The Arb’s kitchen conjurer, Angela Clutton, sees the witty side of Vienna, dining at one of the World’s ’50 Best’ and dipping into a chocolate factory to give Wonka the willies…
Here is my favourite fact about Vienna and the one which I have been telling anyone who will listen since getting back from my trip in the early summer: Vienna is one of the very few cities in the world to have vineyards within the city perimeter. Now isn’t that a great thing to know? Before going there I had no idea. Although admittedly I was wrong in pretty much all of my preconceptions about what Vienna would be like.
For starters I was planning to ‘need’ to buy the odd fur hat or two. Turns out the Viennese bake at about 30 degrees in June. I had been expecting the city to have a rather twee, ‘chocolate-box’ feel but instead fell very rapidly for its understated cool. A vibe which is typified nowhere better than at Steirereck restaurant. Set amongst Stadtpark’s stone tributes to bigwigs of the city’s past, Steirereck’s beautifully impressive modern glass structure sits as a statement of intent for the city’s now.
Steirereck was placed at number 15 in this year’s World’s Best Restaurants list. However high that inevitably sets the bar of anticipation Steirereck cleared it with a laidback air that was as distinctive as the food. The waiting staff – in their fetchingly stylish uniforms – have with an ease of manner and sense of humour rarely enjoyed in other restaurants that boast a couple of Michelin stars. They clearly know that their food and wines are going to give you a thrill; they know they are well up to the task of answering any questions you might have about what is being served; and so the whole dining experience is achieved with an air of “hey, let’s all relax and enjoy this, yes?”. And so I did.
It is a reality of modern restauranting to need to highlight the presence of food allergens in dishes. At Steirereck that is taken to a witty extreme by chef Heinz Reitbauer and his selection of 14 sharing dishes which started our dinner and are each a nod to an aspect of food which some people are allergic to. From black walnut with buckwheat beer that would strike fear into those with a nut allergy; to cucumber with horseradish and elderflower that should be avoided by sulphite sufferers. Not that I even knew that was a thing and only do now thanks to the elegant information cards that accompanied these and the subsequent six courses of the tasting menu, giving an insight into the sheer level of imagination and endeavour that has gone into each.
It is true to say that I would have known just from the menu that my veal was braised and roasted and served with fermented white asparagus and elderflower. But I might not have realised with the handy card telling me so that it was veal’s tail that had been braised with elderflower, citron zest, vermouth and spring onions. Nor that the roasting element was the loin of Pogusch veal; the white asparagus had been fermented for two weeks; and that the dish was being served with crunchy elderflower, steamed spring onions, and citron albedo (the white pith – but then you, like me, knew that and certainly didn’t need to google it) marinated with elderflower oil and fermented asparagus juice.
Not reading about such things as the dishes arrived would have been my slightly nerdy food-writing loss, yet – lest any of this make Steireck sound caught up with its own cleverness – it would not have affected how essentially scrummy these dishes were. Steirereck never seems to lose sight that first and foremost its diners need to be having a good time and being clever can never come at the expense of that.
Vienna may not be ‘chocolate-box’ in the ways I had thought it but Austria’s distinguished heritage of chocolate-making was one thing I was confident of being right upon. The city’s plethora of coffee-houses are indeed awash with traditional chocolate treats. More idiosyncratic flavour combinations can be found with the Zotter chocolates that have become a market-leader in Austria. The Zotter ‘factory’ – only an hour or so outside Vienna – is well worth a visit for little kids and big ones.
Those inverted commas are not just affectation on my part. How else to show that whilst this is indeed where the Zotter chocolate is made, it is more of a slightly bonkers but totally immersive visitor attraction than the word factory can ever really conjure up alone. Complete with Josef Zotter wandering round as a beguiling combination of Willy Wonka and the Pied Piper. A hero to the throngs of children who cluster around him for pictures, all rethinking their career aspirations.
Zotter’s is carved into the stunning Styrian countryside and a trip there is great way to breathe in some of what Austria can offer beyond Vienna. An added bonus is that when when you get back to the city you can be surprised all over again by its vineyards and their traditional heurigen wine-taverns selling the vineyards own wines only. I doubt I’ll ever tire of telling people about those.
Steirereck features in the World’s ’50 Best’ restaurants. For more information, including details of their dishes, visit www.steirereck.at.
For more information about Zotter, including the ‘zoo’ and where to buy their products in the UK, visit www.zotter.co.uk.