Adriatic cuisine that Marcus Aurelius might have loved
The great emperor Marcus Aurelius – who died in Vienna in 180 AD – had a reputation for being a connoisseur of the pleasures of the table. Not only did he thoroughly enjoy his food, he was an unashamed enthusiast of all culinary delights, considering fine wine among his top priorities, to which he undoubtedly applied the measured judgments of his Stoic philosophy.
The Marc-Aurel-Straße in Vienna’s 1st District is believed to be the location of the villa of the Emperor’s final years, and now the site of the Aurelius Restaurant & Wine Bar, specializing in the Mediterranean cuisine we can imagine the Emperor himself might have favored.
Looking over the menu outside, however, we concluded that penette with anchovies, capers and peperoncini or chocolate mousse with strawberries and vanilla ice cream would most likely not be found in ancient Roman times. But they’re definitely worthy of nobility today.
The first view of the restaurant explained it all in a single moment: it was warm, inviting and, judging by the mouth-watering smell wafting from the kitchen, it produced cuisine worthy of royalty. To the right, a glass case spanning from floor to ceiling displayed hundreds of wines from Italy, Austria and Spain. Dark wood paneling wrapped around the bar where we were asked to wait while our table was being prepared. This gave us the occasion to admire every little detail that made this restaurant so classy and charming, simple though it was. No art hung on the walls, but the wine labels served nicely to entertain the eye. A dark red vase to the right contained white orchids and bamboo where, after a few minutes, our server was waiting to escort us to our table.
We were seated in the front of the restaurant in the area surrounding the bar; high tables and leather booths hugged the walls and provided us with a cozy space for enjoying what we would soon find to be a scrumptious meal. Looking around the bar back into the depths of the restaurant, the dark woods and deep reds around us continued to flow throughout, where fellow diners (mostly couples) were sipping their Chianti or finishing up with a sweet and savory dessert. Downstairs, as we would discover later, brick archways and large family-style tables contributed to the Mediterranean feel, thrusting us as diners into an environment of ingredients and dishes of regional variation.
My dining companion, a true Italian with an extensive knowledge of wine, ordered us each a glass of Pinot Grigio, a 2008 Albino Armani from the Valdadige region of Italy. The wine, perfectly chilled, proved refreshing, dry and round with hints of fruit. We looked over our menus; it would be difficult to choose, so we fell happily into enjoying the warm olive bread and virgin olive oil that stood on our table. Once decided, we settled in and enjoyed the intoxicating scent of the Dannemann "sweet" cigar smoke coming from the neighboring table.
We had resolved to share an antipasto of beef carpaccio, and then continue on with our respective intermezzos and finally split a dessert. When the carpaccio arrived, the waiter, especially careful to place the plate precisely in the middle – this is an "equal opportunity" restaurant! – for maximum enjoyment of our appetizer. And enjoy it we did. The thinly sliced beef was infused with truffle oil and topped with parmesan flakes and rucola leaves, adding just the right amount of texture to the dish.
Truffle oil is considered a great delicacy and is sold by the 10s of milliliters in tiny, artistic bottles to the chefs and connoisseurs of the world. Needless to say, it is hard to come by – truffles grow under the soil and are only discoverable by pigs with particularly sensitive noses, which sniff out the truffles where they are hidden in the deep woods – an onerous process. However, the oil is even harder to come by, as it is made from certain natural pheromones of the females of the species secreted, perhaps a trifle indelicately, from their porcine snouts in order to attract males during mating. The good news, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment, is that this pheromone has a scent almost equal to the edible fungi. This secretion (oh yes, my friends) is then mixed with olive oil to produce what we call truffle oil. I am not making this up.
But back to the meal. The antipasto turned out to be perfectly portioned for the two of us. We were a bit disappointed, however, to later discover that a two-euro-per-person charge was added to the price simply to split the dish. In the end quality requires quantity…the food was undoubtedly good but raising the price in this way seemed not quite right.
It seems my mind was bent on truffles, as the main course later set before me contained tortellini with a truffle sauce and button mushrooms. At first, I was upset that there were only four pasta shells on my dish, but with the first bite I quickly realized that I would have no reason to be disappointed: The sauce was so rich and creamy that after almost licking my plate clean, I would have barely had room for even one more mushroom.
My partner-in-dining had somewhat of a different experience. Having ordered a saffron risotto with rucola and giant prawns, his first taste was a let down. "I could have made a better risotto," he complained. Curious, I requested a bite, and could only manage to mutter "Mmmmm." To me, it was heaven. But I guess to an Italian, accustomed to fine dining and fine wine, it takes more than that to seem special. To him, the presentation of the dishes also left something to be desired. "It’s not that it’s bad," he remarked, "it just isn’t representative of the quality of the food or the price that accompanies it."
At just the right moment, our dessert appeared: a lemon sorbetto with chilled fruit presented in a tall wine glass. The only way to describe this amazing concoction is to say that it is the dessert you always want with you when you’re outside on a hot summer’s day. Refreshing, tart and fruity with a splash of vodka thrown in, absolutely delicious and not at all heavy. I took the last bite and felt as if I needed nothing more in the world to be completely satisfied.
In the end, we were given a glass of grappa on the house, a drink I have rarely and had forgotten that it is stronger than it sounds. It worked its magic as a digestif and made my already pleasant mood a bit more pleasant. We sat back and let the conversation flow, as the couples, business partners and groups of friends slowly trickled out.
It was a fine evening of dining, wine and music, perhaps in its own way, doing honor to the great Marcus Aurelius himself. What more can one ask? Good food, good company and an Imperial feast on the hillside that was once home to a Stoic Philosopher King.
1., Marc-Aurel-Straße 8
(01) 535 55 24