Saturday, 15 March 2014

Steirereck, Vienna

In order to keep my greedy and rather fussy tummy happy I have to have a day job. A day job which involves a reasonable amount of travel. Business travel is a funny old thing; I'm not silly enough to try, as many do, to claim that its all a big drag and terribly tiresome as it can be lots of fun but there are times when it is genuinely a bit of a pain. Travelling from airport to hotel in the dark then straight to an office to cram in as much work as possible before eating whatever late night food room service can offer (usually a dubious quality margherita pizza). That isn't fun by anyone's standards. Occasionally though there are a few golden hours that can be snatched and I've learnt that you need to make the most of them.

A small window of opportunity arose during a business trip to Vienna. If its all you're going to see of a city then why not aim for the best you can? A quick Google search found Steirereck  serendipitously located a five minute walk from my conference hotel alongside the river in the middle of the city's Stadtpark and currently listed in 9th place on the San Pellegrino list of the top restaurants in the world. Despite its 2 Michelin star ranking, naysayers on the internet have mentioned that they do not believe service to be of standard but that absolutely wasn't my experience. 

Each large round table has its own console table where cutlery for forthcoming courses is stored along with nifty little cards giving immense detail in English of the components of each course. Extra bonus points for the presence of my favourite totally frivolous addition; a handbag table (stupid I know but I love them)

My fellow diners on a midweek lunchtime were made up from an even split of locals, business lunches and tourists and the atmosphere was light and airy and not overly stiff. The ceiling is covered in beautiful ceramic flowers and leaves making it quite feminine but very very classy. It is a family owned restaurant, chef Heinz Reitbauer stays behind the hobs whilst wife Brigit runs front of house and circulates chatting to everyone.

Most restaurants make do with a bread tray but the in house bakery offering from Steirereck is so extensive that it requires a trolley. Over 12 different options were presented, in many cases still in whole loaves for fresh carving at the table. I tried three types in total including a honey and lavender loaf, a fennel and coriander Urleib and a bacon bread the latter fit to rival that of Pied a Terre which remains fixed in my mind some 5 years on. In essence; the bread is immense. 

Butter was presented in stripes on a slate as though it had been scraped on using one of those plastic tools that tilers use to apply grout behind bathroom tiles. Lemon salt ridges added another dimension to the home made butter.  A translucent sliver of cured Austrian ham was served as a canape pegged onto an odd but innovative food "washing line" (look out for that line again later at petit four time...).

A Prager Gruner Veltiner was typically crisp and light with sharp green apples and faint tropicals on the palate. I had intended sticking to just two glasses of wine it being lunch on a work day with a meeting to head off to later in the afternoon but the sommelier had other ideas. Once we go chatting it was clear I needed a much broader introduction to Austrian wine whilst on their home turf and I suspect by the time I left the other diners viewed me as some level of functioning alcoholic from the number of glasses on my table. 

The Cuvee Impresario from Weingut Paul Kerschbaum felt like quite a Bordeaux style of red from the velvety, vibrant, cassis and almost cocoa and tobacco nose so I was very surprised to find out there was only 20% Merlot, the rest being made up of Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch.  Another mystery wine turned out to be a 100%  Blaufrankisch; full of pink peppercorns was light on intensity but high on cranberry fruit.

A plate of cured wild boar's head was spiced with cloves, cinnamon and pepper but completely avoided being too "Christmas spice" as it was balanced off against a sweet pineapple mustard with a kick blobbed amongst a raddichio salad dressed with galangal balsamic vinegar. Cubes of jellied grape juice added bursts of sweetness. It might all sound like a hotch potch of flavours and textures but it really worked. Not only did it taste divine but it looked like a miniature work of art.

Crayfish with parsnip strudel & lime was the stand out dish of the meal. The strudel was actually a milk based gel wrapped around the parsnip puree. Spikes of parsnip crisp dotted along the top of the strudel added texture. The crayfish were beyond succulent and, whereas I plan on how I can recreate dishes I love at home, I know that I don't have a chance of anything coming close to this. Candied lime segments and noilly prat helped cut through the creaminess and contrasted beautifully with the crayfish.

The Wiener Schnitzel is surely a must when in this part of the world. It seemed a little incongruous with the two star dishes and service (kind of like having Shepherd's pie at the Ledbury or something) but I wanted to experience it. Served very plain with just parsley buttered potatoes and a lemon wedge, the schnitzel was tender and moist. What surprised me most, however, was the outer crisp. I've always thought of schnitzel as being breaded and quite heavy but this was more like a fancy tempura version the outside of which would have remained a shell even without its meaty filling. One of the things that appealed to me most about the restaurant was the fact that it prides itself on providing classic Austrian cuisine to an exceptional standard so I felt like I was experiencing something truly local. Spoilt princess comment coming up, but sometimes restaurants that fit the "Michelin mould" can start to feel a bit same-same. You could be in London, Paris or New York and not really be able to identify which city you are in from the decor, the staff or the dishes. Steirereck is an exception to this; waitresses wear a semi- traditional "dirndl skirt" kind of outfit without being Sound of Music-esque and breads, wines and ingredients are all so very obviously Austrian. 

Dessert arrived in the form of a carre of rectangles of heavy chocolate ganache on a shortcrust base along side a pineapple tartare. Pineapple and pericorn sorbet was served aloft coconut macarons. All in all it was rather a pina colada style confection and very tasty but not quite up amongst the lofty heights of the crayfish dish or the boar's head.

Feiler Artinger's Ruster Ausbruch was an incredible wine. Made from noble rot grapes it is deliciously sweet with creamy lemon and honey notes with some dried apricot. In my opinion it can rival the finest noble rot wines I have ever tasted. To my dismay the sommelier confirmed that nowhere in Vienna stocks it to buy as it is sourced from the cellar door. The good news for Londoners however is that those clever people at Fortnum & Mason seem to have adopted it as one of their house dessert wines (here) where it comes in at about £27 for a half bottle.

The "washing line" returned as a display line for various little sweets, the most interesting being a pink jelly envelope filled ravioli style with fruit puree. 

If you like this style of dining and you are going to Vienna please, please visit Steirereck, I promise that you won't regret it.

Meirerei Steirereck

Downstairs on the ground floor is the more casual Meirerei (or “dairy”) which is still rather on the swish side with white gloss tables and neon light art. Serving traditional Austrian and Viennese dishes but specialising in local cheese and milk based drinks. For less than £10 each you can get a large glass of decent local wine and a platter of cheese, each labelled and accompanied by a recommended order of eating. Most were delicious but unfortunately I'd have to counsel against the primeval ooze known as 'Vorarlberger Sauerkase' for all but those with the strongest of constitutions. I can merrily eat Stinking Bishop but this stuff made it look like Dairylea strength wise. I tried drinking wine, gulping water, eating crackers but nothing was going to remove the feeling that I had eaten a fetid rat corpse. 

Other much more positive cheese highlights included Bachensteiner (a soft cows cheese in the Alsacien style washed in brine and sometimes in wine- often available from La Fromagerie), and Osterkrohn (a strong blue but creamy hard cheese). A really good selection of Austrian wine is served by the glass or in little flights so its a good place to get an introduction to real local specialties.

So if you're looking for a glass of wine or a snack during a walk through the Stadtpark then I would definitely recommend Meirerei, it also has an outside platform which is gorgeous when the sun is dappling through the trees.


Am Heumarkt 2A / im Stadtpark
A-1030 Wien
Tel.  +43 (1) 713 31 68


Monday, 3 March 2014

Flesh and Buns

Flesh and Buns. It sounds rather sordid before you even arrive doesn't it?  Carnal cuisine. Descending down a staircase beneath a projector screen of manga cartoons you enter through red doors to a buzzy underground room where excess seems to be the order of the day. At one end of the long narrow hangar of a restaurant is a bar with Asahi on tap and row upon row of sake. At the other is the kitchen, open to the floor and populated by an array of generally rather tasty chefs churning out plate upon plate of glistening meat and steaming sweet hirata buns. in between the two sits a long high canteen style table populated by an array of different people. Lots of homesick Japanese girls relishing the type of food rarely seen outside the land of the rising sun, some random rockers with long hair and enough earrings to cause havoc at a Heathrow metal detector, confused looking tourists, groups of gossiping girls and the ubiquitous beardy hipster. In summary, there is something here for everyone. 

Yes, its street food best eaten with your fingers, yes, the conversation is loud and the atmosphere bustling so no, don't take your Mum or a business meeting; the lack of table manners required to communicate and eat would likely horrify both. Second or third date however, and this might be your ideal place. 

I've learnt my lesson the hard way with these quick and dirty street food style places, based on recent experiences at Chicken Shop and Dip & Flip; don't go for the wine. That's probably a slightly unreasonable prejudice here as the wine list is more extensive than I expected but I'm going down the sake and cocktail route tonight. I kicked off with ume no yado (or sake blended with yuzu juice to you and me) and bar a brief stray into lychee martini territory, the sake is where I stayed for the rest of the evening. 

F&B is always destined to be a place where your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Seeing (and smelling) plate upon plate drift past the table en route to hungry tummies, we overdo the ordering. The waitress recommends two or three small plates and one main course. We laugh. One main course seems bonkers so a second one is added. The menu is so good that we could easily have ordered twice as much again. We leave fit to burst. Prawn tempura is not cheap for a starter at £12 but by the time we'd devoured them felt like good value. Five absolutely giant prawns in a light, crispy batter come with a yuzu dressing sharp enough to make your whole face pucker up. 

Tuna tataki was seared gently around the edges served with a lurid green jalapeno sauce just the right side of spicy. As tempting as it was to carry on working our way through the small plate section (fried squid with japanese pepper and lime and the grilled asparagus with sweet miso will be definitely be getting eaten on my next visit) but there is the small matter of meat to attend to.

I'm utterly confident that a mushroom has never made me swear out loud before. It was so good it was ridiculous. Deep and smoky shitake meatiness stuffed with a sesame wafu dressing on yakitori sticks. The only time I have ever tasted anything remotely close to this (and even then it wasn't as good) was in an izakaya on Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo. 

So onto the meat. Roast piglet belly is succulent and juicy with a crispy skin on top cut into the most perfectly straight strips ready to pop into the buns. Served with a sweet mustard miso sauce and super thin slices of pickled apple they are like the best sort of oriental twist on a hog roast. 

The hirata buns are soft and fluffy and hot enough to burn your fingerprints off.  The salad was completely surplus to requirements the pickled something or other that comes with each "flesh" option is enough to cut through the grease and provide a bit of a tang. Apologies for the fact my only photo of a stuffed bun is one I had rather childishly poked eyes in.....

The duck was shredded at the table like at a Chinese and had properly crispy skin. A sour plum soy sauce  and shredded beetroot took it one step beyond the usual cucumber and hoi sin and the hirata buns are waaaaaay superior to the usual floury little pancakes. 

Sitting at our table smacking our sticky lips and rubbing swollen bellies, anyone might have thought we were ready to throw in the towel but the problem was that I had heard about the S'mores. 

S'mores have been much publicised but with good reason. A charcoal burner is brought to the table with your raw ingredients.  I am the god of hell fire and I bring you..... S'MORES. 

You get a slab of marshmallow on a stick which you toast good old campfire style over a fire pot. Having not done this since I was a kid I had forgotten quite what a fine art it is, hover for too long and it sets fire and you're huffing and puffing it out, too little and its not melty enough. or as L put it "quite flammable little buggers aren't they?" Just as its about to drop off the stick or completely incinerarate into charcoal you slap it on a biscuit, top with the green tea chocolate and sandwich with another biscuit. 

Kinako donuts are unusual little beasts, quite hard on the outside and more savoury than you expect (although that might be because my teeth were still smarting from the sweetness of the s'mores) the sugar coating is made from finely powdered kinako soya beans mixed with powdered sugar. Filled with a creamy paste they are nonetheless pretty darned good. 

A special mention has to go to the toilets, all decorated with manga cartoons. The photo above is one of the less graphic ones so if you do go to Flesh & Buns (and you absolutely must) make sure you pay them a visit.

I adore Flesh & Buns. It really is a first for London providing a truly accessible mainstream experience with genuine Japanese food that goes beyond the average perception of sushi and ramen as being the totality of all things Japanese, there is so much more (although go to sister restaurant Bone Daddies for great examples of ramen too).

So Flesh & Buns, it's sticky, its messy, its loud and it makes you groan and exclaim with pleasure, almost carnal after all then. 

They are currently offering a flesh, bun and beer offer for £15 on Mondays when you reserve in advance (yes, they take reservations- even better!) so there's no excuse not to get down there and indulge.

Flesh & Buns
41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX
020 7632 9500

Flesh and Buns on Urbanspoon Square Meal
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