It’s a pleasure to find chefs dedicated to demonstrating that their local cuisine is something well worth a second look…
I love sampling local cuisine. I also love creative, refined cookery. Most of all, though, I love when the two are combined. It used to be that trying out what the locals were cooking meant going to a little hole-in-the-wall and having a meal that didn’t do much with presentation or techniques, and that’s fine and can be a great pleasure. Recently, however, there has been a trend toward refining local cuisine and turning it into something that achieves the culinary respect it deserves. It’s a pleasure to find chefs dedicated to demonstrating that their local cuisine is something well worth a second look, whether served in their homeland or imported to a new place. Here are some of my favorite restaurants doing just that.
Vestibül, the stunning restaurant at Vienna’s Burgtheater, dishes up Austrian cuisine with astonishingly modern twists, as patron/restaurateur Christian Domschitz and chef de cuisine Christoph Schuch transform the time-honored ingredients and traditions into a uniquely contemporary menu. Sit in the Marble Room, once Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sisi’s private entrance to the theater, all marble pillars and ceilings decorated with reliefs. Then make your way through the culinary delights. I suggest their tasting menu to fully appreciate the genius, providing you with an array of dishes that change seasonally. A breast of quail, for instance, has the traditional Viennese semolina dumplings as a side dish, but a surprising mole sauce makes for a new take on a familiar local dish. Fillet of char (an Austrian freshwater fish) is similarly enlivened by a saffron/fennel bouillabaisse. The escargot, which Schuch tells me is very popular in Vienna, is breaded and fried like the Viennese classic Wienerschnitzel and dished up with a semi-dried tomato sauce (the current menu features escargot with parsley and passionfruit, which sounds equally amazing). Speaking of Wienerschnitzel, that timehonored dish is on the menu and is served in purely traditional style, with its accompanying potato salad. Some classics you just don’t mess with! One thing I’m going to insist on: you must try Domschitz’s signature dish, which he’s been making for over twenty years. Hummerkrautfleisch (Lobster with Creamy cabbage), is a twist on a traditional cabbage dish that takes creamy cabbage, and instead of the meat usually served with it, puts a square of perfectly cooked lobster on top. It’s one of thePh finest restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten, and the perfect embodiment of this column: taking the local cuisine and putting an interesting and delicious spin on it. I could go on and on, but this is Austria, so we have to save room for dessert, which might be such delights as a délice of dark chocolate with apricot/elderflower granita. I’ve also savored a very Viennese Powidltascherl: dumplings filled with plum jam, modernized here with a wonderful plum sorbet. The best dessert I’ve ever had here is “apple strudel in a glass,” which I’ll lead an international campaign to put it back to the menu. The multi-layered parfait deconstructs this classic dish into an amazement of creativity. Dig your spoon into the bottom and gather the layers, and while It looks like a parfait, damn if it doesn’t taste exactly like apple strudel! Everything about this place is perfection: the room is beautiful, the welcome from hostess Veronika Doppler puts you at ease, the staff is professional and ever so gracious, and the food is flawless. What else do you need? Universitätsring 2, Vienna, Austria. Tel: +1-43-1532-4999. www.vestibuel.at
At Phoenix’s Barrio Café, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2022, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza is showing us just exactly how fine Mexican cuisine can be. As someone who grew up in California with a Mexican background, she comes from a long line of culinary wizards. Her family owned a bakery, and, she notes, “I come from about 800 years of bakers.” Her dishes, beautifully plated with the creativity that is her hallmark, are rooted in Mexican traditions, particularly the south of the country, whose cuisine she loves. For your chicken or enchiladas, choose one of her constantly- changing mole sauces. “I paid thousands of dollars to learn to make sauces,” laughs Silvana, “but mole predates them all!” On one visit, I try a “mole ahumado” (smoked mole that deepens the traditional chocolatebased sauce into something almost too amazing for words. You might even find a tamarind/plum mole she freely admits doesn’t exist in Mexico. Chiles en Nogada (peppers stuffed with chicken, nuts, and dried fruit) are a revelation, bursting with flavor and gorgeous to look at, with an almond cream reduction and rows of color subtly presenting the colors of the Mexican flag. Quesadillas Borrachas come with a subtly tequila/margarita sauce, hence the “borrachas” (drunken) of the dish’s name. Each little tortilla is topped by cabra and quesillo cheeses and capped by a single shrimp resting on top. Cochinita Pibil, one of her signature dishes, is pork marinated for hours with sour oranges and achiote that’s the best incarnation of this traditional dish imaginable. Even the familiar guacamole has a few twists here, with the avocados remaining chunky and strewn, perhaps surprisingly, with pomegranate seeds. This is modern Mexican cuisine at its finest, and recognizing the creativity and remarkable flavor palette is what Silvana Salcido Esparza is all about: “The perception of Mexican food that Americans have is erroneous, melted cheese on top of red sauce on top of everything else, that’s not what Mexican cuisine is. We’re badasses, we’re chingones, we have world class food.” It’s part of her crusade to demand the respect this varied and beautiful cuisine deserves, and the crusade is well-served by the indescribably delicious food at Barrio Café, which has earned her not only seven James Beard award nominations, but an ineradicable place in the hearts of Phoenicians, and all who love fine cooking. 2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix AZ. Tel: 602-636-0240. www.barriocafe.com
Chef Peter Merriman was among those who gave birth to the now-familiar phenomenon known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Merriman is devoted to the use of fresh ingredients, which are abundant in Hawaii, and at his several restaurants scattered throughout the islands you can still taste the results of that most fortuitous combination: super-fresh raw materials and a super-talented chef. Visit their signature restaurant on the Big Island and you’ll find enchiladas filled with kalua pig and sweet onions, or made from taro and stuffed with Waimea vegetables. Daily ceviche comes with Molokai sweet potato chips, while kampachi (a succulent local fish) has a macadamia nut crust. Stop in his Honolulu restaurant for fascinating hummus made from organic taro, or his now-famous Caesar salad with local romaine and fried green tomato croutons. Or visit the Kauai branch for ahi tuna croquettes with an astounding charred jalapeño aioli, mango salsa, and local watercress. You’ll find a lot of crossover in menus at the various restaurants, so your favorite is likely to be on whichever island you choose. Dessert? Let’s just say you haven’t lived till you’ve tried the lilikoi (passionfruit) mousse with macadamia shortbread. Chocolate lovers, however, might prefer the Waialua molten chocolate “purse,” complete with salted caramel made with the island’s glorious red alaea salt. It all began with Merriman wanting, in his words, “to do something different with the food that was being served to tourists back then. While our menu offerings may change from time to time,” he adds, “our commitment to the local community has not. We’re still continuing to work alongside local purveyors, some of which we’ve worked with since the start, to serve food that showcases the best that the Islands offer.” Now his restaurants source up to 90% of their food from the islands, and the results speak for themselves. Locations in Big Island, Kauai, Oahu, and Maui, Hawaii. www.merrimanshawaii.com
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
Not unlike many visitors to Bulrush, I’m sure, my first question was: “Ozark cuisine?” Yes, that’s what this restaurant specializes in, and in the hands of chef, and Missouri native, Rob Connoley, it’s something that’s really downright incredible. There’s nothing out of place or inaccurate here, and Connoley’s team has poured through journals and letters dating back to the early nineteenth-century Ozarks, covering the time when indigenous residents first encountered the Europeans settlers (and often the enslaved people they brought with them). If this sounds like a lot of history, rest assured that the vision Connoley has created, and the precision and beauty with which he and his staff carry it out, will result in a meal you won’t forget for a long time, all true to the culinary and agricultural history of this region. They didn’t serve beef, for instance, until they could find papers documenting cattle-raising in the area. Take a seat at the chef’s tasting bar, where seven courses will be delivered to you, each with an explanation from Connoley. I start with an unbelievably good little masterpiece: asparagus panna cotta with buttermilk foam in a little green sphere and topped with meringue made from redbud (a local plant). That little sphere holds a surprise: as I bite into it, a startling explosion of asparagus-laden flavor bursts onto my now-wide-awake taste buds. It’s just the beginning of a series of courses, each as creative as the one before. Next up is a little donut made from acorns gathered by the staff and topped with morels (how did they know I love morels?), a goose demiglace, and even goose chicharrones! Everything about it is perfect, and I marvel to myself, “It’s an acorn donut, for God’s sake!” More delights await, from rhubarb-poached walleye topped with rhubarb salsa to goose “pastrami” with parsnip fries. After too many delights to mention, we close the evening with rutabaga cake with salted forest nut custard, acorn miso oat crunch, and a wonderful little ball of apricot ice cream. You can supplement your dishes with a wine selection (all, of course, have a Missouri connection) or a non-alcoholic flight of creatively concocted potables. With their zero-waste policy, you’ll find creative uses for all parts of the products, such as the sweet and delicious beet ketchup that accompanies my parsnip fries. With their devotion to wild foraging, you’ll find all kinds of delights you didn’t even know existed, and trust me, they’ll be arranged like little works of art on a plate and will taste every bit as great as they look. “I’m excited to present this cuisine,” smiles chef Connoley, “to give it a definition.” It’s familiar and outrageous at the same time, though Connoley is always careful to remember, “If we go too far out, it doesn’t work.” Take the elderly gentleman from the Ozarks who visited Bulrush with his son. His comment at the end of the meal? “It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever eaten, but somehow it reminds me of my childhood.” That’s the brilliance of what Connoley is doing at Bulrush. 3307 Washington Ave., St. Louis MO. Tel: 314-449-1208. www.bulrushstl.com