Impeccable 2 Michelin Star Experience with truly personal service.
Chef: Heinz Reitbauer
Michelin Stars: 2
‘My List’: Joint second (with Gaggan)
In a weird way, I’ve been putting off writing this because it had such an impact on me that I really struggled to place it on my list (of best Michelin starred restaurants I’ve eaten in), knowing that it ranked at the very top end but struggling to decide where is should sit and why.
I will cover Vienna itself separately, this is dedicated purely to that one magical glass box in the middle of the park and what can only be described as sophisticated indulgence.
Stadtpark Vienna is a vast, tranquil park littered with monuments to some of the best known Viennese icons and well worth an afternoon wander down the River Wien. Arriving at dusk, the eye is drawn to the sleek metal and glass construction which strangely manages to blend into the surroundings as the muted interior lighting highlights the exterior greenery against long reflective panels. With separate dining areas it offers a cosy, comforting environment that cleverly disguises its size and adds to its exclusive, fine dining feel. Small details like grayscale tiled floors offer a modern contrast against the aged woods and traditional appeal of the wine display. Muted colours follow into the dining area where the floor to ceiling windows offer an exceptional view out over the park and a changing mood as the evening progresses.
Whilst several dining options are on offer, the tasting menu is the only way to fully experience Steirereck for the first time and truly absorb its relaxed yet refined ethos. Whilst heavily favouring local produce, some of which is home-grown, the menu is reflective of both Viennese cuisine and the international nature of the city. Most importantly, the tasting menu is not prescriptive as there are two options to choose from for each course for which I was overjoyed. It allows you to concentrate on the flavours you enjoy, or those you wish to experiment with and equally means its easier for me to say “no mushrooms please” without feeling exceptionally awkward.
It would be easy to write in-depth about each course, but I will attempt to show some restraint and focus on the standout items or features. As someone interested in food, the origin of the ingredients I am about to eat and the concept behind a dish it is incredibly exciting to be furnished with these details on a small card presented with dish and including interesting facts or information about you are about to consume. In a theme that stretched across dinner it encouraged discussion at the table about what we were eating, what information had been given to us but also acted as a pleasing memento to take home and reflect upon.
A relaxed pace and attentive but not intrusive service meant we had sufficient time to watch the sun go down and sample the expansive wine list (obviously choosing Austrian wines only although this is the usual choice for us when it comes to white wine) with beautiful attention to detail and plates that were so precise yet without any pretension to them, each dish a celebration of herbs and vegetables whilst still honouring the star ingredient that initially draws the eye on the menu.
Having each selected our preferred 7 dishes, we began our Viennese experience with Tomatoes. I recalled a similar dish elsewhere (Eleven Madison Park to be precise) that I thoroughly enjoyed so had some apprehension as to how good this could be given the fondness I had for it at the time; but as would be a theme for the entire evening, my senses were ignited almost instantaneously. Ceremoniously perched upon a bed of wild fruits and hazelnuts lay a butter soft slice of expertly seasoned tomato, which was then bathed in its own rich, concentrated juices at the table. It was surrounded by glistening marbles of fruit more tomato and dressed with pineapple sage. The ripple of colour surrounding the hero of the dish added piquancy and depth, elevating what is typically a ‘base’ ingredient to a jewel to be cherished.
Following the strong start we split with our selection with Jordan opting for the Young Celeriac served with peas and Verbena – a beautifully balanced plate that heroed the amazingly tender root. I opted for Artichoke and Melon served with a sliver of salty ham and lovage. Both dishes are reminiscent of a garden that allowed the palate to reset after a naturally sweeter beginning. Moving into the carnivorous courses I went against my natural instinct to choose crayfish and opted instead for the amur carp given there could be no better place to try something new. Thankfully, Jordan went for crayfish so I still got to taste it regardless. Plump, radiant tails nestled in a base of aubergine whilst tiny, teardrop shaped peppers popped against the stark white plate and vibrant green citrus leaves.
Embarrassingly, I am one of those people whose plate is often cleared away with a silver of fish skin stuffed into a corner or hidden under some excess greenery, it’s just not that often that the skin is crisp enough for me to eat it and served any other way always makes me a little queasy and requires immediate removal. In this instance, the skin of the carp snapped like a shard of caramel – it was unbelievably crisp and I was delighted at the noise it made. Whilst having never tried carp before to be able to make a comparison, it was soft yet meaty – flaking at the slightest pressure of the fork, even with the addition of dill (which I normally find unpleasant) was a welcome addition to the stack of lettuce and salsify that accompanied the freshwater fare.
Before I move forward. I need to talk about bread.
Bread is one of those things I pick at during a dinner but often just a means to pass time before the main event arrives. At home, it is rarely seen in our kitchen and is generally more of a treat than a staple for us. Whilst most venues offer a couple of exciting butters and a handful provide a basket with a wider selection to choose from its usually a similar offering wherever you go. Steirereck takes the idea of ‘bread with dinner’ and makes it into a course of its own. As a large trolley is wheeled to our table it quickly becomes apparent that it is laden with bread, groaning under the weight of its floury burden presented in all shapes, sizes and colours. As our server talks through the vast array of options I lose the ability to concentrate and stare intently at the 20+ different varieties on offer. Vaguely aware that I don’t want to eat too much and ‘spoil my dinner’ making a choice is difficult as we politely ask how much we are permitted to pile upon our plates, staring wide eyed at the generous offering. The still warm loaves are sumptuously soft with a crust that would make Paul Hollywood jealous. The variety of flavours offered was incredible, spicy chorizo, pork crackling, rye with honey and lavender and every shape of baguette and loaf imaginable. Without question, the house special was the showstopper and was a light, white loaf studded with chunks of black pudding -whilst not something I would pick elsewhere it turned out to be an excellent choice and I still find myself daydreaming about it now
If asked about our trip to Vienna, I’m likely to start with a story about the bread…
Aware that I don’t want to eat too much and ‘spoil my dinner’ making a choice is difficult as we politely ask how much we are permitted to pile upon our plates and move on, whilst making a mental note of what else we would like to try should the opportunity arise. A forerib of veal was enjoyed by both with the porchini mushrooms thankfully omitted from my serving.
Venison served three ways came decorated with perilla leaves with its rich, unctuous jus balanced by a vibrant bowl of broccoli and grains. A fine slice of liver was just enough to add contrast to the succulent pink meat. On the other dish Fern like fronds of the courgette flower concealed green tomatoes. The soft, marbled layers of gamey, mineral rich lamb sat aside crispy skin glazed with a smattering of its own juices. For a restaurant that clearly celebrates the vast possibilities offered by vegetables there is no doubting that they approach to cooking meat is just as precise as every other presentation. Both dishes provoked many noises expressing our satisfaction quickly followed by silence as we rapidly cleared our plates with joy.
Good planning on our part meant that as the bread trolley reappeared we restocked (Sadly they had sold out of the house speciality) our plate in anticipation of the other rolling extravagance of the evening – the cheese course, which if my translation is correct is sourced from their own dairy. (This would not be surprising, Steirereck produces much of its own produce and the premises include a roof garden) Presented with ceremony the giant cart revealed a delightful dairy bounty -especially exciting for cheese lovers such as ourselves. Our server talked us through the many options as we both selected four different cheeses allowing us again to swap halfway through and try more. In traditional fashion we started with soft, light cheeses to hard strong tastes before finishing of bold blues. Served simply and including sheep, cow and goats cheeses we were in our happy place, with a glass of red, the amazing bread, some condiments and subtle lighting it was the perfect break in which to reflect on the meal so far.
As our selected choices came to a close I opted for a surprisingly generous serving of figs and raspberries whilst Jordan took the peaches with redcurrant and almond. Light, refreshing with chilled elements on both plates it was the prefect successor to our prior cheese indulgence. However, as our plates were cleared a large box was wheeled to the table which we had not spotted in the dining room up until this point, it opened out to reveal itself as an homage to honey. Tiny spoons scrapped against four different frames suspended within the box offering different types of honey- wax still intact. The lid of the box transformed into a preparation station as we were each presented with a final sweet feast. A small wax lined tray held cannoli style pastries accompanied with a pot of bee pollen whilst the larger frame was dressed with biscuits, nougat and jellies with even the bowl was made from wax. If choosing from the a la carte menu, there is an option to have fresh char cooked in beeswax at the table which proffers to be not only a spectacular sight but also an incredibly good way to prepare fish without losing its moisture.
Finishing on a high, the honey platter confirmed what we had come to learn through the evening, the menu is playful yet serious. Produce is of utmost importance and everything has its place with even the menu descriptions highlighting the importance of flowers, herbs and vegetables to the concept of the menu. On occasion, the menu seems kitsch with ham and melon or stacks of vegetables being served yet this feels deliberate, as if nodding to the way in which the way we enjoy food has changed so much over the years yet equally everything is modern, refined and balanced. Plates are sculpted, like miniature zen gardens, the cards accompanying each course at the table allow you to immerse yourself in the food that is on offer without the distraction of trying to identify an unusual leaf or grain but without feeling like you are being given a culinary exam- rather an insight into a natural approach to eating.
As an additional treat, Jordan asked if we could have a signed copy of the menu as a souvenir for my birthday, only to be told that Heinz was available to say hello if we desired. The staff informed us that he was not in the kitchen that evening but not to worry, they would give him a call as he lived upstairs! As we perused the racks of wine and preserves on display and contemplated buying some of the honey on sale in the lobby (too big for hand luggage sadly) he greeted us and we chatted about our dinner and our time in Vienna so far. After what had already been an exceptional evening the additional hospitality and time to chat about our experience just made it that bit more memorable.
Writing this has been hard, resisting the temptation to examine each plate in minute detail, to talk about how much I enjoyed the tiles on the floor or the flowers on display is difficult. It’s fair to say, this was one of those experiences that can only be lived not described
We have already talked about going again, where else will we get to eat fish cooked in beeswax…
Am Heumarkt 2A, 1030 Wien, Austria