According to the infallible folks at San Pellegrino, Alinea is the #7 restaurant in the world. In that ranking, Eleven Madison Park is #10 and #11 is Steirereck in Vienna (up eleven spots in one year and one spot ahead of Joel Robuchon’s flagship in Paris!). Since we happened to be in Vienna a few months ago and were at Eleven Madison Park a few months before that, we thought it would be interesting to take time out from the “downmarket” places we ate most nights to try this place. And so we did, taking care to make reservations some weeks in advance.
(By the way, I took many pictures and rather than try to include them all here, I urge those who are interested to visit my page at flickr: “Gypsy Boy2” starting on page 3.)
We walked from our hotel into the Stadtpark, a large, lovely park on the eastern edge of the Innere Stadt, the historic inner city. Sadly, by late October, even an early reservation can’t be early enough to enjoy a little light and so any views of the park were lost. We arrived slightly early and were greeted in English by a staff that is clearly accustomed to non-German speakers. The only surprise in that regard was the enormous variation in English ability of the servers who attended us throughout the evening. Some were almost completely fluent while others struggled to get through a sentence. Given the number of foreigners who must come through and clearly did the night we were there (something I’ll explain in a moment), we were surprised. It certainly didn’t affect the dinner or the service in any significant way, but we found it interesting.
The room is fairly large, modern-ish, well-appointed, and—blessedly—the tables are widely spaced. I’m getting so used to being shoehorned in that this was a happy reminder of how pleasurable it is to have that space. Service tended toward the formal and, whether it is a function of the language issue or not (I don’t think so), Steirereck has a practice I’ve never seen elsewhere that we both loved. As the silver is brought for the next course, a small card (about 2½ by 3½ inches) is set before you explaining, in great detail, precisely what is coming. This is so logical, so brilliant, that we were truly captivated by it. No wondering what it was that the server mumbled or forgot to mention. The card is left in front of you throughout the course and, at least for us, it told us everything we wanted to know. Absolutely loved it! (You’ll note that ours were in English; we take that as a measure of the number of foreigners who visit Steirereck that they find it worthwhile to have the cards printed in English.)
You can choose from an a la carte menu or a tasting menu. We both chose the latter, which offers a maximum of seven courses. You are free to choose either six courses (€118) or seven courses (€128). (Wine pairings are €69 and €79, respectively.) Each course offers two selections from which you choose. The entire tasting menu and choices can be found on the restaurant’s website here. (I should note that our tasting menu had a different pairing from what is currently shown (crosne and pheasant). We both chose the free-range pork and neither of us can remember the other selection.)
At this point, our memories have become a little hazy, so I omit course-by-course descriptions for the most part (Though I will list all of the courses, line by line.) I will also note that the bread service was extraordinary. It helped that the young man with the bread cart spoke nearly fluent English and—perhaps for that reason—was among the warmest and most outgoing of those we dealt with. He knew his breads in great detail, was not shy answering questions or making recommendations, and was just a real pleasure to talk with. The breads, it should be noted, were uniformly excellent. This may be the single best bread service we’ve ever had.
Lightly fermented grape juice gelee
Cape Gooseberry amuse
Veal tongue amuse
Salsify with Nashi Pear, Goat’s Milk and Chia [seeds]
I absolutely loved puntarelle in Rome and in my post on our visit there a few years ago, I said this: “According to the wonderful Prodotti tipici d’Italia (a small softcover encyclopedia of Italian foods that I purchased while there), puntarelle is a variety of chicory specific to Lazio, Rome’s province. As the picture shows, puntarelle has serrated leaves, like dandelions, and long white/green ribs that are hollow. The ribs and leaves are served raw, as a salad dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette. The puntarelle itself is mildly peppery with, perhaps, a bit of sweetness. It reminded me a bit of chicory or even endive. The shoots are wonderfully crisp and what intrigued me was the preparation. The ribs are sliced extremely thinly and then soaked in ice water for hours. This treatment causes a remarkable transformation: the strips curl up tightly, become juicier, and lose some of their bitterness. (David Downie, in Cooking the Roman Way, devotes a two-page spread to a discussion of puntarelle.)”
This is a completely different presentation. We thought it not only attractive but a lovely interlude. It has some crunch (though less than we expected, given how it’s served in Rome) and it was nice break.
Puntarelle with Jerusalem Artichoke, Litchi Tomatoes and Chanterelles
Pike-Perch with Radicchio Tardivo, Fava Beans and Kumquats
Free-range pork with Elderberry, Fennel and Cox Apple
Venison with Spiced Lingonberries, Quince, Chervil root and Pistachios
Just a quick note to say that my venison was just about perfect: perfectly cooked, perfectly spiced (I chose that instead of “seasoned” because it seems more accurate), and a real pleasure to eat. Best of all, although the picture may not make it clear, the portion was generous given the number of courses and I was grateful for the chance to linger over it.
Mallard duck with Barley, Nasturtium root, Romaine Lettuce and Tomatillo
I got only a poor shot of the cheese cart in part because the young man serving the cheese was emphatic (to the point of rudeness) about not being in the picture. Nevertheless, the selection was remarkably broad and, as with the bread guy, he clearly knew his stuff. He explained how a cheese selection “should” be made and was careful to describe virtually everything on offer. As we progressed through the selection, which took not a little time, he was also not shy about recommending specific cheeses, asking about personal preferences and taking into account previous choices.
Plum and gem marigold Curd Cheese and Roseval [potato] ice cream
Yup. Potato ice-cream. Well. On the plus (?) side, it tasted exactly like potatoes. On the minus side, it tasted exactly like potatoes. The rest of the dish was wonderful but neither of us quite understood or liked the ice cream. Oh well.
Dessert “Jewelry display case”
Stunning. Indeed, so much so that when we first saw the cart at another table, we couldn’t understand what a jewelry cart was going in a restaurant. At the right distance, the illusion is complete and quite extraordinary.
A lovely presentation; a pity the espresso wasn’t quite up to the beauty of the tray.
As I noted at the top, the folks at San Pellegrino rate Steirereck one place behind Eleven Madison Park. Having just eaten there recently we don’t get it. We certainly had our quibbles with various things at Eleven Madison Park. And there were a lot of things we loved at Steirereck. But at the end of the evening, we wouldn’t struggle for long if we had a chance to return to only one of them. Perhaps it was a slight language barrier but we’ve eaten overseas far too much to think that this was the case. Something about the meal, taken a whole, just struck us as less than what we expected/hoped. Excellent food, yes. Beautifully presented, yes. Excellent service, yes. Beautiful room, yes. Maybe it was the (lack of) warmth of the staff (certain notable exceptions notwithstanding). Maybe it was the weather. But wonderful as the dinner was, we just didn’t enjoy it a whole lot. Maybe it was simply that, despite the excellent-ness of the food, it just didn’t strike us as inventive or creative or surprising in any positive way.
The venison which I singled out as superb was just that, superb. But not something that plenty of other places couldn’t have done just as well. Nothing exotic or fresh or inventive about the pairings or the technique or the presentation. And the venison was, for me, easily the best course. The pork and the pike-perch weren’t quite as good and neither was exceptional in any way. The dessert with the potato ice cream: maybe that’s it. Inventive, but not in a positive way. Neither one of us “got it” or even enjoyed it. The ice cream was very well done in that it was technically excellent ice cream and it tasted very much of potato. But why? How does potato ice cream “work” with plum and marigold? To us, it just didn’t. These are only examples, of course. Any great meal—regardless of price—is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the food, the service, the atmosphere, the people, and other imponderables. At Steirereck, it’s hard to fault the food or, for the most part, the service. Maybe it was the imponderables. But as good as the meal was, it just didn’t wow us the way, say, it did at Rudi’s.
Bummer. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Steirereck last year and it more than beat my expectations. On that same trip last year I went to Noma a few days later and while the experiences were very different, I thought the execution and cooking easily stood up to Noma. I probably had the best duck and venison that I've ever had there. And it was by far my favorite cheese course anywhere (the blue cheese washed in sweet white wine from Kracher was insanely good). The breads were some of the best I've had too.