The Watch Factory Restaurant

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Review – Deep Dish

I last interviewed Chef Markus Patsch in 2002. At the time, he was celebrating his seventh year at the Watch Factory Restaurant, his popular Cheshire eatery specializing in Austrian country cuisine.

“I think of myself as a lucky fellow,” he told me then, “because I like what I’m doing, and I’m going to stay here just as long as I’m happy and healthy.”

Then, last August, I got a call from musician friend Tom Smith, who lives not far from the Watch Factory complex. Seems that, returning from a gig late one night, he smelled something burning. He and his band mate (bass player Andy Karlok) took a short walk around the neighborhood to investigate, and discovered that smoke was curling out from between the bricks of the outer walls of the Watch Factory Restaurant.

Now, because Chef Markus is European, and because it was August, the restaurant was closed for the month and Markus was off in Austria, visiting his mother. “It was 9 a.m. and I’d just stepped out of the shower,” he recalls. “My mom doesn’t speak English but she answered the phone and knew something was wrong.”

The fire was the result of a malfunctioning motor in the wine cooler behind the bar. Markus’ friends — and the fire marshal — gave him the impression that the damage wasn’t all that extensive, and that he might as well stay in Austria for the final six days of his vacation, while fire investigators and insurance adjusters did their thing.

“I didn’t know how bad it was,” says Markus. “There was smoke damage, water damage and my neighbors were put out of commission, too. It wasn’t the prettiest time in my life.”

Things got worse on Dec. 13, when a blizzard dumped a foot of snow inside the restaurant.

“I remember it vividly,” says Markus. “There was no roof, it was snowing, and there was nobody I could call to put in an emergency roof. I felt so helpless. I thought, ‘Things can only get better.’”

Surprise: Three days later it rained, and workers had to come in with sandbags to contain the water and keep it from flooding the entire complex.

Months of construction followed, during which Chef Markus lovingly recreated an interior that is nearly identical to the one he lost. Working in a vacant space in the complex, he and friend Peter Wieland did all the woodworking, creating a cottage feeling with pale knotty pine. The 70-seat restaurant still has a white-washed dining room overlooking lush landscaping; a smaller dining area separated from the bar by a half-wall topped in greenery; and a large communal table in the corner where Watch Factory guests love to come together for a glass of Warsteiner Lager or a shot of Jagermeister.

“I liked it the first time, so I didn’t see any big reason for a change,” explains Markus.

He means it. Not only is the interior unchanged, but so is the menu, the prices and the staff.

“I wanted people to come in an see all the same stuff, eat the same food, have the same check,” he says.

When the Watch Factory officially reopened on April 9, Chef Markus was touched to find a full restaurant. There they were, feasting on mussels in mustard cream, rainbow trout with capers and brown butter, bratwurst with white wine sauce, wiener schnitzel and sacher schnitte with raspberry sauce. The folks who’d always loved Chef Markus’s cooking hadn’t missed a beat.

“I’m ecstatic that I’m back in business, that I have my restaurant back and my life back,” says the chef.

Soon, Chef Markus will be having a dinner for all the people who helped him through his ordeal, including the fire department, the friends who rescued his dog from the upstairs apartment, and the musicians who called the fire in.

“I’m a lucky man,” says Markus.

Review by Todd Lyon, published at New Haven Register – 4/30/04