows for years may seem a bit antiquated, but they serve as an indication that none of the servers will pop a squat at your table, yet they will take care of your every need — often before you realize the necessity.
I look forward to meals at Charivari in a way that is wholly different from other nights out. There is a lovely, considerate quality to the elegant service that's rarely found in modern dining rooms. Some may find silver domes removed with a flourish from dishes to be anachronistic; I consider it a treat. I love the ballet of watching plates set down in unison or the civility of being offered a palate-cleansing sorbet between courses and a silver tray with gingersnaps alongside my espresso at the end of an utterly relaxing meal.
But for all this pomp and circumstance, Charivari remains warm and accessible. The service never seems outmoded but simply chivalrous. And despite both the conservative atmosphere and the Continental menu, Schuster's cooking is anything but stagnant. Instead, the Romania-born chef — a Yul Brynner doppelgänger who holds Escoffier in the highest esteem but also forages for his own mushrooms — continues to combine his classical training with newer culinary techniques and influences, to say nothing of the fact that Schuster has been serving seasonal menus since long before it was fashionable to do so.
During a recent dinner with my mother — who first took me to Charivari a decade ago during one of my all-consuming spaetzle cravings — I was delighted to receive an amuse-bouche of smoked eggplant mousse that was equal parts baba ghanoush and airy French finery in advance of a perfectly cooked Wiener schnitzel that covered the entire plate. (And that, I thought, could serve as a textbook example of how to properly bread and fry a piece of pounded-thin meat for all the chicken-fried steak wannabes out there.)
Dessert offered standards such as a wonderfully crumbly apple strudel, but also a Swiss chocolate tart heavily spiced with toasty chipotle. And Schuster's weekly lunch specials change every day, but range from paiche (pronounced "PIE-chay") filet with Peruvian purple potatoes and lúcuma sauce to Budapest-style beef goulash with more of that delicious spaetzle.
It's the Eastern European-influenced dishes that remain among my favorites here, perhaps because of Schuster's Romanian upbringing and his professional training by a fellow countryman who served as chef to the last Romanian king (who, it should be noted, is still alive and well). Only a chef as skilled as Schuster could produce the fine sear on twin lobes of foie gras — "Budapest-style" — that crackles under your fork like a finely torched crème brûlée to reveal the unctuous, marrow-like liver inside. And only a restaurant like Charivari could serve that foie gras alongside everything from squid ink pasta to black bear — both in season, of course — and make it all work together in one truly beautiful, good mix.
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