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Wrenkh – Wiener Kochsalon: pioneers of vegetarian cuisine in Vienna

By James Gray

The Viennese and vegetarianism do not always go hand in hand. My wife, who is strictly nil-meat-by-mouth, once ordered the vegetarian option at one Vienna restaurant and was horrified to be handed a bowl of cream of potato soup with chunks of bacon debris sloshing offensively on the surface.

Taking vegetarian cuisine to an entirely different level is the restaurant Wrenkh, located at Bauernmarkt in Vienna’s Innere Stadt or 1st district. Established in 1982 by Christian Wrenkh, 57, it was one of the first vegetarian restaurants in Vienna and has become synonymous with fine but simple vegetarian fare.

Christian Wrenkh’s original concept was based on using regional and whole foods, but he quickly realised the value of vegetarian cooking not only in terms of its relative novelty at the time, but also because of its health benefits; Wrenkh turned to vegetarianism as a way of coping with allergies.

Now run by his two sons, Karl, 24, and Leopold, 23, the menu is roughly 80% vegetarian and although regional meat and fish dishes have since been added, the principle remains the same: simple, tasty food using ingredients of the highest quality.

The menu embraces foods and ingredients from all corners of the globe. “We have always tried to incorporate influences from all over the world, in particular Asia – India, Japan and Thailand – simply because the vegetarian tradition there is very pronounced,” says Karl Wrenkh. And in the spirit of the Wiener Tradition (the Turks brought coffee, the Hungarians goulash and the Milanese the Schnitzel, all of which Vienna is happy to tout as time-honoured classics), chefs Karl and Leo have developed a knack for assimilating, repackaging and serving up something truly original.

The restaurant’s specialities are soups as well as salads which can be eaten either as a starter or a main course; try the ginger and sweet potato soup, the wrenkh salat, comprising polenta, smoked tofu and parmesan, or the smoked tofu and quinoa-based steirischer glückssalat.

Quinoa (pronounced “keenwa”) has become something of a signature ingredient for Wrenkh. A seed rich in vitamins and minerals, quinoa contains more protein than any other grain, while the quality of its protein is higher than that of meat. Karl explains: “We make a risotto with quinoa, for example, instead of rice, simply because it makes an excellent alternative and tastes good, and you have all the positive health benefits as well.” Try Wrenkh’s crispy quinoa gemüse gröstl with buffalo mozzarella and pomodori secchi, a delicately presented yet pleasantly filling dish. Or the quinoa with mango, peppers and sautéed goat’s cheese, one of Wrenkh’s classics.

Curry has also become a passion, and the chefs pride themselves on their own special blends of curry powder. “Curry is universal, almost everyone likes curry,” says Karl. “And there are endless variations. We like to experiment.” Try the mango peanut curry and stir-fried chicken with ginger.

And if you make it as far as dessert, the valrhona schokoladentörtchen comes highly recommended: a chocolate tartlet, crispy on the outside, deliciously gooey on the inside, and complemented by an apple and ginger compote and berry confit.

The menu is updated on a regular basis to ensure the dishes remain seasonal. “We try to change the menu every couple of months,” explains Karl. “We have eight to ten main courses on the menu, of which three always stay the same while the rest are changed seasonally.”

Significantly, the restaurant maintains a close relationship with suppliers, all of whom are based locally or, wherever possible, in Austria. Wrenkh sources the highest-quality tofu from an Austrian supplier and the chefs are fastidious about the quality and freshness of the vegetables. “You have to be careful with organic produce,” says Karl. “Often organic comes at the expense of quality so what you are actually left with is a poor quality product and that’s unacceptable.” The dream, he says, is to one day grow their own vegetables.

The emphasis is on the simplicity of the food and the combination of flavours; as Karl points out, there is little point overwhelming the palate with an explosion of flavours. “It’s all very well to have eight different herbs or spices or fifteen different flavours heading off in all directions, but unless you’re an expert you won’t know where to start. Which is why we make a point of not using more than three or even two main elements in any one dish.”

The simplicity of the food is also reflected in the unassuming décor. The interior design, while classically modern and linear, creates a softness and warmth through the tan-coloured wood panelling and tables. The restaurant seats around 60, although the adjoining Kochsalon can be opened up to accommodate a further 30 or so people. Despite its relatively small size, the space is bright and airy and the atmosphere relaxed.

Wrenkh welcomes the full spectrum of clientele, from the young and upwardly mobile and the lunchtime business crowd to families and pensioners. The restaurant also features in many guide books and as such has proven a hit with the tourists. And while not all of the customers are exclusively vegetarian, Karl has noticed a significant rise in the number of people cutting meat from their diet recently. “According to [Austrian chef] Eckart Witzigmann, vegetarian cuisine will be winning all the awards in the twenty-first century and I tend to agree,” says Karl.

For those interested in the art of vegetarian cooking, Viennese cuisine or simply looking for an entertaining and social evening out, the restaurant’s business concept also includes a range of cooking courses and events in the Wiener Kochsalon. Clients range from businesses who use the courses as team building exercises to private parties. Singles and couples can also indulge in the “sensual cooking” events, where aphrodisiacal ingredients are said to awaken the sixth sense.

The huge success of the Wiener Kochsalon also has much to do with the rise in popularity of celebrity chefs and Jamie Oliver has a lot to answer for, says Karl. “I’m sure that if it weren’t for this trend, for the hype that celebrity chefs have created, none of this would have been possible, that companies would never have thought of getting together the whole executive board and cooking together at the Christmas party.”

Offering a modern take on Viennese hospitality with simple, wholesome and tasty food, the quality of the cuisine and the friendly atmosphere of Wrenkh will have you coming back for more – vegetarian or not.

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Wrenkh · Wiener Kochsalon · Wien
Bauernmarkt 10
1010 Vienna
Restaurant: + 43 (1) 5 33 1526 (daily except Sun from 12 – 10pm)
Event reservation:  + 43 (0) 699 101 101 03 (Mon to Fri 10am – 5pm)
Open Monday to Saturday from 12 – 10pm | Kitchen 12 – 10pm, closed Sunday
http://www.wiener-kochsalon.com

Christian Wrenkh is also author of the gourmet recipe book Sehr gut vegetarisch kochen, available from http://www.test.de/shop/buecher-spezialhefte/sp0262000/?mc=koop.vegetarisch-kochen.link

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