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Food & Drinks

The amazing cuisine of Austria: three of the best fine-dining restaurants in Vienna

Austria is known for a mix of cultures and culinary styles, its incredible produce and its highly trained chefs. We visit three of the best restaurants in Vienna – classic, contemporary and vegetarian – and are blown away by the experience

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 7:00pm

Austria probably isn’t the first country that springs to mind when one thinks about European culinary destinations, but a recent visit proved why a combination of exceptional local produce and exacting standards make Vienna a compelling spot for travelling gastronomes.

Somewhat surprisingly, the federal capital is the EU’s sixth largest capital city with a metropolitan population of 2.6 million, about a quarter of the country’s total. The quality of life is such that Vienna continues to win awards as the world’s most liveable city, based on criteria including the political, social and economic climate, education, infrastructure – but also its restaurants.

Vienna’s multicultural mix also means that there’s a vast range of cuisines to choose from, but for this exploration the focus was firmly on Austrian restaurants. Viennese cuisine is a beguiling combination of culinary traditions from across the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Well-known Austrian food critic Florian Holzer explains. “It’s a touch of the Alps, a healthy portion of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Northern Italy, a dash of Croatia and Galicia, a bit of Yiddish, a little Bavarian, all rounded off with inspiration from Styria and Slovenia.”

If that risks sounding and tasting confusing, it works. The city’s most famous dish is of course Wiener schnitzel, the breaded escalope of veal. At the city’s elegant Hotel Imperial, 61-year-old executive chef Rupert Schnait has been serving the definitive version for decades.

Schnait oversees official dinners and receptions for the Austrian president, making him a member of the exclusive Club des Chefs des Chefs, founded by the late Paul Bocuse to recognise those who cook for heads of state or monarchs.

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One of the secrets to his schnitzel – at least the one that he’s prepared to share – is that it’s fried in lard, but despite that, it’s remarkably light, the airy golden-brown coating seeming to levitate over the thin veal. But suggesting a perfect schnitzel is his finest work doesn’t begin to do him justice; the hotel’s fine dining restaurant Opus offers a breathtaking tasting menu.

In such a music-driven city, which was home to Mozart, Strauss, Vivaldi and scores more, the Latin word for creation is also the ideal name for a restaurant where flavours and textures combine in perfect harmony.

A jazz pianist tinkled away softly all night in the corner of the elegant and expensively plush dining room, a compact space which gave a feeling of intimacy for the mix of local and international diners.

The most innovative use of butter I’ve ever experienced kicked off the seven-course menu, which cost 124 euros (US$150). It was moulded into a candle, placed in an elegant brass candlestick holder, the base of which contained fresh chopped herbs and salt. Once lit, it slowly burnt down, the glorious oily “wax” falling into the mix below, the perfect accompaniment to two excellent house-made breads.

Stand-outs included a fillet of veal with parsnips, beans and onion. Made with local ingredients, as with almost every dish on the menu, it was one of the best renditions I can recall. Perfectly pink, it came with creamy calves’ sweetbreads, charred onion, a spear of sweet local parsnip and an incredible jus, as dark and brooding as the winter night outside.

The other highlight from an exceptional meal was dessert, a creation which sounded odd but tasted wonderful.

Single-origin Valrhona chocolate, Nyangbo 68 per cent from Ghana was presented in multiple ways including in a mousse with the North African spice mix ras el hanout, and with ground cherries and a vanilla and rooibos tea ice cream. The beautiful presentation involved lacy tuiles and what looked like autumn leaves, again crafted from cacao.

Overall, dinner clearly showed the obvious care, passion and execution under Schnait’s team in the kitchen, as well as a clear appreciation for the country’s first class produce.

Local produce was very much to the fore again in another remarkable meal, namely lunch at Steirereck. This is arguably Austria’s most famous gastronomic destination, with two Michelin stars to its name and 10th place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

The chef behind it, Heinz Reitbauer, is a bona fide Austrian celebrity, thanks to his brilliant take on the country’s dishes or, as he calls it, neo-Austrian cuisine. Every dish has roots in the traditional Austrian landscape, but all are delivered in a contemporary and cutting-edge fashion as befits the setting.

The restaurant sits smack in the heart of Vienna’s municipal park, Stadtpark, in an ultra-modern glass cube that seems incongruous yet also somehow blends in. “Steirer eck”, or “Styrian corner”, refers to the region of Styria just 150km from Vienna that provides much of the restaurant’s produce and inspiration. The family retain a farm there, which Reitbauer visits at least every other weekend.

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As he explains, despite its comparatively compact size, Austria features a vast array of culinary impressions – and produce. “There are very different cuisines in different regions with influences from the former empires. When I took over in the kitchen, we had a menu with seawater fish. We changed it and now we have eight to 10 freshwater fish from different Austrian lakes. This is really a big difference. Fine dining was always with lobster and turbot – but it doesn’t need to be. In some regions of Austria, 50 per cent of farms are organic.”

From the first note until the last, lunch delivered hit after hit. In a novel move, and a huge boon to food writers and diners alike, Reitbauer’s team give every diner a small card with details of every single dish they serve.

“We were always disturbing our guests with explanations, so I wanted to change this. Cards have basic information on the dish and interesting information on the produce. We started at #101 and now we’re at #1,050. Most people take them home with them – meaning they can really remember and talk about the meal as well.”

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It’s a simple but inspired move, one that other restaurants would do very well to emulate.

Two dishes were especially impressive in both innovation and presentation.

Char with beeswax, yellow carrot, pollen and sour cream saw the local fish “cooked” in hot beeswax at the table before being served next to char caviar with a pollen made from yellow carrot and quince vinegar, a sour cream with cayenne pepper and lime, jellied yellow carrot and apple juice infused with more beeswax.

Phew. But wow, what a plate. The accompanying card even revealed how one bee would need to fly half a million miles to produce 1kg of wax.

The nasturtium sorbet was another masterclass in technique and creativity. The dish was so multilayered that to do it justice would take a page, but the sorbet made from the blossom was ethereal, a cake made with tigernuts was both “warm and crispy” as advertised, while iced and dried gooseberries and elderflower meringue all bought much to the textural party.

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Despite its hugely impressive global reputation and elegant modern dining rooms, there was no sense of fine dining fear at Steirereck. It was relaxed, with laughter echoing and guests greeted like old friends. That’s because, in many cases, they are, as Reitbauer explained.

“We’ve been fully booked every night for 13 years. 60 per cent of our customers are regulars, so we have a big menu. We even have guests who come every single day. This is what a restaurant should be, a family place, like a member of a family.”

Finally, to another lunch, this time in the vegetarian restaurant Tian, one winning rave reviews and a Michelin star for its cuisine. Tian’s name was chosen partly in homage to the classic medley of layered vegetables – but also it sounds like the Mandarin for “sky”.

While the city centre spot lacks the same levels of style of the former two dining rooms, it’s not without its charm. Chef de cuisine Paul Ivicćoversees yet another Vienna menu of exemplary cooking, once again paired with warm service from a young and passionate team.

The gourmet lunch menu of six courses costs 118 and every plate brings surprises and twists. After a brilliant bread selection complete with test tubes of oil and salt, and whipped butter, the next dish was Brussels sprouts with black radish and juniper. The plate belonged on a gallery wall, a riot of greens and purples dotted with flavours that were always in harmony, never overpowered.

Likewise, the parsley root with wild einkorn wheat and black cumin. Although some ingredients were unfamiliar , they melded beautifully, a twisting explosion of textures and branches and colour, all infused with heady scents. It was an outstanding dish.

The final hurrah was a vegan chocolate cake that could have converted this committed carnivore. Served with an apple, carrot and ginger sorbet, along with marinated hibiscus and an apricot and carrot cream, it was a dish to take the breath away. Much, in fact, like Vienna’s hugely-surprising restaurant scene.

Restaurant Opus

Hotel Imperial, Kärntner Ring 16, 1015 Vienna, +43 1 50110389,restaurant-opus.at/en

Steirereck

Am Heuemarkt 2A/im Stadtpark, A-1030 Vienna, tel: +43 1 713 31 68,

steirereck.at/restaurant

Tian

Himmelpfortgasse 23, 1010 Vienna, tel: +43 1 890 4665, tian-restaurant.com/wien/en