Lech am Arlberg, Austria – I last encountered the dedicated, enthusiastic German chef Otto Koch in 1994, when his cooking at the Michelin-starred Munich restaurant, le Gourmet, convinced me that modern German chefs have much to offer the world of gastronomy. His food was distinctly contemporary, totally appealing and surprising, all the while grounded in strong classical French roots. Unfortunately, shortly after our first encounters he closed Le Gourmet as well as the 80-year-old Bavarian institution – Restaurant Schwarzwälder – that he oversaw.
But the ever smiling, gentle Otto Koch is back in my life again, and I am richer for it. For the past two years he has been cooking at the Austrian ski resort of Lech am Arlberg, and it was no surprise to see his restaurant KochArt awarded a fresh, new Michelin star in the 2005 guide.
As a young man, the 56-year-old Bavarian-born chef trained at some of France’s top institutions, including Paris’s Taillevent. Today his food is mature and ever modern, and bears his trademark for simplicity, honesty, and always a touch of surprise.
In Munich, his two most famous dishes included a picture-perfect mushroom cake, layer after layer of the thinnest of crepes filled with a dense, earthy, mushroom filling. It was a Koch classic and we find it again on the tables of this Austrian outpost, a dish that seems to know no era, no seasons.
But perhaps his most famous creation was a bone marrow extravaganza: He scooped out the bone marrow, sliced the bones horizontally, then filled the “boats” full of a nutmeg-infused potato purée, all topped with crispy rounds of marrow seasoned with chives and freshly ground black pepper. The wintry dish was warming, surprising, full of fine textures and aromas. How times have changed! Mad cow fears have taken such specialties off our diets for the moment. So the creative Koch re-tooled the dish, transforming it into a lusty Jerusalem artichoke puree topped with slices of seared goose liver, all served in “boats” of bamboo. Two sauces --- one of chocolate, another of balsamic vinegar – played a sweet and sour dance on our palates.
Koch and the German Robinson resort group have done considerable market research into how their customers want to eat today, with most people suggesting that people go to restaurants for entertainment first, food second. So at KochArt the chef and staff do their best to keep you alert as well as amused. Attractive young women appear out of nowhere, in kitschy costumes that flatter their lean figures and may make you laugh aloud. Food is always the subject, whether it’s a series of whisks hanging from a skin-tight robe, or a bright red strapless gown with a wine glass fashioned at the cleavage. You may be handed “a present” in a little box, only to find it contains a tiny, miniature “Big Mac,” only here a bite-sized sausage on a bun. Laughter, indeed, breaks the ice, cools one down, sets the stage for very good time.
The dining room at KochArt, located in a resort hotel in the tiny village of Zürs, is cozy and comforting. While guests gather in front of a roaring fire, Koch himself describes what diners might expect, as well as his concept of making food fun.
The dining room is warming, with pine-paneled walls, crisp white linens, clean white china, and oversized, comfortable arm chairs upholstered in a cherry red fabric.
On the serious side, Koch’s food is just what we want to eat today. A perfect filet of the freshest of turbot arrives accompanied by fresh wild cèpe mushrooms, ideal for pairing with an outstanding Austrian white wine. We opted for the 2001 Gelber Muskateller from the house of Tement. Rich and ripe, this dry white from the Muscat grape has the scent of orange blossoms, with plenty of exotic fruit on the tongue.
Next, perfect rounds of fresh scallops showered with fresh black truffles was paired with a 2001 chardonnay white, here known as morillon, from Winkler-Hermaden. The pairing was ideal, for the wine had a Burgundy-like seriousness, soft in texture and harmonious, and elegant enough to stand up to the truffle/scallop combination.
But Koch’s finest moment came in the name of juicy, rare Bresse pigeon set on a bed of rare black rice. The rice, originally reserved for Chinese emperors, is now being grown in Italy, and is certain to become one of the trendier ingredients of the decade.
Known as venere black rice from the Piedmont region of Italy, it is difficult and costly to grow, and is offered by on a few producers. When cooked, the rice retains its ebony black color, and has the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread, retaining a crunch and texture unlike other risotto rices. With the rich squab meat we savored sips of a beautifully blended Austria red – a 2001 Cuvée Excelsior Weingut Ing from Stefan Lang – a mix no less than five grapes, including syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
Robinson Club Alpenrose
Lech am Arlberg
Zürs, 6763 Austria
Telephone (05583) 227 1742
Fax: (05583) 227 179
Open until April. Closed Sunday and Monday. About 48 € per person, including service but not wine.