On my last day in Vienna, I survived a sensational experience at a 2-Star Michelin Restaurant. No, that wasn’t a typo. Survived is the correct verb. Not consumed; not tasted; not enjoyed. I merely survived, holding onto the edges of my seat, swishing down bites of bliss with potent sips of wine, avoiding glances at my phone to check the time as four hours of eating relentlessly ticked away.
I never imagined that I would be a restaurant reviewer, let alone a critic of Michelin-approved establishments. But long-distance relationships are anguishing, and my boyfriend had developed a newfound passion for food, inspired by his devotion of his hours without me to an Anime cooking series. Thus, on his first visit to Vienna, he made up for the time lost by indulging in our first Michelin start meal at the vegetarian restaurant Tian. On his last visit, one-star dives were no longer sufficient. We upgraded by spending my final day in Austria at the 2-star Michelin restaurant, Steirereck. Located in Stadtpark in the heart of Vienna, Steirereck is also rated Austria’s best restaurant and one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.
We arrived on a sunny Wednesday weekday, early for our lunch reservation, but ravished from skipping breakfast to prepare for our feast. The restaurant was quiet, as we opened the wide glass doors that drew light into the posh interior space. The server at the check-in desk wearing a stunning modern dress asked for my coat, and I fumbled awkwardly to remove it, attempting to hide my bulging backpack as I handed her my baggage. Breathe, just breathe, I instructed myself.
After sinking into my plush window-side seat and glancing dazedly at the menu, I looked around at my dinner company, imagining the type of life I would lead if this were my every-Wednesday lunch spot. Okay breathe, pretend you’re in their league. I hid my falling-apart thrift shop boots under the pure white tablecloth, thanking myself for applying lipstick and imagining I had diamond earrings like the woman at the adjacent table. When the waitress arrived, we opted to take the conservative path of the 4-course lunch over the 8-course tasting menu or the 1-wine-per-course pairing option. Stay cool stay cool stay cool, I instructed myself as I ordered. Instead, I began gushing, “Oh, what is this herb?! What does that mean?! What do you recommend?!” I rarely eat fish, but here, my waitress assured me, it was a necessary indulgence. As soon as she was out of sight, I stealth-snapped a thousand photos of the hushed restaurant tables around me.
Pink champagne and an array of appetizers followed dish one: Veal ‘Beusherl’ with Chive Dumpling for him and Amur Carp with Chicorée, Jerusalem Artichoke & Macadamia Nut for me. The carp, I was told from our tasting cards, was blowtorched and marinated with yuzu chicorée and oil of percion – a tarragon-esque herb picked fresh from the Steirereck garden. I was on cloud nine, the alcohol going to my empty stomach and the scents of intricately selected flavors travelling straight to my fluttering heart. My heart beat wildly for the streaming sunlight through the windows, for the waiters’ funny accents, and for the purity of my water through which I could see my smiling reflection.
Then followed the replete cart of all-you-can-eat bread – dozens of sourdough varieties, fruit-filled loaves, and traditional types, each warmed on a platter and baked with the all the love and attention you would expect from a European context. Slightly tipsy from my single glass of champagne, I staggered down the stairs to the restroom to walk off my sinking sensation of sensory overwhelm. I splashed cool water on my face, feeling refreshed. Then I smelled the floral hand-crafted soaps and moaned aloud in defeat. I pulled my weight back up the stairs and plastered a smile on my face.
Course 2 for him was Wild Boar’s Head with Pineapple, Tardivo, Radicchio, Buckwheat, and “Purple Haze” Carrots that had been aerobically fermented with lactic acid and salt for 14 days to achieve a tangy flavor. My meal was Char with Beeswax, Yellow Carrot, Pollen, and Sour Cream. This dish was cooked before our eyes as the chefs brought the fish to marinate in the beeswax that hardened to a jelly-solid yellow state under flame.
Our smiles faded to blank stares as we we ran out of steam, and in came the mains: the traditional Wiener Schnitzel for him and Sturgeon with Red Chicory, Cornell Cherries, and Artichoke for me. Yes, I gave into the temptation of consuming Viennese caviar at a Michelin restaurant while indulging in my second drink – a local Austrian white wine. I may never feel more privileged in my life.
My mind was numb and my tastebuds dead, but in came the fourth course with a roar of more wheels. The cheese cart arrived with an artisanal specialist to instruct us on our selection. “Madame, what would you like?” The Cheeseman said, waving his hand like Vanna White beneath his hundredfold creamy white selection. “Uh well… I like goat’s cheese…?” I said hesitantly, hoping that he couldn’t see through my wine glass to the novice fear in my voice. “Ah! Then for you I will recommend a platter of our finest goat’s cheeses from Europe”. Onto my wooden rectangular cheeseboard, he plopped four fat slabs: a soft Austrian goat’s cheese with currant, a soft French goat’s cheese named Le Petit Fiancé, a goat’s milk red cheese from Piedmont, and a goat’s milk blue cheese from Lombard. As if on cue, in walked the Breadman with his cart of fresh-baked loaves from the wood-fired oven.
Okay breathe. You can pull through. Breathe. I was mind-blown and needed a nap, but I widened my eyes as my favorite part of dinner arrived. Dessert for me was Chocolate-Lingonberry Soufflé with Gin Cornel Cherries & Fennel Pollen. The cornel cherries, which resembled coffee berries in appearance and cranberries in taste, had been preserved in Blue Gin the Steirereck larder for a year before they were matured in astringency for serving. For him, it was Medlar, Violets, and Crepes. These crispy crepes were deep-fried in Japanese Medlar – a historic, soft and pulpy fruit that resembles apple sauce after sufficient aging – and topped with strawberry mint, lemon verbena, and candied vanilla-tinged violet petals. Two bites, aaaaaaaaaand I was ready to tap out from heavenly bliss.
Yet onward entered our complementary chocolates and paper-thin dried oranges along with heated hand towels and a delicately folded hefty bill. One more bite. Just one more bite. Just one last bite of chocolate, I motivated myself. Having four hours to digest our courses as they continued to arrive, I wasn’t necessarily full, but rather blackout drunk on the indulgence of my senses.
To tip or not to tip was the question that we sleepily bickered as we loosened our belts, our bellies distending. Of course, we tipped – generously enough to receive a complementary magazine from the funny Breadman as we sleepily smiled into the migraine of the blinding 3 pm late-winter sun. I was headachey, slightly bloated, hungover, heavy, and salty from all the fish that I had consumed. I felt the urge to curl up into a fetal position on the inviting grass of the park, having doubted my tongue, my taste, and my self-worth in the shining splendor of this 2-star Michelin magic. BUT I SURVIVED!
Ready for your taste in fine dining? Here are my tips from my life in the brutal culinary battlefield:
Brace yourself: Pre-eat something light, exercise moderately, and maybe even meditate to focus your mind. You will need every ounce of your sensory attention.
Pinch yourself: Despite the exercise of your senses, you are NOT in a vivid dream. Don’t be confused into making a fool of yourself. No matter the temptation, do not jump out the glass window to test your wings after biting into your caviar.
Pace yourself: You don’t need 8 glasses of wine to get through an 8-course meal, nor do you need 15 slices of bread. Eat and sip slowly to savor indulgently.
Embrace safety: Don’t be tempted by the most lavish item on the menu or your senses will be obliterated. Even a dish titled “Beet” will be extraordinary when prepared by a Michelin-star chef.
Make space: Not for more food, but for a nap. Just as every good yoga class ends with savasana, every Michelin meal should end with mental space to integrate the wild ride of your senses. Breathe in. Breathe out. And cherish the experience.