Dining in the Grand ‘Sky’

Rooftop restaurant Le Ciel offers layers of subtle elegance

The majestic dining room of Le Ciel on Kärtnerstrasse | Photo courtesy of Le Ciel

Elegance is born of craftsmanship, in beauty that seems effortless. At Le Ciel, the culinary complement to the five-star Grand Hotel on Kärnterring, elegance is combined with an expertise that only fine enterprises can afford.

Meaning “the sky” in French, Le Ciel indeed rests high on the seventh floor of the 19th century hotel, above the twinkling Christmas lights that cascade from buildings in the first district this time of year. Having first been built as a maison meublée, it today still reflects the essence of the imperial age.

Arriving through revolving doors of the entrance of the Grand, wreathed by garland and shiny red bows, the sound of a piano from the ground-floor lobby softens the splendor of the luxury lifestyle. Lush shades of red and yellow drape the walls and furniture alongside white columns, rising out of a marble floor with a red checker motif. A broad staircase leads to the second floor under a massive crystal chandelier, a rich red runner and an elaborate steel railing guiding the way. The atmosphere is jovial, women in evening gowns and men in tuxedos frequently make their way, flute glasses in hand, to the ballrooms one floor below.

Stepping out of the elevator on the seventh floor, however, brings one to a different world, as the one of hotelier hospitality gives way to the subdued grace of a French restaurant, recently awarded zwei-Hauben, or two toques, status.

We were seated at the back with a complete view of the dining room, which remained loyal to the imperial décor below. Warm yellow walls, wide columns and plush armchairs with red, yellow and blue floral designs hugged the tables clad in white linen. Crystal chandeliers hung below recessed areas in the ceiling where a soft turquoise blue gleamed from invisible lamps, adding a hint of audacity to the room, which otherwise could have come straight from the Hapsburg’s Schönbrunn.

The affair commenced with a glass of Sekt, soon followed by a courtesy appetizer of pumpkin cream soup and a tiny crisp wrap filled with shrimp. The soup had the consistency of fine frothed milk, topped with a dab of pumpkin seed oil and served in an espresso cup, and possibly the most exquisite version of this Austrian classic I have ever tasted. As we finished the Sekt and sipped our pumpkin espressos, small rolls with salted and goat butter were delivered by one of four waiters that micro-managed our table.

We had both opted for evening menus designed by Chef de Cuisine Jacqueline Pfeiffer who was responsible for the restaurant’s zwei Hauben, awarded by Austria’s chief gourmet guide, Gault Millau. The ‘Menu Le Ciel’ ordered by my companion began with marinated scallops with maple syrup, lime and bell peppers; mine – from the ‘Evening Menu’ – with Vitello Tartufo, Jerusalem artichokes, lamb’s lettuce and chestnuts. We had requested the wine accompaniment for both menus, and the appetizers were served with a 2007 Grüner Veltliner from Heiligenstadt, an incredibly soft complement to the raw scallops and the tender rare veal and truffles.

As with all dining experiences of this nature, the one disappointment is the size of the dishes, definitely the case with each of these appetizers. The scallops were subtly sweet, and the veal went well with chestnuts that were cooked almost to crispness.

But a hawk-eyed waiter soon returned to our table to prepare for the next course: artichoke cream soup from the ‘Le Ciel,’ and a crêpe with red wine cabbage and winter chanterelles from the ‘Evening.’ The soup maintained the light, frothy consistency of its pumpkin counterpart, and the crêpe, filled abundantly with red cabbage in a crème fraîche sauce and dotted by delicate chanterelles, was rich and filling. Both were minimal yet refined, and my initial fear of leaving hungry departed. The wines: a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from southern Styria and a 2007 Smaragd Grüner Veltliner from Austria’s renowned white wine haven, the Wachau – suiting accompaniments to the soft and rather creamy dishes.

The dessert cheese cart | Photos courtesy of Le Ciel

The main courses came as the drinks had made us relax in the dignified ambiance, which bordered on haughty – though this was the fault of the guests rather than the staff.

For the final course of the ‘Evening,’ I received a halibut filet with an orange risotto crème and shallot sauce, served with a 2004 Chardonnay from South Africa. The wine was much bolder than the two Austrian whites from before, and the strong herbs brought out the orange in the sauce, spilling from the filet in two layers of pastel green and orange. The ‘Le Ciel’ was given a grilled tench with pak choy and black pudding sauce, accompanied by a 2005 Riesling from Neusiedlersee. A tench, as we learned, was actually the simple carp found in fresh water lakes throughout Europe – though ‘tench’ does seem the more fitting name for French cuisine. The fish retained the smoky flavor from the grill, balanced by the dark richness of the black pudding. This dish was followed by a second main course for the ‘Le Ciel,’ a partridge with sweet and sour pumpkin, oat flakes blini – a potato pancake – and five-spice sauce, served with a 2001 Domaine Soula from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. As both of us were virgin partridge eaters, we noticed that the taste of the bird fell almost directly in the middle between chicken and duck – and this one held the rich earthiness of the arrangement of hearty pumpkin and oats.

The menus were concluded with French cheeses, as we decided to forgo the baked apple with lingonberry sabayon and marzipan ice cream that came with the ‘Evening’ and a cinnamon crème brûlée with red wine ice cream offered with the ‘Le Ciel.’ What may have been the simplest moment of the dinner turned out to be the most beloved; we had anticipated the cheese since the beginning of the evening, after watching one waiter masterfully serve twenty-odd types of cheeses housed in a mobile wood-paneled cart.

The elegance of the staff’s craftsmanship came to the surface here, as he devised a plate of cheeses to suit our individual tastes. My mild concoction consisted of two types of goat cheese, a garlic pepper version and several others of unspeakable herbs and pleasures. My companion chose the stronger cheeses, hidden in a closed compartment to spare the guests the aroma that would certainly spoil a fine palate. We were to begin our cheese plates “at six o’clock,” and we obediently did, working our way around the clock to finish with the strongest cheese. We had two more glasses of the Domaine Soula, a pungent, warm, but slightly bitter red.

As the policy of Le Ciel is that “no guest leaves without something sweet,” we picked from the round, silver bonbon device brought to our table, which held a number of sweets of various colors and layers. We were surprisingly full, given the generous plates of cheese, now slowly digested by a Gautier cognac distilled in the Charente river area in the Southwest of France.

The staff seemed delighted to allow us to continue drinking; it seems that having your fill of aperitifs, wines and digestivs was part of the program. But that may be characteristic of the French way: numerous courses and as many drinks, drawn out over an entire evening with impeccable service that fails to interfere with the unhurried progression, allowing one to revel in the niceties of the cuisine, hospitality, atmosphere – and of course, your company.

 

Le Ciel
Grand Hotel Wien, 7th Floor
1., Kärntner Ring 9
(01) 515 80 9100
www.leciel.at

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