A trip to Vienna

Saturday, October 31st , 2009

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I had a short trip to Vienna this week, and was able to try a couple of the top places there. For those who have never visited, Vienna is an elegant city with no shortage of fine architecture.   Steirereck is the solitary two star in Vienna, and combines a leafy setting with a penchant for classical Austrian dishes., which I found rather endearing.  I was not expecting to be able to try goulash (pictured) or schnitzel at a restaurant of this level , and very well made they were too.  The kitchen showed its fancier side with an elegant warm artichoke salad, prettily composed and with various elements.  

I also enjoyed the food at Palais Coburg, another restaurant in a striking setting. This one is in a conservatory tucked away under the towering pillars of a former palace (now a hotel).  The menu was appealing, the technique solid, and service excellent.  Oenophiles will be taken by a vast wine list from a cellar of 65,000 bottles.  It seemed to me that this place deserves its Michelin star.

Back to the UK I took a trip off my native tube network down to Penny Hill Park hotel, made famous by its appearance in the Bond film Goldfinger.  Michael Wignall at the Latymer is in the main building of the hotel, but I found the cooking rather unsatisfying.  Ingredients are good and the technique is fine, but the chef seems to think that the way to cook top food is to be as complex as possible, with numerous elements to every dish.  I found this had the opposite effect, with the dishes sometimes seeming confused and lacking a focal point.  There was also consistent under-seasoning, making it even harder to distinguish the numerous tiny components of each complicated plate. 

I had an excellent meal at Amaya, which seems to be on good form recently.  The fish tikka in particular was dazzlingly good, tender, spicy and delicious; I have to think back to India to think of a better version (and then only at my favourite Jamavar in Goa.  Of course prices here are high for Indian food, but at least you get something for the investment, unlike the other Indian places in London graced by Michelin, where the bill is the only thing of real substance.

This week I was invited to join a panel discussion including, amongst others, Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, and Paul Wotton of Restaurant magazine.  I found Bob’s perspectives on London restaurants in the recession interesting.  His organisation has detailed business data provided to them by a large number of restaurants, some on a daily basis.  His observation is that “value” (i.e. cheap) restaurants are doing well, “destination” (high end, famous) places are also large unaffected.  However restaurants aimed at the “corporate” crowd have suffered badly, while mid range restaurants have been forced to indulge in aggressive special offers and discounting in order to keep customers coming through the doors.  In London, he observed that central London restaurants are prospering, but as soon as you move west of Kensington, north of the Marylebone Road or south of the river (except South Bank itself) then it is a different story, with plenty of restaurants closing or in trouble.  There is a dearth of hard data about restaurant business, so these observations are interesting as they are based on data rather than opinion.

Being a chef with orders piling up can doubtless be very stressful, but it apparently all got too much for one Florida chef recently, who produced a gun and threatened to shoot his waitress if another order came through.  It sounds like a line from a Carl Hiaasen novel, whose entertaining crime thrillers feature outlandish characters in Florida, but in this case it seems to be reality imitating art rather than the other way around. 

It also emerged that chef Andrew Turner will take over at the venerable Wiltons, whose current chef de cuisine Jerome Ponchelle will move to the Capital to replace Eric Chavot, who left in July.