Daniel Angerer, a respected chef who never quite hit celebrity status, seemed to be carving out a very specific niche for himself a few years ago. He was a seafood guy: The Austrian chef joined Fresh in 2002 (after stints at Jean Georges and Bouley), then opened Shore and Coast in the following two years. After a falling-out with co-owner Eric Tevrow, he became determined to launch his own place in mid-2005. It’s taken a while, but Klee (pronounced “clay”) Brasserie is finally open, and surprisingly, it is neither fish-focused nor Austrian. It is a bit of a mishmash, but a good mishmash.
The bar in front screams Chelsea with its with designer lighting (upside-down wine-bottle-shaped fixtures) and small tables filled with handsome boys, while the back area evokes a ski chalet thanks to the white maple wood wall paneling. I could see Angerer staring out from the open kitchen occasionally through a big square window.
On one visit, I stared back, hoping he could rescue me from a 45-minute purgatory waiting for a table despite the fact that I’d made reservations. While killing time, however, I discovered some very good (and affordable) bar snacks, including hot, aromatic almonds ($3), mini lobster rolls ($6), garlic potato chips ($5) and a smooth sangria, sweetened with pineapple. The wine list, like the menu, draws from all over the map, and includes 18 half bottles.
Painter Paul Klee, an inspiration behind the restaurant’s name, was known for his playful creations, and Angerer seems to have channeled the artist with some odd, even humorous, dishes. In an homage to his fiancée, Lori Mason, who co-owns the restaurant, mason jars have three uses: holding herbed butter, bread pudding and a mixed vegetable entrée. Order the latter and you get sherry-vinegar and pumpkinseed oil served in eyedroppers.
Most of the dishes, however, are far less precious and conceptual. The porcini mushroom chowder—heartier as promised—had a strong smoky-woodsy aroma, which was actually more interesting than its flavor. The nicely marbled, thinly sliced kurobuta pork (the kobe of pigs) was plenty tasty on its own, but it was made all the more delicious by a classic tonnato preparation that mixed understated tuna sauce with sharp capers.
Angerer seems to have found a way to feature every kitchen appliance he could get his hands on; main courses are classified according to the heat source that produced the final product: wood-burning oven, mesquite grill and griddle. The meat dishes I tried were big and heavy, but paired with interestingly textured sides and sauces: slow-roasted duck with plums and honey, lamb shank poached and roasted in rioja wine (which proved to have a long, rich finish) and my favorite dish, a Rhode Island swordfish (pictured), thick as filet mignon and barbecued perfectly, with a touch of mesquite, over a bed of soy-sauce-infused Swiss chard and a fancy piece of bacon on top. The elemental flavors—fish, cream, salt—were sublime.
On some days, Angerer adds a daily special with Austrian roots, like Wiener schnitzel. But hints of his homeland came through strongest in the desserts. The apple strudel comes with golden raisins, and his chocolate Sacher torte gets a sour-cream–tinged schlag, which cuts nicely into a dish that might otherwise be too sweet. Instead of pushing a strong cup of espresso, the menu focuses on exotic teas, like the Mandela Masal Chai made with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and organic rooibos. It’s nothing I would have expected from a former fishmonger, but then again, idiosyncrasy is the enduring charm here.