After Irene I ate at Lima’s famed restaurant Astrid y Gaston, I jokingly speculated I’d have a hard time deciding which I’d rave about more on my return home—our meal there or the wonders of Machu Picchu. Yes, the food was that good.
And our recent meal at Vienna’s Steirereck im Stadtpark—currently the #11 restaurant on a list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants—had me thinking the same way. Would I rave more about our meal there—or about the New Year’s Eve performance of Die Fledermaus which had brought us to Vienna in the first place.?
The fact I’m writing up this account of our Steirereck meal before posting anything about our night at the opera answers that question!
As we walked through the Stadtpark toward Steirereck for our Saturday lunch, I was a little nervous about how we’d be treated, though. That was because, while one Yelp reviewer called their “fantastic 5 hour lunch here – one of the best afternoons I’ve ever experienced,” and most other Yelpers seemed to agree with raves of their own, another reviewer felt so “angry and frustrated” that she was “about to walk out of the door but stopped by my husband” because “if you are cannot speak German, be prepared to be treated as such.”
I won’t leave you wondering—we had nothing to fear. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so coddled in a restaurant as I did during our lunch—which ran for more than fours hours—at Steirereck im Stadtpark.
We showed up a few minutes before our noon reservation, and were greeted warmly. Once our coats were taken, we were led to our table in a bright room with views of the Stadtpark on three sides. We were only the third party to be seated in a room which over the following 45 minutes to an hour became totally filled. The service was exemplary whether we were among the few or the many.
Our minds were read; our needs intuited. Glasses were continually filled, silverware replaced by white-gloved hands. A slight tilt of a head, and someone was there. They seemed to know if I wanted to rise before I even did, and were somehow behind me to pull back my chair the moment I’d think of it.
And the meal went as long as it did not because we were forgotten, but because we were allowed to savor the experience. In fact, if I hadn’t finally asked for the check, who knows? We might be seated there still.
I can’t think of a single complaint with how we were treated at Steirereck. The level of service was as close to perfection as I can imagine a restaurant getting.
We had already decided before arriving in Vienna that we would order the five-course lunch, which included a cheese course. I didn’t have to spent much time with the menu, as I’d studied it at home and had already made my choices … though I did keep vacillating when it came to the main course.
Check out the lunch menu yourself and see if you can make up your mind!
Our choices made, an amuse bouche arrived—chunks of sugared grapefruit, with what seemed to be dried peel as the stem by which to lift it to one’s mouth. A nice tart start to what would turn out to be one of the best meals of my life.
This was followed by an artfully presented salad. Puffed potatoes and turnips rested on a bed of beans, with edible leaves waiting be plucked off copper wires.
While we were eating these, a bread cart was wheeled to our table overloaded with one of the most impressive assortments I’ve ever seen—at least 40-50 different varieties. Each was explained to us, and then sliced to our order. I focused on the dark ryes and pumpernickels.
I wish I’d remembered to photograph the cart, not only to show off the bounty, but also to demonstrate what I noticed as the lunch service proceeded—that there was less and less bread as time wore on. As the hours passed, a smaller cart began to be wheeled around. It became obvious to us that Steirereck only provided as much bread at a time as was necessary for a single meal (there was only a single lunch sitting; no table ever turned over), and as a selection was depleted through the meal, it wasn’t replaced. To avoid having the cart appear sad and half-empty, a smaller cart was put into service. One assumes new loaves would be baked for the dinner service, so the bread was always fresh.
And the butter was delicious, too!
My first course was Wild Boar’s Head with ‘Purple Haze’ Carrots, Pineapple, Radicchio and Buckwheat. How can I be so sure of the ingredients?
Because at the beginning of each course, a server would bring over a card describing what you were about to eat. No having to wonder, hmmm, what is that I’m tasting, as those of us without Michelin palates sometimes do. I was very grateful for this, and would love to see the practice picked up by other restaurants.
Irene started off with the duck casserole with Pearl Barley, Nasturtium Root and Horseradish Herb …
… which again came with its own breakdown.
I followed my wild boar with Veal’s Heart with Oxheart Carrots and Mizuna, a dish which delivered the best veal’s heart I’ve ever had. And “how much veal’s heart have you had, Scott”,” you might ask.
Over the past few years, more and more. And I’m sure there’ll be more in the future, but I don’t expect it to be as tender as this.
Irene’s second course was Crayfish with Spiced Parsnip Strudel & Limes, which certainly was one of the more beautiful dishes presented to us.
Irene tells me that her strudel was wonderful!
By this point, it as time for us to stretch and visit the restrooms, where I found myself confronting a urinal that had me thinking I was heeding the call of Nature aboard the Starship Enterprise.
And as if that wasn’t a startling enough art object, when it came time to wash my hands, this is what I was confronted by.
I was baffled! I had to do a bit of hand waving before soap dispensed and water ran, but eventually I was able to figure it all our and return to our table refreshed … and smiling. Because Irene and I couldn’t help but laugh about the contrast between the restaurant’s traditional upstairs and futuristic downstairs.
Then it was time for the third course, which for me meant Roast Pigeon with Parsley, Amaranth, Millet & Sesame. I’d only had pigeon once before, at a restaurant in Sydney, and had been quite disappointed. It had been tough and dry and pointless.
But the Steirereck pigeon was moist and rich and vital, creating an extremely high bar for any other restaurant with pigeon on its menu. How will I ever dare order it again?
The pigeon came with a side that was my favorite dish of the day—a puff pastry filled with pigeon offal, foie gras and button mushrooms. Those of you who were frightened when I tried to get you to join me in Toronto for the offal at The Black Hoof might be put off by the sound of that, but believe me … there were fireworks.
While I was enjoying my pigeon, Irene ate barbecued Alpine beef forerib with Salsify, Viennese Figs and Celery.
This was a course we didn’t share. I know better than to get between that gal and her beef! (Though Irene did let me nibble a bit of her celery.)
Then came course number four, the cheese course. Once more a huge cart was rolled to our table, this one packed with 50-60 exotic cheeses. Our server explained them all, felt out our tastes, and with his guidance, Irene and I each choose five cheeses that would complement each other. I went with hard cheeses, my favorite being the Red Leicester on the right.
Irene, a blue cheese fanatic, chose the ripest cheeses they offered. This was her favorite course, and she lingered over it, smiling all the while.
Then it was time for dessert. I went with the Rice Pudding Souffle with Rhubarb and Sorrel.
Extremely light and delicate, and well worth the additional 25 minutes this supposedly added to our meal, if the card can be believed. But no moment felt wasted, so the chefs and servers had orchestrated the flow of dishes perfectly.
For her dessert, Irene chose, as I knew she would, Warm Trinitario Chocolate with Pineapple & Pericon Sorbet & Coconut Macaroons.
Beautifully presented! We could have put a frame on it.
At this point, we were asked whether we wished coffee or tea, and I asked for tea, not knowing quite what to expect at a restaurant operating at the level of Steirereck. But they ended up going far above and beyond what I’d anticipated.
Up came a server with our third (but not final) cart of the afternoon, one which contained live potted plants! The flavor of each was explained to us, so I could choose any or all in whatever combination I wished. There was even blooming stevia, should I wish a sweetener other than sugar. Once I’d made my choice, the server snip, snip, snipped, and then went off to get the hot water so my tea could steep for 10 minutes.
While waiting for my tea to be ready, we nibbled at Christmas cookies—and at the edible “giftwrap” on which they’d been set.
Then along came cart number four, topped by a long rectangular pool of powdered sugar. The server used his utensils to hunt through the sugar as if seeking buried treasure, eventually scooping out …
… four extremely delicate sugar cookies.
A snow globe was then placed on our table to put us in more of a holiday mood as we nibbled and sipped. More than four hours had passed since we’d arrived.
As I mentioned above, when we began our meal, there were only a few tables occupied, and when we left, there were only a few that still had diners. Perhaps others hadn’t gone for the full five courses. I don’t know why. But none of the employees seemed anything but pleased we were there, or appeared to wish to hurry us along.
We might as well have owned the place. And I felt so happy and content that for those few hours, I guess we did. For a restaurant to imbue customers with that feeling, well … that’s quite an accomplishment.
It was only when Irene and I thought, shouldn’t we see a little something more of Vienna today than the inside of Steirereck, that I waved over a server and asked for the check.
As we got our coats and headed out the door, I paused to snap a photo of the kitchen, unfortunately getting a thumb in the way. But at least you can get a small glimpse of where the magic was made.
How magnificent was our meal at Steirereck? So magnificent it made me want to go to cooking school! Not to learn how to cook, but to increase my culinary knowledge to the point where my vocabulary would be up to describing the meal in all its glory. Because I feel inadequate to convey the experience in a way that you’d understand how amazing it was. You’ll just have to trust me.
Or get to Vienna so you can try Steirereck for yourself!
Which has me thinking … can I go back to Vienna soon, too, please? I never got a chance to order the Braised Shoulder of Milk-Fed Veal with Kale, Hazelnuts and Périgord Truffle!