Aroma ‘At Eight’

A newly renovated restaurant dresses up for the evening with an interior design complementing an imaginative kitchen

The front dining area of At Eight: a strangely soothing design | Photo: David Reali

‘Casual luxury’ may at first sound contradictory. Luxurious fine dining seems doomed to humorless waiters, stiff interiors and uninventive – if experienced – cooks and kitchens. Especially in Vienna, where tradition often takes precedence over originality, one may have become accustomed to the charm of the haughty tuxedo-clad waiters of Kaffeehäuser and consider eccentricity to be found elsewhere.

At Eight, the newly renovated restaurant of The Ring Hotel on Kärnter Ring, may be challenging these age-old assumptions. Drawing near to The Ring on a Saturday night in late April, it was clear that this hotel aspired to set itself apart from the classic hotels, in its immediate vicinity – The Grand, Bristol, Hotel Imperial …instead of stately signs in front, The Ring announced its presence in light neon blue in a curvaceous, cursive font. But the façade did not let on to profusion of blasphemous color schemes that awaited inside. Lavender purple curtains covered the Ringside windows; red covers hung over the seats, interspersed with purple covers here and there. The long bench against the wall was upholstered in a light, sea green for the bottom cushion, while the upper sported a flowery green print against a grayish background, and purple vases held red flowers against a mirror above. Indented squares in the ceiling contained interlaced waves of brown, green and purple. Bulb-shaped lamps hung low over the tables with bright red ‘fingers’ dangling down, in what appeared to be a metaphor for life: a blood-red root supporting the brightness of existence.

Seated in the main dining hall, around the front corner of the L-shaped restaurant, two larger-than-life portraits of Marilyn Monroe stared me down – one back-dropped in orange, the other purple, both otherwise identical in their Warhol-esque pop artistry. The back room resembled the front in its imaginative ornamentation; the colors didn’t necessarily match, nor did the patterns, but the atmosphere was strangely soothing… and casually luxurious.

The waiter brought the sekt we had ordered for apertifs, followed shortly by a carpaccio welcome starter, while we weighed our choices for dinner. Both ravished from a long week of work, we went for the four-course arrangement with wine accompaniment. A group of English-speaking patrons howled with laughter in the front room when the waiter left our table; their behavior seemed to be taking on the essence of the environment – enhanced, obviously, by alcoholic beverages from the menu.

The visual appeal of the interior was supposedly matched by the experimentalism of the chefs, of which the first page of the menu boasted. The kitchen employed ‘aroma cuisine’ techniques, described as the use of fragrances and flavors through fresh herbs and ethereal oils that promised to inspire “unique sensations.” With our sekt came bread accompanied by butters, lemon-flavored oil and course sea salt.  The oil indeed stirred an aromatic appreciation of the plain rolls, and the olive bread spoke for itself. This was only the beginning.

My appetizer – salmon trout with radishes, yellow carrot and green peas – was satisfying but uneventful, and just as I was questioning if the cooks could hold up the reputation of the interior designers, I tasted my partners choice: apple and ginger crème brûlée with goose liver and a thyme brioche. It was full-bodied with apple and ginger sugars, buttery and almost dessert-like, though not overly filling. The first adjective that came to my mind was ‘heavenly,’ and I sat stunned for a moment that an appetizer could contain so much character.

We had both ordered the Bärlauchcremesuppe, or wild garlic cream soup, served with mussels on the side. Served too hot to eat at first, it was a solid version of an Austrian favorite, though too heavy for a four-course meal. It seemed aroma cuisine had its limits, as I wondered what sort of fragrances could possibly be implemented in something so standard. Regardless, the soup lacked the frothy lightness I was used to in other reputable enterprises, and was left almost tired from the heaviness.

Scallops and roast suckling pig with celery and pear was my choice of entremets: scallops slightly seared, the pig succulent, the celery and pear obvious complements. The other: marinated veal loin with bärlauch cream and vanilla carrots. I was too enraptured with the surprising simplicity of the combination on my plate that I was too slow for the veal, but managed to sneak a carrot in.  The vanilla was palpable, again intriguing my interest in the aromatic methods going on behind us in the kitchen. Few would automatically think of carrots and vanilla being partners, and the two dishes were pleasing in their simplicity and earthiness.

The main courses: beef prepared in two ways with fig mustard, bärlauch (the clear theme of the evening) trammezzini, and enoki mushrooms. One ‘way’ was a roulade of thinly sliced beef, a plethora of scents emerging from the herbs and oils below each layer. The other ‘way’ was a petite breaded nugget of beef, deep-fried. What would otherwise be considered junk food had somehow made it to my plate, juicy and so lightly breaded that it lacked greasiness.  My companion had John Dory (we, too, never knew this was the translation of Petersfisch) with lemon grass, fava beans, gnocchi and chervil root. At this point, so many flavors were spinning in my head that I was no longer able to pick them out or tell them apart. I depended on my companion’s review of his main dish, as he smiled in approval.

Throughout the meal we had received a selection of white and red wines – a sweet gelber Muskateller, grüner Veltliner, Riesling and cuvée – to my surprise all from Austria vintners, mostly coming from the Salzl winery in Burgenland. The wines were not dominating, which suited the aroma cuisine. At the end I had an Eiswein, a dessert wine made from grapes frozen while still on the vine. It was a soft finish to a flavorful evening.

Finding no other restaurant in Vienna supporting the aroma cuisine model, I arranged a meeting with assistant general manager of The Ring, the abnormally tall Dutchman, Carl-Peter Echtermeijer, who shared my gusto for his inventive chefs. He enthusiastically described the laboratory of At Eight’s kitchen and the experiments that take place there on a daily basis. The aromatic oils numbered around 150, he asserted, and included orange, cinnamon oil, menthol, honey, lavender, tea tree and lemon. He passionately depicted how the restaurant “dressed up for the evening,” another novel concept for Vienna. At 3:00 p.m., the At Eight closes to the public and undergoes a transformation, evolving from a sensible two-toque restaurant by day to the extravagance of the evening. Mr. Echtermeijer found this necessary to please the “funky” guests of the hotel, which stemmed mainly from the creative industries.

Before leaving, I shortly visited the ladies room, and was immediately glad I had done so. Pimped out in pink and black, with black glass stones dangling from the ceiling it looked like a luxurious makeup room at a cabaret, and revealed the unmistakable humor of the designers. I left with a mischievous grin on my face.

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