Since its opening last February, much has been made of BierBeisl, Bernhard Mairinger's restaurant in the heart of Beverly Hills. The chef's surprising numerical statistics have been examined (he's a giant 6 feet 7 inches, heightwise, and a baby, 28, agewise). He's been the subject of many "best" and "best new" and "hottest" lists. And, as chef/owner of "L.A.'s only authentic Austrian restaurant," Mairinger has seen much (justified) oohing and ahhing over his schnitzel, goulash, bratwurst, weisswurst and selection of schnapps.
But the thing I didn't expect, even after reading all about the place, was how much BierBeisl feels exactly like the fantastic but unassuming restaurants sprinkled throughout Europe. This place is just so damn different from everywhere else that has opened in the last year. The almost spare restaurant, with its high ceilings, white walls and simple wood tables, feels as if it could be tucked into a steep street in a mountain town in Austria, or Belgium, or Germany, rather than between a nail parlor and a mailbox-and-postal business in one of America's swankiest shopping districts.
This is no easy trick, nor is it, I suspect, completely purposeful. Yes, Mairinger was looking to present L.A. with an honest representation of the cooking of his homeland. But there's something about the space: the small, open kitchen with Mairinger working purposefully; the plain, wooden bar with Austrian and German beers on tap; the slightly odd service — earnest, formal, a touch naive and awkward — that translates many subtleties of European dining rarely seen on this side of the pond. Because, in contrast to the hoopla that generally surrounds an L.A. restaurant headed by a young, talented chef, at BierBeisl there is a quiet focus on the food. And for good reason.
Mairinger came up through the ranks in Europe, beginning when he was 15. He spent seven years toiling in top hotels, restaurants and resorts in England, Austria and Switzerland, and by the time he was 22 he was working in Germany at the Michelin-starred Da Gianni (he came to L.A. in 2008 as Patina's chef de cuisine). As a result, he has a firm grip on classic technique, a highly endangered asset in today's world of young chefs who know which chemicals will make your food look like globules of magical, quivering boogers but aren't sure how to make a Caesar salad dressing by hand. Thus we get a lot of cool ideas but very little old-school elegant and assured cooking, built from the ground up on practiced, measured skill, rather than ego and creativity.
Mairinger's cooking adheres to that foundation of doing things right. It starts with knife skills (how often these days, even at the best restaurants, do you see a perfect, uniform brunoise in the flecks of carrots in a dish of lentils?). But it goes on to touch every aspect of the menu.
Take an appetizer of sweetbreads with salsify and melted leeks. In this offal-obsessed era, it could be on so many menus, and succeed, too. But Mairinger is operating at a higher level. Each element is cooked to its ideal, and he has added the exact right amount of acid and fat. There's no oiliness, no sense that this was thrown together. It is meticulous, and catch-your-breath delicious.
The menu is a mix of high-end dishes like this and the classic foods of Austria — goulash, schnitzel, sausages. The goulash is stewy and reassuring, less spiced than the version Beverly Hills has come to know at Spago. It's served with a generous portion of spaetzle, half noodle, half pancake. Schnitzel is golden-brown and savory — you can choose from veal, pork or turkey.
There's also one of the best charcuterie plates in town: nine types of Austrian sausages, forcemeats, pâtés and cured meats including tiroler, a high-end bologna made from veal and pork; landjaeger, a chewy, cured and cold-smoked beef sausage; and a house-made lard spread. The plate would be worth ordering for the collection of pickles alone — beautifully spiced and acidic cauliflower, kohlrabi, garlic and more.
But much of the pleasure to be had here is in dishes where Austria can be tasted alongside Mairinger's influence. One of the best things on the menu is also one of the simplest: a voluminous pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed pesto; it's creamy and nutty and balanced by the brightness of a tomato foam. Lightly cured Arctic char comes with a tiny brunoise of cucumbers, a mild horseradish creme fraiche and a fresh herb salad. The fish and accompaniments taste clean and bracing, like a stream created by melting snow.
The wine list is a dream if you know your way around Austrian and German wines, and a little tricky if you don't — descriptions are given for entire regions and varietals but not specific bottles. But there are gems to be found here, and on the beer list as well, including Stiegl Radler, which is half beer and half grapefruit soda, and would make for excellent breakfast imbibing if such a thing were advisable.
BierBeisl is an expensive restaurant. Bottles on that wine list start at around $48, and salads are $16 (owing in part, to the fact that Mairinger dresses each one with some pretty amazing and undoubtedly costly vinegars). Appetizers can be as much as $20, and entrees can get close to $40. But the restaurant also delivers one of the city's great deals in its sausage tastings, which cost $35 for three sausage courses, each paired with a different beer, or $55 for five courses.
Mairinger works with Continental Gourmet Sausage in Glendale to produce sausages to his exacting specifications, and whether you opt for the sausage tasting or not, the bratwursts, weisswursts and debreziners are not to be missed. Each sausage comes with a simple, thoughtful accompaniment. Bratwurst is seared lightly but with exactly the right golden snap, nestled next to spicy brown mustard and sauerkraut imbued with extreme vinegar acid, so fruity and flavorful you forgive the fact that your saliva glands are working overtime. The weisswurst, pale and plump and cozying up to some of sausage's lesser known friends (nutmeg, for instance), is slow-simmered in milk and comes draped in milk-infused onions. Käsekrainer, similar to a Polish sausage but infused with Swiss cheese, comes with tarragon mustard and fresh horseradish. When you cut it open, it oozes cheese and fat, which might sound a tad gross but is actually straight sexy.
Also falling into the straight sexy category are the desserts, particularly the kaiserschmarrn. Something like an eggy, crispy pancake/bread pudding hybrid, it comes with a tart plum compote — and it's what I want to eat for breakfast every day (along with my grapefruit beer).
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BierBeisl's staff couldn't be more committed to the task, more supportive of Mairinger's vision. But they lack the oversight on the service front to fully follow through. It's hard to criticize such earnest service, yet they're easily overwhelmed. They just might clear all your utensils without reason, or give an overly zealous welcome speech before leaving you without much service at all for the rest of the evening. I get the feeling there's no one true leader on the floor but rather a higher power who rules all — namely, Mairinger. The restaurant could perhaps do with a true front-of-house professional.
But mainly, BierBeisl is a relief. A relief from the trendy, the ordinary, the overdone. Here is something different. Here is something genuine. Here is a restaurant that, even ignoring the easily hyped metrics of its 28-year-old, 6-feet-7-inch Austrian chef, is straight sexy.
BIERBEISL | Three stars | 9669 Little Santa Monica Blvd. | (310) 271-7274 | Mon., Tues., Thurs.-Sat., noon-mid. Closed Sun. & Wed. | Reservations recommended | Full bar | Street and city lot parking