A Feast Aquatic, 7 Floors Up

Unkai at the Grand: Amid kimonos, fountains and sleek bamboo, you realize that humans are meant to eat fish

“Dark green semi-circular place settings and a modest arrangement of bright green herbs greeted us at our table.” | Photo: Werner Krug

With Japanese dining, presentation is half the battle. Kimono-clad personnel, fountains springing from unknown sources and a sleek, bamboo-studded interior gave an alluring idea of what was to come at Unkai, seven floors above the lobby of Vienna’s Grand Hotel. The brightness of the main dining room, beaming from trendy glass-paper fixtures above each table, was a wakeup call at 18:30 on a gray Saturday evening.

Across the aisle, rain streamed down the slanted windows that – in normal autumn weather – would have afforded a gorgeous view of the 1st district. Dark green semi-circular place settings and a modest arrangement of bright green herbs greeted us at our table, set against a wall of granite slabs. Several early birds enjoyed sushi on an elevated section behind us, which boasted all-white tables and chairs that contrasted ours in dark brown-on-white, a theme that was strategically tossed back and forth across the room.

Two rather modest fixed course menus caught our eye at first, both from the Kaiseki page of the menu. Maybe it was the excess of sushi and sashimi offered on both. But for the sake of variety, I went for the ‘Casual Zui-un’ menu, which had less raw fish and more warm dishes, which promised to bring with it the delights of table-side preparation. Though we weren’t sitting at the Teppanyaki tables – where chefs prepare meals before your eyes complete with knife twirling and food tossing – we had already seen several elaborate cooking devices make their way to other tables in our section. The warm dishes could not be passed up.

Kaiseki claimed to be a traditional Japanese multi-course medley, seasonally selected and full of ‘artistic presentation.’ The first course of my choice, the ‘Casual Zui-un,’ was oysters with Unkai dressing, a thin, tart, tomato-based chili sauce that could be added at will to the raw oysters. The Sushi Kaiseki, the raw fish-laden choice of my companion, commenced with a large herb-coated prawn accompanied by a sweetened pumpkin paste (in the mould of a pumpkin) and a salt-cured tuna wedge. The dishes were tiny, but luckily we were in for five more, so on to the next.

Temari-sushi of mackerel and smoked salmon, which were served in a lidded ceramic bowl and on balls rather than slabs of rice, came with the Zui-un. For the other, a sashimi mix of grand surprises: halibut, sea bass, tuna, salmon, shrimp, squid, octopus and sea urchin.

This is where the genius of Unkai shone through. Aside from the fact that the salmon and tuna possessed an unutterable tenderness, the others – normally not thought of as sushi quality – were unexpectedly tasty. The halibut and sea bass had an almost buttery texture, and the squid and octopus, for the first time in my sushi-eating existence, lacked that pesky rubbery consistency. Instead of battling through the toughness, the real flavor of the cephalopods came through. The raw shrimp was sticky and pasty, and the sea urchin manifest itself as a pleasantly salty mound of goo.

It was hard to tell if it was the freshness of the fish or the particular quality and cut, but at these moments one realizes that humans were meant to be fish eaters. No sauce, no spice – just fish, and it was blissful.

The next course of the Zui-un would be the first warm meal, and it would not disappoint. The clear soup with Shimofur beef aspic was delivered in what looked like something from a high school chemistry class. After the waitress lit an invisible wick, pressure forced broth from the bottom of a glass flask to an upper bulb filled with shitake mushrooms, which then mysteriously returned to its source and was then poured into my bowl. The mushroom-infused broth was intense, but the taste of my companion’s was superior still: Grilled butterfish with miso paste, which combined the sweetness of the soy paste with a char-grilled aftertaste, and all on a butterfish filet that melted in your mouth.

The later dishes didn’t quite compare to the first, so a summary may suffice: salmon with garlic sauce, which too was exceedingly tender. Tempura came with the sushi menu, and while tempura is hard to ruin, this one contained especially delicate and rare fluffiness. The Sushi Kaiseki ended with a bang – more sushi (shocking), so imagine the sashimi plate, only this time on rice. The one addition was raw clam, which likened a raw oyster.

The ‘Casual Zui-un’ concluded with an overly starchy dish I couldn’t quite figure out: duck stew with tofu and veggies served with buckwheat noodles and rice faintly mixed with mushrooms. It lacked a real kick, or any real excitement to write home about. But it certainly left me full.

Though I was hoping the Grand Hotel might lend us a room for a post-prandial siesta, they weren’t done with us yet. A pumpkin crème brûlée and a green tea tiramisu were delivered in all their glorious colors, oranges and greens, set off by a medley of red, purple and yellow fruits. Pumpkin, it seemed, had found its true role as a crème brûlée, and the same could be said for green tea. Who would have thought…

On our way out, I found a brochure of the hotel bragging about its chefs and kitchens, with Unkai winning the acclaimed two toques by Gault Millau as well as the Trophée Gourmet for ethnic cuisine. But what caught my eye was the brief biography of head chef Hiroshi Sakai. It turns out he is not only Chef de Cuisine of one of Austria’s finest, but also a certified ski and scuba diving instructor.

Then it all made sense. The brilliance of our meal did not lie in creative sauces or innovative techniques, but in allowing the fish to speak for itself. Only someone so in touch with nature could bring out the splendor of one of our greatest natural resources.

 

Unkai, Grand Hotel Wien
1., Kärntner Ring 9
(01) 515 80-9110
www.unkai-grandhotel.com

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