Tian in Vienna: “This vegetarian restaurant brings people closer to nature through food”
Only a few decades ago, the choice of being vegetarian was often greeted with a fair amount of scepticism, as if it were an act of activism or a sign of a deficient diet. “I’ll have the salmon,” some would say, muddying the waters until the term pescatarian became known. And how often does the vegetarian dish still look sad and lonely on the menu, as if it were just there to tick a box, a Plan B for those who chose to avoid meat? In the world of Paul Ivic, vegetables are not the understudies; they are the headline act. “People don’t realise that porcini can be more expensive than good meat, and while many make broth with cheap bones, I use mushrooms that cost 18 euros a kilo,” he explains as we share a meal in a village in the hills northwest of Vienna. Ivic, with Croatian roots and born in Tyrol, had what you’d call a typical chef’s career, working in resort kitchens. Meat and fish were part of his work back then, and they are still part of his diet today. “I was losing energy, feeling sick. That culture of profit maximisation using low-quality, high-quantity food meant compromising my integrity and cheating my clients. It was akin to serving poison, and after four years, I felt poisoned too.” Turning to the fruits of the earth became his focus, and with that, a realisation that his cooking should follow nature’s lead, not the other way around.
“When we opened Tian, nobody liked us,” he laughs. “Journalists were writing bad reviews, and finding the right suppliers was tough. The only obstacle was convincing customers to come in. Once they sat down to eat, 99% of them would fall in love with the food.”
Now, things are very different. Tian is a Michelin-starred restaurant and not an easy one to book. Its plant-focused concept also extends to its two sister operations: the more casual Tian Bistro, which serves delicious, unfussy (and vegan-friendly) dishes meant for sharing, and their seasonal venture, Tian am Meer, in the Adriatic at the Croatian Falkensteiner resort.
Wines are curated by sommelier Andre Drechsel, one of the architects of the restaurant’s success. “Initially, we didn’t understand how important wine was; we just bought all the big brands. Then one day Andre, who wasn’t with us yet, said ‘you talk about organic, you talk about nature, but your wines don’t align’.” Ivic smiles at the memory, “I had to convince his wife first for him to come aboard – that was the strategy.” Drechsel confirms with a nod, adding, “We had drinks one night, and then my wife said to me, ‘maybe Tian is right for you’, and I was like ‘really, have you seen that chandelier?’. The sommelier, known for his hard-rock T-shirts, wasn’t feeling it. But a couple of days later, after a negotiation that ended with a champagne-filled evening – of which neither recalls much apart from shaking hands – he was part of the team.
“It’s fine for a restaurant to have a dress code; sometimes you want to wear a suit, feeling the ambiance,” Ivic explains. “That’s not us, though. On a day when it was 35 degrees, a man stopped outside, eyeing the restaurant but feeling uncomfortable about entering in shorts and sandals. We welcomed him in regardless, and it turned out he was one of the richest guys in Germany – it was just too hot that day for anything else. If you choose to wear a Motorhead T-shirt [like Drechsel does now], you can do that at Tian.”
Being partial to fish and meat, even more so in a fine-dining context, I’m intrigued to experience and understand what makes this restaurant one of the best in the world for vegetables. The dining room of Tian is quite stunning, with its 19th-century architecture echoing a grand past while the decor and lighting fixtures are projected into the contemporary.
As we sit at the table, we kick off with a glass of champagne from Adrien Renoir, who works with organic vineyards on the slopes of Verzy. It strikes a crisp note, but there’s undeniable depth from the ageing, carrying aromas of pear and honey.
The tasting menu commences with an exploration of kohlrabi, initially in the form of a rose crafted from slow-grilled and chickweed-macerated kohlrabi; then of a shot of freshly squeezed kohlrabi juice; and finally of a dome composed of pickled kohlrabi slices, stuffed with vinegar-marinated kohlrabi julienne. The restaurant’s concept is immediately evident: showcasing all the flavours of an ingredient, respecting its nature while simultaneously presenting it in more elaborate forms.
A first favourite is the Tropea, Thyme, Mirabelle; a consommé made from Tropea onion and topped with a julienne of dried onion purée. It’s very elegant and, more importantly, another flawless celebration of a vegetable’s rich flavour.
The wine experience continues with an exclusive collaboration; Austrian revered natural producer Christian Tschida made for Tian All the Love of the Universe, a light and refreshing chardonnay, sprung from pure chalk soils. Next, we segue to the archetypal Austrian white grape, the Grüner Veltliner, from Heidelinde und Markus Lang, before sampling an enriched version – with an added third of pinot noir – from Casa Amore, namely Into the Arms 2019.
Tian’s pièce de résistance is the courgette section of the dinner. First, there are finely sliced steamed courgette ribbons, on a reduced tomato water with shiso and fennel oil. It’s so appealing it almost bothers me to dismantle it – but oh, how rewarding it is. Then, nestled on a tomato risotto lies a crunchy, perfectly baked courgette flower. Each spoonful is so gratifying, with all the flavours coming together. Dish by dish, I fully appreciate when Ivic says that, not being a vegetarian, he can focus on creating a flavoursome plate regardless of the fact he’s using only vegetables. One of his anecdotes springs to mind: when he was in Munich for a consultancy, the on-site team would proudly serve him a vegan dish, which he didn’t fancy, and yet they would react saying “but it’s vegan!”, missing the point that first it had to be delicious. The story ended with the staff being let go.
With the porcini courses, we’re served Aus Der Kreide 2014, a blaufränkisch from Rosi Schuster, a winery we had visited earlier in the day. Still bearing the name of its founder, Rosi, the estate is currently under the guidance of her son Hannes, whose passion for the terroir, the local varieties and the region’s winemaking heritage is both tangible and infectious, a feeling that’s reflected in each bottle we tried. The finesse in the tannins and the layers of complexity on the palate are all indications of his understanding and deep respect for the winemaking craft.
Next comes a trio of desserts, among which the Beni, Raspberry, Amazake is the clear standout. The sumptuous, velvety 66% Bolivian chocolate mousse and brownie, paired with the tartness of the raspberry and the subtle sweetness of the amazake sorbet, provides the right conclusion to tonight’s tasting menu.
In a city known for wiener schnitzel, beuschel and tafelspitz, where the centre is brimming with hot dog stands, it’s almost paradoxical that one of Europe’s leading vegetarian restaurants calls it home. Tian exemplifies the ethos of an organic movement that is dedicated to safeguarding the terroir, utilising what the land provides to its fullest, while always honouring the cycle of the seasons and the shifts in climate. When Ivic speaks, articulating his wish “to reconnect with nature and to bring people closer to nature through our food,” believe him, for that is precisely what he’s doing.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at Tian, Himmelpfortgasse 23 Wien AT 1010, call +43 1 8904665 or visit their website here.