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How easy it would be to let yourself get distracted by the scenery at Verwallstube restaurant. When the sun shines you can eyeball a string of great peaks, including the 2812-metre Valluga that tops out St Anton's ski runs and allows for magnificent powder plunges that you'll enthuse about all week over après-ski drinks. Snowfields glitter, icicles on the restaurant's eaves twinkle. Skiers are red and blue blobs on a white heaven of slopes.
You aren't likely to look up in the Verwallstube, though. Not if you order the duck cappuccino, anyway. The soup comes in a glass and is topped with pistachios and black salsify whose sweet, earthy flavour provides a nice counterbalance to the rich broth. It's one of the most satisfying soups I've ever tasted, and the least of the restaurant's surprises. You can order garlic soup with frog's legs – deliciously smooth and smoky – or a duet of foie gras with Valrhona chocolate and red-cabbage sorbet. Right from the entrées, Verwallstube sets out to distract you with glorious food.
All the more surprising, then, that this restaurant is wedged into the 2085-metre summit station of Galzig cable-car between St Anton and neighbouring St Christophe. You'd normally expect to find a cafeteria serving beef burgers and sloppy chili con carne in such a location. After all, ski resorts aren't exactly renowned for their fine dining. But this is the Arlberg ski region, which claims a legendary on-slope Bordeaux wine cellar at Hospiz Alm and a remarkable density of hatted restaurants. Verwallstube is awarded two chef's toques by Gault & Millau, which many consider more reliable than the Michelin guide thanks to its exclusive focus on food.
The restaurant itself is unassuming. You just sling your jacket on a peg and clump to your table in your ski boots. You get white tablecloths and wine glasses, but otherwise you might be in any Austrian tavern thanks to pinewood panelling and floral curtains. You can sit on a big terrace outside with the same metal-mesh floor as any ski terrace. As for chef Matthias Weinhuber, he could be a ski-boarder who has strayed from regular Rendl mountain boarding haunts. He's young, sports dreadlocks and tattoos, is a fan of the Foo Fighters and declares a liking for burritos.
There are no burritos on the menu. If anything, ingredients such as jackfruit, finger limes, ginger and wasabi show a gentle Asian influence. But you can get some hearty Austrian classics, including schnitzel, beef bouillon with pancakes strips, and the traditional boiled-beef Tafelspitz with apple, horseradish and creamed spinach. The chef doesn't shy from tackling – and improving – classics from elsewhere too, such as impeccable Dover sole and (perhaps his most talked-about dish), bouillabaisse.
There are challenges to running a fine-dining kitchen at altitude. Ingredients in transit have to be protected from the cold. Things take longer to cook and require a heavier hand with salt and seasonings. Prep time is limited, since the kitchen can only open during cable-car hours. The result is a limited menu that is most inventive in its small dishes, such as an in-between-courses gin and tonic with ginger and pear sorbet, or a red-onion tea with broccoli, or a dessert of Japanese green-tea cheesecake with spicy chocolate and caramel.
Your tastebuds are so seduced they just take over, and you forget the views beyond the windows. Later, you'll lurch outside in your ski boots and be dazzled anew by the mountain fangs that serrate the horizon as you click into your skis, and swoosh away into another fine ski day in Austria.
Verwallstube Restaurant in Galzig cable-car above St Anton is open during the ski season daily for lunch, and for candlelit dinners on Thursday evenings. See verwallstube.at
Hotel Schwarzer Adler in St Anton's old-town centre has a wellness centre, excellent restaurants and an impressive wine cellar. See schwarzeradler.com
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy the Austrian National Tourist Office.