"Grammel schmalz," says our waiter, setting down a small bowl of pristine whipped white pork fat sprinkled with bits of pork crackling. I lift up the napkin wrapped around the bread and pull out a glossy brown braided pretzel. Breaking off a piece, I spread the bread with the lard. I take a bite and the warm, comforting taste of pure pig fat floods my mouth.
This is, it turns out, the first of many pleasures at BierBeisl, a modern Austrian restaurant in Beverly Hills, Southern California's first, from Patina alum Bernhard Mairinger, who grew up near Salzburg. After working in L.A. as Patina's chef de cuisine under executive chef Tony Esnault, Mairinger found himself missing Austrian cooking. L.A. didn't have an Austrian restaurant, so why not?
BierBeisl is the first restaurant for the 27-year-old chef. While the menu does have excellent sausages and a classic weinerschnitzel, he's intent on bringing contemporary Austrian cooking to Los Angeles. The cuisine is under-appreciated in this country, probably because it's so little known. And that's a shame. Breads and pastries are outstanding, not to mention the wines, and you eat well at every level from heurigen (wine pub) to traditional and sophisticated modern restaurants.
With its wood-topped tables, small bar pouring Austrian beer and stammtisch, or communal table, BierBeisl looks simple enough. The food is anything but. It's a credit to Mairinger's skills that it all comes out of a galley kitchen the size of many home kitchens. The best seat in the house is at the counter in front of that kitchen, where you can watch the 6-foot-7 chef seemingly effortlessly turn out polished dishes with the help of a single assistant.
To start, try the carpaccio, fine slices of cold roast pork fanned out on the plate like cards and strewn with sliced bread dumpling and a confetti of red and green peppers in a vinaigrette that includes pumpkin seed oil from Styria in Austria. His house-cured char is fabulous too, slightly firmer than raw, paired with diced golden beets on a creamy fresh horseradish sauce.
His sweetbreads are beautifully plain and creamy on the inside, served with cheese-laced potato purée and green beans cut like beads with a hardboiled quail egg dusted with black truffle. An elegant dish, and a great one to share.
Big appetites can dig into one of the traditional sausages Mairinger has custom-made for him at Continental Gourmet Sausage in Glendale. Weisswurst come slow-simmered in milk, bratwurst with sauerkraut and the typical wiener with fresh horseradish and a roll. But the most unusual and a real specialty of the house is meaty käsekrainer infused with Swiss cheese and bursting with juice. He presents it in an oval white porcelain dish with tarragon mustard and fresh horseradish. The sausages are available at lunch and most of the afternoon too, for a quick bite with an Austrian beer served with all due ceremony.
Mairinger's schnitzel is as good as it gets in L.A., fried to a dark gold without a speck of grease. It comes in three versions: veal, pork or turkey. I actually think I like the pork best for its flavor. And you'll want the vinegary potato salad rather than the fries with it. He's got veal gulash too, in a subtle paprika-stained sauce, and serves it with tender squiggly spaetzle showered with chives.
There's also a terrific white fish filet with a warm cucumber-celery salad — genius! — in a thyme-scented nage that's quite possibly the lightest dish on the menu.
The superb venison loin with braised red cabbage and toasted walnuts I had one night has been replaced by a thick section of seared lamb loin roasted with an herb and breadcrumb topping and plated with roasted miniature sweet red peppers and the tiniest fresh favas over a creamy goat cheese polenta. Good thing both dishes aren't on the same menu: I wouldn't be able to choose between them.
Pork belly has become so ubiquitous that it doesn't look all that exciting anymore. I don't know how he does it, but this one, part of the "duo of pork," grabs your attention. It's that almost jellied texture of the belly against the crisped skin, and most of all the sweet, porky flavor. I loved the wide ribbons of cabbage mixed with noodles and the rich braised pork cheeks (the second half of the duo) in whole-grain mustard jus too. All the benefits of choucroûte without the bulk.
The wine list is still in progress, but even so, it has a nice list of Austrian whites — Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc — from top producers, with more on the way. They're not inexpensive, but quality is high. Reds include Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent (a relative of Pinot Noir).
I can see myself stopping by for dessert in the afternoon sometime. That's when you can best appreciate an apple strudel. This is the real deal, not at all sweet, just a fine fragile pastry wrapped around finely sliced apples scented with cinnamon. Pastry chef Lisette Rodriguez makes a mean kaiserschmarrn too, a rough-cut, warm, eggy pancake served with house-made plum compote in a French canning jar. And instead of the usual poppyseed cake, she makes a parfait of thin chocolate tuille with a white chocolate parfait dotted with hundreds of the blue seeds.
Oh, and don't forget the schnapps or eau de vies, especially since they're from Hans Reisetbauer and Alois Goëlles, two of Austria's best distillers.
Here's a young chef cooking his heart out every night to show Los Angeles what real Austrian cooking is all about. Let's hope there will soon be as many people lined up for apple strudel as there are for cupcakes ordered from the machine outside Sprinkles one block over. This is Beverly Hills. Anything could happen.
A smart new Austrian restaurant from former Patina chef de cuisine Bernhard Mairinger, who turns out polished contemporary cooking from a small open kitchen.
Location: 9669 Little Santa Monica Blvd. (between Bedford and Roxbury), Beverly Hills, (310) 271-7274; http://www.bierbeisl-la.com
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $18; soups, $7 to $9; main courses, $19 to $36; desserts, $8 to $11; sausages, $7 to $10.
Details: Open noon to midnight Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays. Sunday prix fixe family-style dinners by reservation only. Closed Wednesdays. Corkage, $15. Street and public lot parking.