The Unbearable Lightness of Organic Haute Cuisine
Once is not enough at the Kochsalon Wrenkh on Bauernmarkt
It’s amazing how such a small thing as dining out can give you such a lift. How a surprising flavor, and enticing smell, can set you floating up and out from under the weight of your usual worries. I wasn’t sure later what we had expected at Wrenkh Kochsalon, but maybe it didn’t matter: Expectations are at their best when they’re exceeded – unless of course you had none what so ever.
This is what I found.
Wrenkh Kochsalon is many things, all of which, I decided, should be experienced more than once: a restaurant, a culinary salon, a meeting place, a lifestyle, an ideology. Somehow it all fell together in perfect order in this small chic location at Bauernmarkt 10, in Vienna’s 1st District. Einmal is keinmal, as the German expression goes, "once may as well be never," so be warned: you’ll want to go back and become part of the scene.
Owner Christian Wrenkh first started the restaurant as a response to intense allergies back in 1982, when his need to go all-natural was acute and in Vienna, he didn’t really have much to choose from. It was a brave initiative in those days as people weren’t all that familiar with the concept of imaginative cooking, and it could have easily turned sour. Almost 20 years and many customers later, the Viennese local has defeated hay fever and old habits to become a local favorite, and leaving it in the safe hands of his two sons, Leo (22) and Karl (23), Wrenkh père now spends most of his time launching his second ‘culinary salon’ in Hamburg.
Upon entering from a narrow street across from Stephansdom on a rainy weekend night, I immediately felt relieved, as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Finally, refuge. Then I looked around; I suddenly felt underdressed. Now, I make no pretensions to posh, but I can fake it just fine when I have to. At first glance, indeed, it seemed as though this was one of those times. I fidgeted with my phone, pretending to be busy, and waited for the maitre d’ to seat me so I could go under cover.
Soon enough, however, I realized that despite the shimmering lights and the condensed space, the place was actually quite laid back, and I slid quite effortlessly into the scene. In fact, it seemed as though everyone, from students to socialites, fit right in. We were part of a timeless setting, almost like a scene from a novel, and I could have easily placed it in just about any city of the world. Laughter bubbled up from one of the back rooms, and I took my seat at a table we had fortunately reserved, as it was the only one available. But as my date was running awfully late, I got to sit back and do what I do best: observe.
It’s not exactly a young scene per se (but then again this is Vienna, not Dublin, and the attractive staff does a good job at lowering the age bar) but there is a general feeling of lightness floating in the air and everyone seems to be enjoying intimate conversations. The décor is simple: A fairly small room (just about enough to seat 30 people) with large rectangular windows facing the street and a modern mirror bar in the center expanding the sense of space from within.
Everything adds to the warmth: The walls are layered with tall smooth panels of lustrous cherry, lending a glow to the room, and it seems as though orange is the color of choice – the closest to the lightness of the outside as any interior can get. Polished wood tables and cane seated chairs set the clean lines of a kind of Bauhaus modern – no Jugendstil vines or Sezession geometrics. There are no unnecessary details and yet there is nothing missing. In fact, the only noticeable decorations are a few bottles of Campari sitting on a shelf, above the bar, adding depth to the color panel. The high ceiling seems to take away the pressure of a confined space and the cordial atmosphere would have a relaxing effect on just about anyone.
There’s no pressure of extravagant romanticism in this place – here is a place any woman could be comfortable alone – so I don’t feel too guilty pulling out my book while I sip on my remarkably well-prepared Campari Orange (the "orange effect" obviously worked on me). Dizzy Gillespie’s soaring trumpet sound fills the room.
My date finally arrives as I finish studying the menu. But we’re not in a hurry; you can’t be at this restaurant. The Wrenkh brothers Leo and Karl don’t believe in using a microwave and any mass produced foods, so all meals are cooked fresh, from scratch. And take time. I already know what I want, though, and it does not take long before a smiling waiter takes our orders. We decide on the Mango-Paprika Quinoa and the Ginger Peanut Curry Chicken, both for the fair price of 12,90 Euro.
However, the variety of the menu is a challenge, because of the unlikely combinations, such as the Fried King Trumpet Mushroom & Porcini Butter on the appetizer’s list or the classical Lucky Salad made out of buckwheat, smoked tofu and thyme quinoa. Wrenkh’s vegetables are far more than mere accompaniment. His "Lucky Cuisine" teaches that healthy nutrition lies in the balance between functionality and well-being, a concept that I would come to understand as the evening progressed. What started as a strictly vegetarian restaurant now serves a variety of meat, fish and fowl. So you don’t have to be a vegetarian to like this place.
And you don’t have to just stay on the customer side of the kitchen door either. Wrenkh organizes cooking classes for those interested in expanding their culinary repertoire, providing a mentor to help train the participants through the process, as well as coaching on all ingredients, recipes and accompanying wines. You learn intelligent gastronomy with like-minded souls, and at the end of the evening everyone enjoys a professional self-cooked meal as they congratulate each other on what an exquisite job they’ve done! The standard classes offered are vegetarian, but at the beginning of each new season there’s a timely dish to honor the best in Austrian traditional cooking. The next courses are set for Apr. 9 (vegetarian) and May 7 (spring), with a course minimum of five participants.
When the meal arrived, I was instantly swept up in the aroma of my quinoa, cooked hardly at all, thus preserving the original taste of this grain of the Andes. The spices reveal themselves in layers, lending a sensation of lingering weightlessness to the flavor, something I had never experienced before. The mango slices and goat cheese brought the perfect accompaniment. The Ginger Curry Chicken is served with white noodles, a Thai specialty, and has a very subtle flavor, harmonizing perfectly with the peanuts on the side. All these natural aromas remind me of my childhood, back when quality food was a prerogative rather than a luxury. Eating here is uplifting, which in the restaurant business is saying a lot.
(I wish I could learn how to make this, I find myself thinking. Oh wait, I can!)
Repetitiveness is the mother of all genuine experience, they say. "What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all," wrote Czech novelist Milan Kundera. For "the unbearable lightness of eating" at the Viennese Wrenkh Kochsalon, it’s easy to imagine how this could become a habit. Afterall, einmal ist keinmal.
10., Bauernmarkt 10
11:30-14:30 & 17:00-22:00