Lonely at the top
Graz, the capital of the Steiermark region and Austria’s second biggest agglomeration, is city with tuns of atmosphere and full of grand monuments. Emperor Ferdinand II’s mausoleum invokes images of 1001 nights, the squad clocktower on the Schlossberg (castle hill) offers grand views, the whale-shaped Kunsthaus with its illuminating façade provides a futuristic touch and stately palaces line the main streets. With such a vibrant cultural life, you would expect a lively dining scene in Graz. Due to the big university, there certainly is a good variety of restaurants, but in the higher echelons the city doesn’t have much culinary choice. With a 15/20 Gault & Millau score, restaurant Carl, named after the erstwhile opera director Carl Nemeth, is arguably one of the top two or three restaurants. I had a lonely dinner punctuated with musical delights.
Carl is located in an architectural mishmash next to the late 19th-century opera building (hence the restaurant’s name) on one side and the Flixbus station on the other. The approach from the latter is not very inviting, but once you have climbed a handful of steps up to the large terrace, you realise it has a good stage for al-fresco dining in summer. Once inside the atmosphere is darkish and there is some theatrical chiqueness to the dining room. Chairs with tall backrests and purple padded upholstery and tables clad in black leather are the dominating features. I was seated at the small triangular window through which I could peak into the kitchen, the real stage. It was Friday evening, seven o’clock, only one other table was occupied and I was ready for a culinary show.
Tapioca and paprika cream
On the tunes of George Michael’s Wake me up I ordered three courses – starter, main and dessert – that were preceded by three amuses-gueules. I first had a tapioca chip with paprika cream. Not a high-flyer, but good. The next bite consisted of puntarelle, a type of chicory, with a safron spuma and sprinkled with amaranth. (See main picture.) This was more exiting. The puntarelle were cooked but crisp, the spuma was silky and didn’t overpower the slightly bitter taste of the vegetable. The amaranth provided a nice crunch. Finally I got a bowl of pulled duck, with red cabbage, duck crumbs (crumbs fried in duck fat) and duck mayonaise, a generously portioned and hearty last appetizer.
When my starter came through, Olivia Newton John chirped You’re the one that I want from the stereo set. Grease in Graz. Her happy singing accompanied me throughout a creamy and earthy soup of Jerusalem artichoke served with chips from the same tuber, a drop of parsley oil and a small chunk of fried blood sausage on a stick. I wished they had served some more of the sausage as it was tasty in itself but more importantly, it matched well with the Jerusalem artichoke. Nonetheless, it was a really enjoyable, wintery starter on a dark and cold evening.
Jerusalem Artichoke soup
Meanwhile another couple had entered, soon followed by the departure of the first guests.
As a main course I had ordered Alpenlachs, a misnomer. Alpenlachs is the name of an Austrian company that raises arctic char or Seesaibling, the fish that you actually get served. The combination with pork cheeks was trendy and good, although the pieces of meat could have been a tad softer. More problematic was the accompanying fennel. The idea of fennel and curry as a side for fish seems appealing, but unfortunately it was done in such way that the curry completely killed the glorious taste of the fennel. The dish was further garnished with small thin and tender green leaves with a cerrated edge. The waitress insisted it was Grünkohl (kale). I had never seen anything like it before, but some research taught me that very young kale leaves do have similar looks. The mildly tangy flavor cut the pork nicely.
On the crooning sounds of the Four Seasons (What a lady, what a night) my empty plate was whisked off to a kitchen that counted as many people as there were guests. The loudspeakers were trying desparately to imbue some liveliness in the dining room, but with three guests it was a lost cause.
Arctic Char or Seesaibling
For pud I had chosen a ravishing red beetroot and raspberry concoction. Dollops of lemon curd, white chocolate ice cream, air frozen white chocolate and slices of pickled beetroot were bathing in a juice of beetroot and raspberry. Rich and refreshing at the same time, this dessert offered the necessary sweetness set off by bright acidity.
Beetroot, raspberry and white chocolate
While my post-dessert mango marshmellow was blowtorched at my table, the high-pitched voices of The Bee Gees sang Staying alive and I wondered how chef Thomas Galler and his ambitious and mostly delicious dishes could stay alive with so little customers. In Graz it seems very lonely at the top. In an energetic city such as the Styrian capital you would expect its inhabitants to frequent their gastronomic gems a little more often. If your namesake is an opera director a change of tune might help.
Blowtorching a mango marshmellow
Restaurant Carl by Philipp Haiges
Opernring 5a – Graz (Austria)
T: +43 (0)316 824 848
Gault & Millau 2018: 15/20 (2 toques)
Three-course menu: € 49,-
Up to seven courses ten euro per extra course.