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Bernhard Mairinger reveals the subtle beauty of Austrian cooking
Photograph by Andrea Bricco
You’ll find BierBeisl down the block from Sprinkles cupcakes in Beverly Hills. Fitted into oxblood bricks, the carved wood door looks properly ancestral, just what an Angeleno might expect of an Austrian restaurant, but the poured concrete, wood tables, and spare off-white walls in the tight space are in line with the modernist traditions a native of the landlocked nation might expect. At one table a foursome of diners is downing a bottle of Gemischte Satz, a carefree white wine that—varietal shmarietal—is made by fermenting different grapes together. A few tables away someone digs into plump sausages and sauerkraut as a wispy kaiserschmarrn dessert arrives nearby.
Lederhosen? Leaden steins? BierBeisl doesn’t go there. Deer antlers above the trio of schnapps bottles mounted on the main wall may well be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the baronial hunting lodge—or, for that matter, to every frat boy’s favorite, Jägermeister. The Alpine heights and quaint Austrian towns scrolling by on the digital picture frame atop a barrel near the entrance are the closest you’re going to get to evocations of Julie Andrews singing about crisp apple strudels and schnitzel with noodles. Except, of course, for the food itself. Twenty-seven-year-old Bernhard Mairinger is a disciplined, forward-thinking chef who isn’t out to reinvent Austrian food with Cal-Med flights of fancy. Whether it’s the grammel schmalz (a type of rendered pork fat) he serves sprinkled with bits of pork crackling in shot glass-size tubs, the Styrian pumpkin seed oil he uses to unite the flavors of a roast pork carpaccio with pretzel dumplings, the array of handcrafted fruit vinegars he splashes around, or the artisanal fruit schnapps that might cap a meal, Mairinger’s cooking is honest without being sentimental.
BierBeisl’s arrival creates an Austrian triangle that extends from countryman Norbert Wabnig’s Beverly Hills Cheese Store (which supplies BierBeisl with a nutty, hard bergkäse) to Spago a few blocks away. In fact, not far from BierBeisl, on Rodeo Drive, Mama Weiss offered a Hungarian-slanted rendition of Austrian stuffed cabbage and paprika chicken in the 1930s and ’40s. Decades later Arnold Schwarzenegger tried for a slapdash Austrian hybrid at Venice’s Schatzi on Main, where quesadillas would precede either a plate of cappellini chinois or zürcher geschnetzeltes, a veal stew. What’s telling is that Wolfgang Puck, a son of Carinthia (the southern Austrian province bordering Slovenia), thought it best to give us California cuisine rather than anything from his homeland. When he was manning the burners at Ma Maison, the city was already busy writing its own culinary story, one that revolved around olive trees and sunshine. Fortunately, before Schatzi went dark in 2009, Wurstküche began slinging sausages downtown, setting off a wavelet of Teutonic beer-and-brat joints that are the natural antecedents to Mairin-ger’s more ambitious venture.
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Perhaps a bigger budget would have allowed for something grander than a shopfront on an unprepossessing stretch of Little Santa Monica Boulevard, yet the drive-by aspect (keep an eye out for the shingle over the door) is fitting, beisls being the neighborhood stalwarts of Vienna where you might pop in for a plate of goulash or a cold brew. The lack of airs works. A compact bar looks onto a pair of plump white taps dispensing Salzburg’s Steigl beer; at the adjacent counter customers are practically face to face with the chef, ever unshaved as he concentrates on the stove.
Beisl or no beisl, the obsessive attention to detail in Mairinger’s cooking isn’t like anything you’re going to find in a Viennese basement. He worked as chef de cuisine at Patina under Tony Esnault, and he surveys his native cooking from the same vantage point that a generation of highly trained French chefs contemplated their own from when they reinvented the bistro a decade ago. It’s authentic, all right—a farmhouse aesthetic heightened by a rippling echo of Hapsburg grandeur and unerring technique. A golden veal bouillon, clear from patient simmering, is filled with herb-flecked pancake noodles. A mound of whitefish tartare adds tang to the refreshing chilled cucumber-yogurt soup. For the hot parsnip soup, Mai-ringer spoons on deep green parsley puree to accentuate the hominess of the root vegetable with its herbal intensity.
He is especially good in that way, elevating dishes with impeccable timing and a knack for minimalism. His salads showcase Austrian vinegars as much as they do the sprightly greens he mixes with chervil and micro thyme. In one, the freshly cut Granny Smith he juliennes cranks up the wattage of the Grüner Veltliner vinegar; in another, Mairinger contrasts a plummier, more cidery Gala apple with an aged pear balsamic from distiller and vinegar maker Alois Gölles. He hones the flavors in an appetizer of white asparagus and sweetbreads by calling on the acidity of a Meyer lemon peel confit. The cold cabanossi beef and pork sausage is laid out on a rectangular plate almost like sashimi, with florets of house-pickled cauliflower, dabs of a smooth tarragon mustard, and slices of sunflower seed-bedecked country bread drawing out every down-home note. It’s an uncomplicated dish with surprising complexity.
The sense of pride in representing a culture that has little traction in these parts extends to the drinks. Keg lines are cleaned assiduously to ensure a foamy head on the Austrian, German, and Czech beers Mairinger has selected. The wine list is practically an education in winemaking in the latitudes just below those where grain alcohol begins to dominate. Along with versions of the ubiquitous Grüner, you’ll find wines that, arranged by region and estate, lead to the gorgeously expansive berry stirrings of a Bründlmayer red made with the St. Laurent grape in the granitic northeast. Joyful, quaffable, layered, it embodies the spirit of Mitteleuropa the way a great pinot noir can pierce the mists of Burgundy.
Nowhere is Mairinger’s impulse to enlighten more evident than with the sausages, which he sources from Continental Sausage in Glendale. Part of his artistry lies in allowing a brat to be simply a brat and yet so much more. Pan seared (careful—sear too much and the casing will burst) and accompanied by sauerkraut, which he doctors with apple and juniper berries, the bratwursts are like no others in L.A. The wieners here are served as a pair alongside a roll and slathered with tarragon mustard. They’re delicate paragons with everyday attitude. These are wieners that still say “Yo!” Probably the most refined dish on the sausage menu is the weisswurst—plump white veal numbers that are poached in milk and draped in nutmeg-sprinkled ribbons of white onions. Their austere subtlety offers a sharp counterpoint to the peppery debreziner, the most spiced and Hungarian of all the sausages, which he loads onto a mustard-shmeared pretzel epi with raw cross-cut shallots and a dusting of curry. I’ve heard angels humming “The Radetzky March” when I’ve bitten into this.
That dialogue between the delicate and the hearty is something Mairinger carries throughout the menu. It’s a tough balancing act. Go a little too far in either direction, and you lose what makes this cooking so compelling. The freshly grated horseradish arranged on the house-cured arctic char appetizer might take its cue from the freshly grated wasabi that every ambitious sushi spot dispenses, but it lacks the rip-snort effect needed to electrify the mild fish. A less poetic but more assertive spoonful of processed horseradish would do a better job of dressing up the flavor. The duo of pork swerves too far the other way. Piled into a bowl, the combination of braised cheek, crisp belly, crushed potatoes, roasted kale, shimeji mushrooms, and braised shallots is supposed to represent a rustic ideal, but one element obscures another in the rush to make the point.
Then again, the schnitzel and potato salad are an almost perfect pairing. The warm, mustardy fingerlings, with their hint of chestnut flavor, act as a bracing foil to the golden breading of the pounded meat—turkey, pork, and veal are options. When Mairinger adds basil puree to the fingerlings that accompany the whitefish, the garnish illuminates the fragile purity of the fillet. You know this cooking, and yet you don’t. You’ve had some rendering of spaetzle in three of your last five gastropub meals. But as crafted by Mairinger—who rolls egg dough on a board before cutting it with a spatula into boiling water and searing the ringlets in a pan with clarified butter and a spear of rosemary—these dumplings command the dish, even if they’re the garnish of the mushroom-strewn, umlaut-adorned beef medallions “Jäger Art.”
Perhaps it’s the long winters, but Austrians have a thing for prolonging the summer flavors of fruits either by transforming them into compotes or distilling them into schnapps. As he does with the wines and beers, Mairinger allows us to appreciate how fine these after-dinner drinks can be by stocking gems from two celebrated producers, Hans Reisetbauer and Alois Gölles. Neither the schnapps nor the eau de vie is chilled, the way the French tend to serve it, and a shot—poured into a tulip-shaped liqueur glass instead of a snifter—suddenly seems like something that could be enjoyed every other day. All linger and expand on the palate, as if an entire landscape has been compressed in a copper still: Gölles’s aged apple schnapps transports you to orchards in the Alpine foothills; Reisetbauer’s rowanberry eau de vie captures the craggy peaks in its clean burn.
Fruits are employed as building blocks in desserts as well. In the hands of pastry chef Lissette Rodriguez, a strudel is artfully stretched dough that can barely contain a payload of thinly cut apples or the season’s first cherries. The kaiserschmarrn, a souffléd batter glistening with sugar, is a simple pleasure that’s energized by plum jam. The clever use of preserved fruit is even more pronounced in the Sacher torte, a legendary cake first served at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher and whose name alone can prompt the first bars of “The Blue Danube.” Instead of a touristy cliché, BierBeisl’s version is a lively exchange between airy biscuit and dark chocolate, candied orange and loosely whipped cream. It’s the cooked-down apricots, however, that set it all off. The last time I went for lunch, the hostess offered me a slice. “You normally come for dinner,” she said. I felt a twinge of guilt that, unaware I was a critic, she figured I was becoming a regular. But as I lifted a forkful of the torte, I found myself thinking maybe I will.