Chef Krisztian Karkus isn’t sure if he wants everyone to know how good his wiener schnitzel is. He has a special recipe, sure, and it’s pan-fried in butter and pork lard with fresh lingonberry jam and homemade cucumber salad, but he isn’t a German chef, he says in a heavy Hungarian accent–and he doesn’t want his new restaurant, Tisza Bistro in Windsor, to be pigeon-holed as an ethnic dining experience. Trouble is, he already has fans coming in weekly for a plate of the breadcrumb-topped veal. You may also notice its the only photo I took after having several bites because it is that good, which anything cooked in pork lard tends to be.
Housed inside the new Windsor Holiday Inn, Tisza opened its doors during the week of the wildfires. “Bad timing,” said Karkus, though he turned a hotel full of fire refugees and a burner-less kitchen into a welcomed gathering around food—even if it was a few hundred panini sandwiches made with a waffle iron he bought at Kohls. The displaced residents volunteered to wash dishes, came into the kitchen to give him a hug and help out the restaurant any way they could. “What could they do all day, watch tv?” he said of the friends he made in those tough first days.
These days, however, the restaurant has gained quick momentum as repeat customers and neighbors discover that Karkus can do a whole lot more than cook paninis. His mix of Old World comfort food (with lots of roasting) and fresh, California-inspired ingredients make for an intriguing menu ranging from brown butter artichokes with tarragon and lemon aioli (not lemon and mayonnaise, he specifies), duck confit with brandied cherries, spaetzle mac and cheese, and smoked bratwurst and braised sauerkraut.
Not a single dish missed the mark. Not one.
A former chef at Napa’s Meritage Resort, along with other high-end hotels and resorts, Karkus has experience with luxe Wine Country dining. He’s forthcoming, however, about the time he ran a Hungarian restaurant in Japan, something he describes as “too ethnic”, and careful not to label himself as the goulash guy. Or the wiener schnitzel and bratwurst guy.
Instead, Karkus is the chef who is taking a much-welcomed right turn away from olive oil and heavy French sauces toward flavors that have been hard to find in Sonoma lately, pairing salmon with a Hungarian-style potato pancake or braised lamb with a yeasty Bohemian dumpling.
“Food has to taste good first,” he said, “and look good second.” He’s achieved both, with perfectly cooked greens and beans; clever touches like balsamic “pearls” (a molecular gastronomy technique) that aren’t overly precious, deeply flavorful infusions of spices and herbs and perfectly crisp salmon and duck skin.
On a personal note, my husband as deemed the little brown boxes I’ve left in the fridge after dinner “the best leftovers of my life.” We tussled over the last bits of duck in the kitchen.
Tisza may have been born from fire, but named after a meandering Hungarian river, its menu is awash in a love for the flavors of Sonoma County and Eastern Europe. Plus, the schnitzel ain’t bad.
Best Bets at Tisza Bistro:
– Roasted Castroville artichoke with tarragon brown butter and preserved lemon, $10: Huge artichokes bathed in nutty butter with creamy lemon aioli. We’re never quite sure about the proper way to eat an artichoke, but you’ll find the meatiest bits on the bigger petals, though we’d rather just spoon the aioli in our mouths when it comes right down to it. There’s no getting around the calories here, but intensely worth sharing around the table.
– Russian kale salad, $10: Another kale salad, yay. Here’s the truth, though, this one is so pretty it seems almost cruel not to eat it. One bite of the wine-soaked currants studded throughout the chopped kale, however, and you’re hooked. Mixed in are quinoa (yay, healthy!), shaved Parmesan topped with a honey walnut vinaigrette. Not a bad choice after the artichoke.
– Roasted beets, $11: I’ve become the roasted beet queen, because they seem to be on just about every menu and darn it I like beets. This version, though, is extra special, with a mix of sweet and earthy beets, whipped Redwood Hill Farm chevre (along with a few chunks on top), balsamic pearls (made by dropping hot vinegar mixed with agar agar into cold oil, a flavor burst) and Karkus’ “beet yoghurt”, his own recipe for the tart cream mixed with beets and 7 spice blend.
– Roasted Skuna Bay salmon, $24: Roasted salmon is a lot like roasted chicken—it’s just not that interesting. But with skin as crisp as a new dollar bill (but tastier), lighter-tasting, flaky salmon and a humble potato pancake atop carrot puree, it’s almost date-worthy. Karkus’ latke-style pancake is a recipe from his mother, who he says was a wonderful cook. Hers were slathered in sour cream, while Karkus takes a gentler approach, leaving them as a perfect sauce-mop for any leftover puree or spinach.
– Wiener schnitzel, $23: Veal, rolled in bread crumbs, fried in butter and pork fat. A squeeze of lemon and life suddenly seems a lot better. This version has no relationship to a sad piece of dry pork dropped in a deep fat fryer, which the sibling of chicken fried steak, something no one should eat willingly.
– Braised lamb shoulder, $26: Lamb can be a tough sell, but this long-cooked cut is tender and beefy. Bohemian yeast dumplings are a bit like steamed bao, a sticky sort of dough ball whose only purpose is to soak up au jus.
– Roasted Liberty Farm duck confit, $18: There are so many ways this preserved duck leg can go wrong, and I’ve tasted most of them. They’re either greasy or fatty, often a bit grey inside, and with a rubbery skin. Karkus again gets a super crispy skin (“I love it to be crispy,” he says) by searing off the deep red meat. Brandied cherries are the, well, cherry on the confit.
– Rolled crepe with walnut cream, $6: This is the undersell of the menu, because it’s a treasured Hungarian dessert called palatschinke, and one I know well from my childhood. I got a little teary, in fact, when Karkus began explaining the soft, papery crepe that puts any French buckwheat imposteur to shame. “You should be able to eat it like this,” Karkus mimes, pressing his lips together. No teeth needed. Rolled instead of folded into a triangle, palatschinke is filled with a walnut cream surrounded by rum raisins (boozy fruit is a popular theme) and swooshes of real chocolate ganache. Nutella be damned.
Tisza Bistro is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 8757 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor, 707-838-5100, tiszabistro.com.
Heather Irwin is the founder of BiteClub and has been heading a meal relief program in Sonoma County called Sonoma Family Meal, offering free chef-made meals to those affected by the fires at sonomafamilymeal.org.