IF YOU GO
Tell an Atlanta restaurant enthusiast over the age of, say, 40 that you just ate at Günter Seeger’s new restaurant in New York, and you will soon be fielding question after question. Did he make foie gras? Hot or cold? How was the service? Did you have the egg?
Yes, yes, you say: Let me tell you. Günter Seeger NY feels enough like Seeger’s, the Buckhead restaurant that closed a decade ago, that you will experience the giddy whoosh of time warp. The singular food. The gorgeous Rieslings. The warmth of whitewashed brick. The hand-hammered chandelier forged by his blacksmith grandfather. As many Atlantans know, there has never been any restaurant like Seeger’s. Until now.
For 22 years Seeger (who previously rendered his first name as ‘Guenter’) occupied an unequaled place in Atlanta’s dining world. The chef, who had earned a Michelin star in his native Germany, arrived stateside in the 1980s to upgrade the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton’s hotel chain’s flagship property in Buckhead. Upgrade he did. While at The Dining Room, Seeger received frequent national press and became the first Atlanta chef to earn a James Beard award. In 1997 he left the hotel to open his own restaurant, Seeger’s, in a converted bungalow on West Paces Ferry Road (now Yebo Beach Haus). During its run it became a Relais & Chateaux property and repeatedly achieved the highest rating of five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, one of fewer than two dozen restaurants in North America.
Seeger’s influence in Atlanta manifested itself in many ways. The restaurant industry benefited from the generation of cooks he trained. Local farmers grew for him before anyone else. As an early champion of Georgia Organics, Seeger was one reason for the organization’s outsized success. His star power attracted attention to the city when it was at most boosterish, and even those who didn’t love his precise, gently portioned, European cooking bragged on his accomplishments.
For those who did love his food he was a hero, and the experience of dining at his table mattered more than all the awards. It is one thing to visit a restaurant like this on vacation, and another to have it in your home town to explore time and again — like having a case of 2003 Chateau Latour to dip into or catching the Springsteen concert every time he goes on tour. The menu changed constantly, but Seeger’s French technique, German heritage and Southern sense of place always came together as a singular expression. This pure food was the chef himself.
The decor and service at Seeger’s hewed to international rather than local standards. It acted more like a Michelin-starred destination in a provincial European city than a name-brand American restaurant. This attitude came across in its plush furnishings (Frette linens, Bernaudaud china) and in its formalized service à la russe, with dishes brought to the table on trays or carts for inspection and finishing. Some locals found the service style chilly, and the white-space plating of tasting menu dishes (then still novel) left their eyes hungry. A few diners couldn’t forgive the unannounced surcharge for the Evian water that poured freely all evening.
By the time the economic crisis was starting to gather headwinds, Seeger had trouble attracting weeknight diners and announced his intention to close in 2006. He was so besieged by fans wanting one last meal that he booked out for weeks in advance and had to extend the final date.
Seeger stayed in Atlanta for several months with his wife, Leslie, before moving to New York just as the recession was at its most brutal. He got work as a consultant to supermarket chains in Canada and the United Kingdom, helping with every aspect of their prepared food programs from manufacture to service. He liked the work.
Seeger visited Atlanta occasionally and caught up with proteges, such as Bantam & Biddy’s Shaun Doty. But for restaurant-goers he dropped out of sight. Just as celebrity chef culture was taking off, Atlanta’s O.G. eschewed public appearances. “After so many years in the kitchen it was time for me to take a sabbatical,” he said recently.
Yet he did have a dream of one day opening a restaurant in New York, and several years ago he started exploring options. “It’s quite difficult to find the right space here,” he recalled of his frustrating search for real estate. “And once you do find something there are too many restrictions.”
Near the Meatpacking District in Greenwich Village, he leased a former clothing shop (historically a grocery, a fact that pleases him), and then spent almost two years dealing with permitting and construction. “It was delays and delays and delays,” he harrumphed at the memory. After starting construction in October 2015, he was able to finally open in late May.
Atlanta fans will feel a familiar Seeger-ishness as soon as they enter this deep, single-room restaurant painted the palest of grays. They will recognize that push-pull, that austere warmth, that vibe that says both genuine home and stark showcase. The artwork will look familiar, and then in back, in the exposition kitchen that seamlessly blends into the dining room stands the chef in tailored whites, now 67 but looking barely aged in 10 years.
Seeger serves a tasting menu of eight or 10 courses that changes nightly. Diners buy a ticket through Tock online for $185, which includes service. The chef will take dietary restrictions and preferences into consideration, but each course will be a surprise. With it comes the time warp, that music you haven’t heard for 10 years.
Seeger has a way of building a meal, giving you the bites you surrender to with melting pleasure (a warmed oyster bathed in Riesling butter and shaved truffle) before making you stop and think through a dish. So his much-loved egg — a tremulous custard that warms your throat as it slides down — precedes one raw langoustine set to pink up and curl in a steaming, fragrant bowl of chamomile blossoms and hot water. You use a pair of chopsticks to apply peppery green olive oil boosted with crunchy salt. A lot of phenolic compounds jump around in this dish, but they find their harmonies once you ponder them.
Seeger always invites you to slow down and consider the food. A waitress parades a platter with a medieval-looking apple roasted in a pastry dome pierced with shards of bay leaf. Then you try a slice of this wondrous apple served with foie gras confit and (holla) Vidalia onion marmalade. That apple: it lifts all the flavors.
The most astonishing dish: a charcoal-grilled sea trout collar that requires attention as you burrow into lush flesh and gooey fat, crackly skin and hard bone, things you eat and things you scrape away. It arrives with a dot of intense Japanese citrus paste called yuzu kosho. A lot of chefs misuse this trendy ingredient; Seeger understands it to be an exclamation point of flavor.
The restaurant has a great asset in its young, enthusiastic sommelier, Sabra Lewis, who selects terrific Burgundy and Sauternes for her pairing menu, but knows the German Rieslings are the heart of the wine list and the best match to Seeger’s food.
Now you may be one of those Atlantans who remembers Seeger’s less fondly — as a very expensive restaurant that didn’t deliver the generous plates and coddling service you would expect for the price. For me, it’s the place that helped me define my voice and values as a food critic. It opened the same year I arrived in Atlanta to write for this newspaper, and after penning a rave review I received a letter from a reader who thought Seeger’s compared unfavorably to a popular steakhouse. I thanked her for reading my column, thought about the right response and began writing, “You’re wrong…”