I recently checked out Restaurant magazine’s list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2013” and discovered that I had dined at about ten of the winners. But a couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon a restaurant in Austria’s remote Steiermark (Styria) wine country that outshone all of them.
(Those lists always crack me up, by the way. First, critiquing food is a highly subjective business --- one man’s foie gras is another man’s chopped liver. Second, the winners often have well-oiled PR machines that do their jobs as well or better than the chefs.)
My lucky find was Kreuzwirt near the one-block town of Leutschach. (To give the place some context, it’s near Graz, home of Wolfgang Puck and Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Kreuzwirt is the restaurant at Gut Pössnitzberg, a respected winery, specializing in sparkling wine for more than 40 years. Gerhard Fuchs, the chef, has three “toques” from Gault-Millau and was that guide’s “Chef of the Year” in 2004.
Fuchs kicked off our dining adventure with a fascinating “martini” –-- a scoop of homemade vermouth sorbet in a tiny martini glass, flecked with olive bits and herbs to mimic the “juniper” flavor of gin. Three small bites packing a wallop of flavor and fragrance.
Other complimentary hors d’oeuvres followed: crackly pastry shells filled with a pesto of local herbs; house-cured salami, so thin it melted on the tongue; and Schwiegermutterzunge (“mother-in-law tongues!”) -- four flat, wafer-thin, translucent bread sticks, held together by a pretty ribbon.
He then moved on to a single raviolo of indescribable yumminess – fragile pasta dough holding one perfectly poached egg from the neighboring Freiland farm. One prick of my fork and the bright yellow juices popped out to mingle with sautéed spinach, browned butter, and a shower of shaved white truffle.
The next dazzler was a diminutive noisette of Maibock, a type of local venison, pan- sauteed an appealing pink all the way through, with fresh sage and a type of brown bean that was so fat and meaty it served as a “starch” on the plate. The shiny natural juices were enhanced by coarse lemon-infused salt and pretty sage blossoms. Since Fuchs likes to serve his entrees “two ways,” we were then treated to tender chunks of Maibock in a stew of sautéed local summer mushrooms, tiny dice of speck (bacon) and Mairüben (early spring turnips), with just a touch of shallot-scented jus. One Knödel (dumpling) dusted with grated cheese, sat in the middle and a crackly strip of dried bacon (from Freiland) straddled the bowl.
Desserts were equally impressive. One, called “Milk & Blossoms,” featured a mousse of raw milk topped with a tiny oval of rhubarb sorbet and a drizzle of vinegar and olive oil. The other, a quivery panna cotta flavored with Waldmeister, a local herb, was served with a petite piece of cream-filled strudel topped with chopped strawberries.
Fuchs is creative without being flashy. Contemporary, without throwing the classics to the wind. He uses “modernist” techniques to get the flavor he wants, not to put on a magic show. The way he handles fresh herbs is nothing short of genius.
And the setting at Kreuzwirt is totally magical. What was once an unremarkable 1950’s building is now a sleek and stylish “box” of wood, steel and glass superimposed on the walls of an old basement. The dozen or so beautifully dressed tables look like they are floating in open space, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows that open and hide without a trace. We felt we were sitting smack in the rolling green vineyards outside.
As the sun set and the moon peeked out, we sipped the last of our wines, a silken Sauvignon Blanc Trockenbeerenauslese and celebrated our good fortune in discovering a spectacular dining experience that could easily break the Top Ten on any gastro list.
For more details, check out Gut Pössnitzberg. The winery has about 20 inviting hotel rooms, many with large balconies overlooking the vineyards. We opted for the “Culinary Time-Out” Package for 199 Euros per person (about $250), a great value that included two nights accommodations with buffet breakfasts, one dinner in the garden from the hotel’s menu, and the four-course dinner at Kreuzwirt, with excellent wines matched to each course.