"Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder." Those were the words the director of The Artist shouted out in accepting his recent Academy Award, paying tribute to the late Austrian-born genius director. And I was in full accord, since I had the honor of co-producing Billy's last film, Buddy, Buddy, which starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. While it was unsuccessful for various marketing reasons, it helped cement my friendship with this warm, funny, generous director/writer, certainly one of the most sophisticated people to ever grace the byways of Hollywood. The eight months during which I drove daily to and from the movie set with him were the most profoundly enjoyable of my long cinema life, inhaling his Cuban cigar smoke and words of wisdom. Later, until his death, we had lunch once a week, usually at Kate Mantilini, since they had a dish (calf brains in brown butter with scrambled eggs) which we both loved. (It was removed from the menu the day he died.)
I couldn't help thinking of Billy when I heard that a young Austrian chef, Bernhard Mairinger, had opened a restaurant featuring authentic Austrian food in the heart of Beverly Hills. Called BierBeisl (9669 South Santa Monica Blvd, between Bedford and Roxbury, (310) 271-7274, with street and evening valet parking). I knew that Billy would have been there opening nights encouraging the talented, enterprising chef, who recently worked at Patina. So, as his proxy, I am going to do just that. (Although from the packed crowd there last night, I suspect the word is already out.) This is a stunning, delightful and delicious restaurant with authentic, enchanting food so satisfying and striking it will resound favorably in the inner recesses of your mind. My first evening there was by chance, since I had spent the day at my doctor's office around the corner amid tests which required me to not eat or drink. Hungry and thirsty for a good drink, I drove by and pulled up. The adventure was about to begin.
I was enchanted by the look of the new restaurant... all glass, wood and brick. The inside is sparkling fresh, with counter space and a dozen or so tables. I parked at the bar and ordered a glass of dark Austrian beer on tap. Yes, there are several such beers on tap, Austrian, German, even Czech. A first, since tap beer is a difficult thing to set up and keep fresh. I inspected and was impressed by the gleaming slicing machine sitting there. The chef came by and I said I needed a quick fix, a nice sausage, some potato salad and späetzle. He smiled and said it would be up shortly. The sausage he sent out was a Käsekrainer ($10 for a 10-oz sausage), a tubular bite I had never had before, infused with Swiss cheese, light and peppery, similar to a 'Polish' sausage. Just delicious, served with a dab of tarragon mustard and shreds of horseradish. The potato salad ($6) was different, a touch of vinegar, also delicious. Spätzle ($7 for a side) is long strands of hand-cut noodles, sautéed with a touch of nutmeg, like pasta but not, also exciting. I was a happy camper, and as I watched the dishes rolling out of the open kitchen, I knew I would be back shortly for a more thorough repast.
I finished my impromptu meal with Apfelstrudel ($7), apple strudel (layers of thin pastry filled with shreds of apple, usually with cinnamon and raisins.) with home-made vanilla ice cream. One of the best I have ever had. And I am someone who had spent much time in Vienna when younger, so I know my schlage and schnitzel. The cup of regular coffee was just that, nothing special, although I did tell my server, Mike, that Austria helped introduce coffee to Europe after bags of coffee were left behind by the retreating Turkish army after the Battle of Vienna in 1683. And the croissant was invented in Vienna at that time. Austrian food is a blend of influences from Italy, Hungary, Germany and the Balkans. (My second, German wife made a mean goulash, cooking three different meats with onions and spices for eight hours 'til dark and intense. Don't particularly miss her but miss that goulash.)
Bernhard is smart enough to know that a Beverly Hills/West L.A. dining crowd is going to want many familiar dishes on a menu which has been characterized as 'unique,' so on my next visit -- as we examined the selection of starters -- it revealed a mixed bag of interesting choices. Home-cured Arctic Char ($13) is morsels of this satisfying white-fleshed fish, served almost like a tartare with heirloom beets, fresh horseradish and a small herb salad. I spotted a Duo of Sweetbreads ($18) and knew this would be my first choice of dishes to try, since I do fancy sweetbreads (thymus glands, if you must know.) These were crispy wonderful, served with creamy 'Potato Cheese,' green beans, a quail egg and black truffle sauce.
I turned to my British companion, Lord Freddie Windsor (of that Royal family, son of Prince Michael of Kent), and pontificated (as I am sometimes wont to do): "This is truly a master chef delivering wonderful world-class dishes in a tiny new spot here in Beverly Hills." We had spotted the starter of BierBeis Carpaccio ($12) which the people at the next table had ordered. It turned out to be thinly sliced pork roast and bread dumplings, all drizzled with a Styrian Gold vinaigrette. Another was busy with her Goat Cheese Gratinee ($13), vanilla-infused, sided with tasty morsels of pumpkin-seed pesto, glazed grapes, homemade lardo and pepper cress. Friends at the counter had ordered the assorted Austrian Charcuterie ($16), meats sliced on that gleaming machine at the bar, and it was a munificent platter with homemade spreads, pretzel epi. For another $10, you can get a selection of cheeses with it... which makes for a filling meal all by itself. Chef sent out cups of Clear Beef Bouillon ($7) with herb pancake noodles, along with a Creamy Pumpkin Soup ($9), with white tomato foam and a pinch of pumpkin seed oil. All wonderful, but I was anxious to try the main courses... all of them, of course.
A mainstay of Austrian cooking is the Schnitzel, which is a made with a boneless meat topped with a sheet of wax paper, then pounded with a mallet escalope-style, coated in bread crumbs and fried 'til golden. Here he offers a choice of pork ($21), veal ($25) and turkey ($19). For me, it had to be the veal, served with lingonberries and a choice of potato salad, roasted potatoes (my selection) or fries, or a mixed green salad. The dish was as attractive as it was tasty. I told the table, including my stalwart regulars, Penny McTaggart and David Rapoport, about my ex and her exquisite goulash, but here it is different, the Creamy Veal Gulash ($25) was more pristine, served with that homemade spätzle, chives and salad. Yet it was so deeply rich that it made me forget my ex-wife's version. Bernhard told me that Austria has a long tradition of serving game, since the country is covered with forests, and tonight he was serving a Seared Venison Loin ($34), a delicate cut of meat served with brioche dumplings, fabulous braised red cabbage, and brussel sprouts, all drizzled with brown butter. Somewhat livery in taste but unearthly good, as is all the food here. We decided to halt our exploration for the night, since a few of those Austrian desserts were in the offing, but Freddie vowed to return here shortly on a date with his wife. (She is the lovely actress Sophie Winkleman Windsor, co-starring with Ashton Kutcher on TV's Two and a Half Men.) Meanwhile, there was the Sache Torte ($11), the legendary dessert from Vienna, served in every coffee shop (konditorei) in the city. Bernhard told me that his recipe is from Salzburg, not far from the main city, but I recounted my many adventures eating it where it originated, in the Hotel Sacher. A chocolate cake with homemade apricot jam, always served with a generous bowl of schlag, whipped cream, often with a touch of vanilla. Oh my, it is addictive, and I found myself dreaming about it this night.
Aside from a few other dish I have not yet sampled, such as White Fish Filet ($22) and the Duo of Pork ($28), a crispy belly and braised cheek, served with champagne cabbage, 'fleckerl' pasta, whole-grain mustard and pork jus, their Sausage Menu will entice you back often for lunch and dinner snacks. I do love a few of them. A pair of bratwurst ($9), served with sauerkraut, mustard and rustic bread, will please you, but my favorites are the weisswurst, a mild sausage slowly simmered in milk, served with sweet mustard and a salty pretzel, or the bier cabanossi, served cooled with pickles and bread. Finish your sausage medley with one of the other desserts such as Poppyseed Parfait ($8), with a crispy chocolate tuille and raspberries. The Creamy Semolina Pudding ($9) will astonish you, with its white chocolate, tangerine, and toasted almonds, but our friends at the counter, Jenny Okun and Richard Sparks (on their fourth visit here), recommended the Kaiswrschmarrn ($11), a pudding-like dessert which came with jam. The beers on tap are delicious and their wine list is small but satisfying. With a full liquor license (unusual and expensive for a small restaurant), a glass of schnapps at the end of the meal is an Austrian tradition.
Astonishing food from an unexpected source... these are dishes which would do justice to a three-star restaurant in any city in the world. Last month we wrote about Venezuelan food in Beverly Hills with Café Coupa. Today we are writing about classic Austrian food in Beverly Hills. Also in that city is Mexican, with Taberna Mexicana and El Torito Grill, Vietnamese with Kimmy Tang's 9021PHO, Korean with Erbe Matte, Chinese with Mr Chow and Shanghai Grill, lots of Italian, French, Japanese, American. Hey, Jonathan Gold and Linda Burum, can you believe it? Beverly Hills is becoming a hotbed of ethnic cuisine! Will wonders never cease.
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