The Watch Factory, Cheshire
★★½ (Very Good-Superior)
If The Watch Factory was a musical, it would be The Sound of Music. With red-and-white-checked tablecloths, blond wood furniture, plate rails decorated with cut-out hearts and everything in sight scrubbed and polished to within an inch of its life, it feels sunny and apple-cheeked even at night.
This is a restaurant that is where it has been (in a neatly restored factory building, red brick with white trim, in Cheshire), serving what it has served (some of the most authentic Austrian food in Connecticut) since the mid ’90s. It’s not front-page news or the hippest hot ticket, but it doesn’t need to be. Fans of Austrian country cooking know where to find it and find it they do. Friends tell friends, and they tell their friends, and The Watch Factory ticks along with deliciously satisfying reliability thanks to a wizard of a watchmaker, aka Markus Patsch, chef-owner.
I got my first taste of Mr. Patsch’s cooking years ago at The Gourmet Table in Darien, where he was whipping up schnitzel and spaetzle and the world’s best apple strudel to enjoy at tiny café tables tucked among the comestibles or to impress guests with at a dinner party.
Now, years later, I find myself at The Watch Factory in Cheshire where the menu tells me that chef Markus, as he calls himself, wishes me guten appetit. A glance at the authentic Austrian fare on offer reminds me that chef Markus hails from Brixen im Thale in the Tyrolean Alps and came to the U.S. as chef to famed pianist and comedian Victor Borge. The colorful menu also boasts a photo of the chef in the mountains with a fishing rod and a freshly caught trophy trout. Trout with capers and brown butter is on the entrée list. Gotta have it.
I grew up with Austrian food, and all my favorites are here. Wiener schnitzel, potato pancake, sacherschnitte, apfel strudel. I anticipate a trip down memory lane—and get something infinitely better, a vindication of all the bad German and Austrian food I’ve encountered in America in years past. Red cabbage is a major case in point. I never order it because too often it’s either cloyingly sweet or mouth-puckeringly vinegary, mushy or half raw. Red cabbage à la chef Markus is a revelation—ruby-red, with the texture of al dente pasta, made with apples and an intriguing hint of cloves or allspice. Virtually every dish we try showcases the fact that authentic Austrian country cooking is a lot lighter, brighter and more refined than inferior versions have led many of us to expect.
At The Watch Factory, entrées lean toward the Old World, appetizers toward the new. Take mussels in mustard cream as an appetizer, for example—sounds odd, tastes brilliant. Instead of the usual heap of small mussels in steaming broth, we are presented with five gorgeous green-lipped mussels on the half-shell, each cloaked with a gossamer film of mustard-spiked cream.
Pancakes of all sorts have long been a mainstay of Austrian home cooking. At The Watch Factory they turn up in the most delicate form imaginable, a paper-thin crêpe enfolding a luscious mélange of shrimp and artichoke hearts. Flaky puff pastry turns zucchini and Gorgonzola into a vegetarian dream dish. The soup of the day is potato leek. Forget wishy-washy potato soup—this one is packed with leeks and earthy flavor.
Entrée time, and it’s trout for me. A prize catch for sure, whole sans head and tail, slit, swiftly sautéed, fragrantly aglisten with browned butter and a sprinkle of capers on a thick, moist potato pancake. I have no idea where it came from, but it tastes as fresh as an Alpine stream. Roasted monkfish is a symphony in white, snowy medallions of fish robed in garlic-spiced cream sauce on a mound of white rice. The fish is flawlessly cooked, the sauce is light, and the rice is, well, rice. A quiet dish, not memorable but nice.
But a duck entrée dazzles. Two plump duck legs roasted to the color of burnished mahogany are as good as they look, tender and moist, laved with red wine sauce and displayed atop a potato pancake.
I press one of my friends to order wiener schnitzel because I haven’t tasted a good one since my last walking trip in Austria. Even with chef Markus in the kitchen, I’m disinclined to hope. I should have had more faith. One bite of his sybaritic schnitzel and I am strolling through wild cyclamen, visiting wayside chapels and dining on golden, crisp-edged, melt-in-your-mouth schnitzel like this. A welcome find in Connecticut.
Chef Markus is his own pastry chef and a talented one. His Austrian cheesecake is a delightful departure from convention, an airy confection of semisweet cheesecake and spongecake. Sacherschnitte (chocolate cake with apricot filling and raspberry sauce) would please Prince Metternich, for whom the recipe was created in 1832. Chocolate mousse is a bit heavier than it could be, but the apple strudel made with Mutsu apples from the Norton Bros. Fruit Farm down the road outshines any I can remember.
At The Watch Factory, chef Markus is not only the kitchen’s majordomo, he’s the proverbial one-man band, a class solo act. It’s like having a personal chef and a dedicated server, a lovely, leisurely way to dine. Waiting comes with the territory but it’s not inordinate. Just don’t plan to eat and run. Chef Markus says it best, decorating his menu with a border of words: “Sit long. Eat much. Laugh often.” A recipe for Gemütlichkeit.
The Watch Factory Restaurant
122 Elm St., Cheshire (203/271-1717, thewatchfactory.com
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6 to $9, entrées $22 to $31, desserts $7.