Friday, April 20, 2007

STEIRECK still soars with its (alas just one) star (Vienna, Austria)

Last night, my first night here in Vienna, I returned to STEIRERECK, long my favorite restaurant in the country (I was there 7 and 14 years ago), which recently gave up its small adorable house just outside the city center to move to a huge beautiful Beaux Arts Pavilion in the middle of the Stadtpark where they can accommodate many more folks. Rumors were that the food was not the same, and while the style may have been modernized, there is no question in my mind, that STEIRERECK still reigns supreme amongst the gastronomic temples of Vienna.

Outside on can look into the basement windows and observe the goings on in the kitchens below that occupy an entire level with the dining room above it. The them here seems to be leaves, and outside there are gold leaf leaves abounding leading you into the reception area where my coat was taken without so much as a receipt or coat check number (another sign of the level of service). After meeting my guest, who is here conducting the opera, we proceeded to sit in the spacious comfortable glass walled room overlooking the park. While the tables are quite well spaced, I must again make my regular complaint about the smoking rules (that have been enforced in so many other European countries) being way too lax in Austria. Folks smoked cigarettes and cigars to no end really making a stink of the room (my suit still stinks a bit this morning!), and often destroying the excellent flavors of the amazing food. How can a chef allow his food to be served in this situation?

The room has a domed ceiling with stucco leaves applied and again several gold leaf leaves placed throughout. We sipped a glass of BRUNDLMAYR 2002 Sekt (Austrian dry sparkling) as we tasted our first amuse...a simple SUGAR PEA slit open and filled with CHEESE and several pieces of PUFFED WILD RICE, that was tasty, but did worry me (it seemed to lack invention). A larger plate arrives with a QUAIL EGG with WASABI MAYO in a long spoon, a simple ASPARAGUS WRAPPED in a SEAWEED like leaf, a small HAM SLICE rolled with tad of fruit gelee on top, and the most delectable flash fried pillow puff of potato that was empty inside. We were in good hands!

The tables have elegant white muslin cloths and are set with Riedel crystal, Christofle silver and Ginori tableware, but never more than one setting at a time. The breads come by and the choices are perhaps the most amazing I have ever seen. Many choices were offered but we had to try the special Homemade BLOOD SAUSAGE BREAD which could be a meal in itself. Huge warm chunks of bread filled with chunks of tasty sausage were so good we had to resist asking for more (we didn't!). I especially liked the PUMPKIN SEED bread as well, but there had to be at least 10 different types from plain BLACK RYE to CIABATTA with either GARLIC or OLIVES as well.

The basic tasting menu is available in 5 or 6 courses (88 or 98 euros respectively) as well as accompanying wines. While we sat down to dinner at 7pm, we did not leave our gastronomic adventure until about 5 hours later!

The final amuse was a huge teardrop shaped dish that stood about 5 inches high off the table and offered a delicious WHITEFISH with one of my favorite things in Austria (and Europe) at this season --the FELDSPARGEL or local WHITE ASPARAGUS that has just come into season; this was atop a tasty beet-like sauce that was purple, but not beet, and we never did quite find out what it was.

Each course of the tasting menu is preceded by the waiter placing a small card (slightly larger than a business card) in front of you on the table with all the ingredients of the upcoming dish. Ours were in English, but I assume they come in various languages. First came SLIGHTLY JELLIED ALGA SALAD with MUSSELS, PANNONIAN SAFFRON and SWEETBREADS. The actual card listed Cooked and Marinated "Laitue de mer" & Wakame alga (green & brown alga) with Girardeau Oysters, Cockles, Mussel-saffron jelly(which was so mild it was more like a dressing), Grapeseed Oil & Lemon marinated Field Beans, Spring Herbs and all this topped with sauteed SWEETBREAD wrapped in a small Pillow akin to spring roll wrapping. The wines were all perfectly poured just before each dish was delivered so we could taste it first alone and then enjoy it paired with each dish. In most cases the wines amazed us, often moreso when the food arrived. 2005 ROTGIPFLER "Brindlbach" from BIEGLER in Gumpoldskirchen (just outside of Vienna where I am headed today to visit several wineries!). had a hugely sweet nose, but was as dry as could be and made me want to search for this wine today!

Next came the GRILLED FOIE GRAS with Preserved Sweet-Sour Radish. This interesting combination had Austrian(a note states it is not French!) goose liver seasoned with coriander, mace, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon and salt served over WHITE RADISH sliced thin and marinated in vinegar, port wine, rowan berry marrow and then preserved. Additional tiny rowan berries (never heard of these before) decorated the dish which was delicately dressed with a topping of CANDY FLOSS (what we call cotton candy, but this was not too sweet and dissolved quickly over the warm dish). You know I adore Austrian sweet wines and one of my favorites was served in the from of ERNST TRIMBAUER's 2005 CHARDONNAY-WELSCHRIESLING Beerenauslese; nothing goes better with foie gras!

At this point I decided to visit the rest rooms downstairs which is an experience in itself. The colors are bright, shocking and primary with a 5 foot tall urinal that curves around you while you stand; I was scared at first when the auto-spray went on from three different directions to spritz and clean as I started. A large green and orange hat shaped electronic gizmo is near the sink and one places ones hands inside so soap comes out. As this occurs and you move your hands toward the huge yellow sing water sprays up from the opposite side in a fountain landing right onto your hands. I've seen lots of bathrooms, but this wines the prize for fun and ingenuity, if a bit scary!

It was hard to believe that the food could get better but the SLIGHTLY SMOKED ALP SALMON (cold smoked from Peter Brauchel of Styria) was served with CALF's HEART-Innards and CONDIMENT SMOKE as well as Marjoram and Grilled Sweet Corn-Powder. This was perhaps one of the tastiest salmons I have ever had just slightly coldly smoked it tasted like it had just come out of an Alpine stream! The fish alternated with the meat which was more akin to braised cheek and the smoke gave an aroma that along with the RIESLING 2001 "Durnsteiner Loibenberg" from ALZINGER in Unter Loiben made a perfect pairing again.

The most amazing wine of the night (well, one of them) was the 2001 IN SIGNO TAURO Pinot Noir from Heribert BAYER in Neckenmarkt. This wine was a huge fruit forward Pinot that easily competes with the best of French or US versions. I must find it! It came with the LAMB's RIDGE & WAIST from the POGUSCH (Region) with KOHLRABI & TURKISH HONEY. The dish was really two items, the tasty loin was slowly grilled and served over thin slices of a bit too vinegary (for me) kohlrabi which was preserved with thyme, rosemary & savory then sourly marinated win white wine vinegar and grape core oil. An exquisite CRISPY KOHLRABI BISQUIT with Pumpernickel was more like a croquette and the Slightly Grilled LAMB's RIDGE has a ridge of Turkish Honey (that delectable white taffy with almonds) on top; this was the best and most interesting preparation within this dish.

The cheese trolley is no less impressive than anything else here; we asked for all Austrian and received a tasty GOAT with HERBS LEROSE-a firm cow cheese with a slight bite, Styrian SHEEP Cheese that oozed and was wondrous, BACHSTEINER, 2 MONKS from Upper Austria that is a cow and goat combo, and the always exciting KRACHER BLUE...mild blue infused with Kracher dessert wine.

The wine was the only non-Austrian wine in the tasting, but came from an Austrian family that makes wine in Australia. It was a deep intense SHIRAZ 2003 "Finnis River" from SALOMON ESTATE in the south.

Dessert was entitled COCONUT & COFFEE and featured a COCO-MOCHA SLICE (A Gianduja Cream slice about 7 inches long and narrow) with COFFEE SOUFFLE on the side as well as COCO Sorbet and a Waffle with Muscovado-sugar. An imprint of chocolate lips adorned the edge of the plate. The wine was a "COLLECTOR" Blend RAMOS PINTO Port (oops another non-Austrian wine).

We finished off sharing a glass of ORDONEZ 2004 which is the Spanish dessert wine made by genius Austrian winemaker Alois KRACHER (of the blue cheese above).

A walk back to the hotel in the warm evening air (the weather here is HEAVENLY) and a good night's sleep has me ready for wine tasting today and another gastronomic treat tonight!