Dining on the Wienfluss

Steirereck is an indulgence, from amuse-bouche to sweet ­chicory hearts: an inspired culinary adventure in seven courses

‘Vienna’s Best Restaurant’

Often called ‘Vienna’s Best Restaurant’, Steirereck reigns over the Stadtpark | Photo: Steirereck

For a restaurant, being number 11 in the world must be tough. For starters, you’re not in the top 10 club, and people are obsessed with top 10s. Top 10 songs, top 10 travel destinations, top 10 funny cat videos. Nobody cares about the 11th of anything. Except, perhaps, restaurants. Particularly when it’s an 11-place promotion from the year before.

But just making the list (and I’m talking about the Restaurant Magazine and S. Pellegrino ones) generates a fair amount of pressure in an era where every second person has a food blog, posts photos of their dinner on Facebook or describes themselves as a “foodie” with the sort of fervour typically reserved for declarations of patriotism or faith. These days, chefs have to work hard to impress the gastronomes.

The team at Steirereck knows this. And they know that, although you might have eaten very fine prosciutto at some point in your life, and possibly even dried watermelon, you won’t have eaten them together, and certainly not from a doll-sized washing line.

This is how we begin our meal – by pinching off the tiny wooden pegs and consuming the tongue-like strips in as dignified a manner as possible. Which is to say, not very.

Fortunately I’d washed my hands, having sought to scrub off the lingering sensation of U-Bahn. The washstand was a cross between something you’d find in a school playground and on an Alice in Wonderland film set. Indeed, you feel a bit like Alice as you reach into an orange flower bigger than your head to get a squish of soap. You re-emerge into the grown-up world of the dining room feeling like you’ve just had an amusing little adventure.

An adventure of a more respectable but no less surprising nature unfolds on the menu. We take our time deciding what to have from the degustation menu – two choices at each course and the possibility of six or seven (€118 and €128 respectively) necessitates many decisions. So by the time a young man with fashionably huge glasses takes our orders and our plates arrive, we contentedly make our way through three rounds of amuse-bouche while warming our red velvet wingbacks for an hour.

The best end of lamb from Steirereck’s Pogusch farm comes in moist, pink morsels, with saffron and sumac hinting at the flavours of the Middle East.

When the first dish comes (morels with peas, nettles, hazelnuts and lingon berries), small cards are propped in front of us explaining exactly what we’re eating, plus a short treatise on the featured mushroom. One of us asks for a beer and is somewhat miffed that he’s not offered a choice from the menu but is instead brought an underwhelming lager.

But when the bread man comes with his trolley of 16 loaves from 6 bakers (the 7th is on holiday), it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder. And our bread man knows his stuff. He even hangs out with the bakers during his holidays.

The best end of lamb from Pogusch (an inn and farm in Styria that’s part of the same culinary empire) comes in moist, pink morsels, with saffron and sumac hinting at the flavours of the Middle East. It’s rich without being heavy and the medlar lends a welcome combination of sweetness and acidity (just what medlar tastes like, I don’t know – but this one is pleasantly like the peach juice it’s preserved in).

A credit card-sized piece of fried Reinanke  (freshwater fish) could have a crisper skin for my liking, but with red onion-sprinkled Jerusalem artichoke, it is a revelation. And while the venison with purple carrots and white asparagus has all the elements of a forest, and the cherry slivers with treacle sorbet are striking, the fish dish is the celebrity of the night’s line-up.

After a second dessert of wild strawberries and unexpectedly sweet chicory hearts with meringue-studded yogurt ice cream, the bread man returns. Except he’s now the tea man, and he’s hauling a trolley crammed with the contents of a small nursery. There are tufts and tentacles of a dozen different herbs and he explains their characteristics with the fondness of a father. He says they’re grown at the restaurant or at Schönbrunn or, if they fail to thrive, he nurtures them at home. He takes the edge off our herbal brews with snips of stevia, a plant with incredibly sweet leaves. At €12, my orange mint concoction is the most expensive pot of tea I’ve ever had – but also the most entertaining. Which is what the whole evening’s about, really.

Having dined at more than a few of the top 50, it’s hard to say what separates 10 from 11, or 11 from 20. But thanks to the bread man and some deft moves from the kitchen, this one is memorable.

And that’s more than can be said about most funny cat videos.

 

Restaurant Steirereck
Mon.–Fri., 11:30–14:30 and after 18:30
3., Am Heumarkt 2A / in the Stadtpark
(01) 713 31 68
steirereck.at

For more on the surrounding area, see “Franziskanerviertel – Little City Downtown” in the TVR Grätzl series.

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