Sunday, 20 March 2011

A Viennese whirl

I didn't expect turning 30 would be quite so enjoyable. But being surprised by my lovely husband with a trip to a city I've wanted to visit for a very long time was the perfect way to say goodbye to one decade, and hello to the next.

This food fans is a bit of a lengthy post, but you'll be rewarded with a Viennese inspired recipe after this post which I'll put up later today.

Vienna is a fairy tale city, even though the weather wasn't great, the beautiful architecture and sculpture wowed by day and when lit up by night made me tingle. If buildings could talk then Vienna's I'm sure would have many tales to tell.

The sense of creative history really draws you in and is almost overwhelming. Visiting galleries in the museums quarter where we stayed had me wondering about the lives lived by artists I love who'd inhabited the city, it's a special place that can evoke such feelings.

Though it's not all about history. The creative vibe is alive and kicking and can be seen in impeccably designed and eclectic boutiques, bars and restaurants - the Austrians have a real European sense of design, style and glamour.
It's all this that makes Vienna such an enchanting city. Then comes the food.

We tried lots of local dishes and ate close to the hotel in the museums quarter, and ventured further a field to the first district to sample the delights of Riegi - the fine dining restaurant clearly after (and in my opinion deserving of) its first Michelin mention or star, and Steirereck - Vienna's most famous restaurant boasting 2 Michelin stars.

The veal weiner schnitzel at the cosy and theatrical La Boheme was crispy and light, we ate it with herb buttered potatoes and washed it down with beer - a really great meal, and as our first in Vienna it set the tone for the service we received for the whole of our trip - friendly and very welcoming, the Austrians are lovely people.
Gulash we had a few times - once at the cafe at the Leopold Museum (after seeing an exhibition of a favourite artist of mine, Egon Schiele, and then going on to the Museum of Modern Art or MUMOK) a fine dining take at Steirereck and then again at the airport on the way home. Each was delicious, each was different - but I think I've unpicked what makes it authentic so expect an entry soon.
It was Riegi that we ate at on my birthday. They have two different 8 course tasting menus, Mathew had one and I the other so we could share and compare. It was delicious, beautifully presented and with just the right amount of table theatre and playfulness that for me keeps it about the food but makes it entertainment also - like the vial of vanilla oil that was dropped into a rich and salty duck consomme to help give it balance.  

I especially liked how the ingredients in some of the dishes somehow tasted like hyped up versions of themselves. I've no idea how the kitchen did this but Id like to find out.  

The baked turbot that was heavily scented with coriander root and basil and accompanied by an intense and salty bisque was outstanding, as was a thin sliver of salmon and cauliflower strudel - which reads like it wouldn't be that appetising but it honestly blew me away. This is why I chose to make a version of it as my Vienna tribute dish which I'll list after this post.
Steirereck we went to after a visit to the Hundertwasser museaum Kunst Haus Wien - Hundertwasser is an artist I've liked for a long time. His work has a really organic quality to it but at the same time his palate is more vivid than that of nature. Seeing his works in the flesh made me realise he wasn't just an artist, his later works had a real sense of graphic design too.
As well as creating art he designed buildings all over the world and had a sound philosophy on urban planning that I'm sure we could learn from today. I don't know what the professional view is but it seems to me like he is to Austria what Gaudi is to Spain.

Anyway, after tottering around on the wonky floors of the Kunst Haus we meandered through the foggy day into the Stadt Park on our way to lunch.

Steirereck is in a fantastic modernist building overlooking the river and the park, it's a quirky building that's different from all sides and I couldn't wait to get inside to see the interior. We went in on the ground floor and walked into a large, contemporary white gloss bar area with big glass counters and walls housing vast cheese collections - very trendy.
Then we were taken upstairs to the more formal dining room, a glamorous and paired back interior with starched linen, copies of Relais & Chateaux on every table, antique silverware to eat with, and a sculptural ceiling of real beauty. The service was as silver as I've ever had - and even Mr Toad (the bag I'd bought myself for my birthday) got a stool to sit on rather than be placed at my side on the floor. Oh my.
We chose 5 dishes each from the menu and lunch became a 2.5 hour affair resulting in no dinner being eaten that evening due to this gluttony. 

Once our orders had been taken little cards detailing the ingredients arrived at the table ahead of the dish and were placed in front of us, I rather liked reading the ingredients and seeing if I could pick them out on my tongue. Here's how one read:

Lamb with Jerusalem Artichoke:
- Lamb loin roasted on the bone with cooked and raw Jerusalem artichoke
- Rosa Bianca aubergine steamed in pandan leaf
- Sauteed and raw marinated horse mushrooms with mushroom herb
- Dried elderberry compote
- Aubergine and mushroom broth infused with dill
- Pandan oil

As you might expect I pocketed the cards for my memento box.

The dishes were exquisite and their presentation like pieces of art (which makes me smile when I see them, but sad to have to eat them). Even the butter got the starred treatment - noodles of it with pea shoots and petals, it's the little touches.
My shredded veal dish with chive dumpling was delicious and the most refined of comfort foods to ever pass my lips. A pike dish with nashi pear, black pudding and wasabi was elegant and complex, and another pike dish, this one confited in cardamom stock and served with braised beetroot sheets was as delicate and tasty on the tongue as it was on the eye.

The cheese selection was quite overwhelming, here's when knowledgeable and trained waiting staff come into their own - our chap advised us which to go for based on what we each liked, and we weren't disappointed. 
The meal ended with some schnapps (well, when in Rome...) and a little silver platter of handmade chocolate discs that were then added to in front of us from a striking trolly housing hundreds of slivers of different dried citrus fruits. They were an installation in themselves and tasted delicious. And being introduced for the first time to the 'buddahs hand lemon' was a nice touch (so to speak) even though he is an ugly bugger.
In four days we didn't get to see half the things we'd have liked to, and have already started planning our return visit. Vienna also now becomes one of the cities to make it onto our

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