Seasons by the Sea: Four Days in Vienna

In pursuit of Austrian cuisine
Despite the traditional Viennese preference for fried and boiled meats and potatoes, the markets offer a colorful array of seasonal and imported produce. Below, a meal of tafelspitz is preceded by broth with noodles or sliced pancakes. Laura Donnelly Photos

First of all, I have to admit that certain German words bring out the inner child in me, and that inner child is akin to Beavis and Butthead. Millennial boys will know what I mean. 

“Beavis and Butthead,” an animated sitcom created by Mike Judge in 1992, ran for many years and was made into a movie. The two characters are disgusting young boys who are titillated by any word that sounds dirty, and react to it by snickering “heh heh, you said [insert potentially dirty word here].”

I spent a few days in Vienna, Austria, last week, without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich cities in the world, and found myself giggling over such words as “gute fahrt,” “kartoffelpuffer,” and “botschafter,” which simply mean “good trip,” “hash browns,” and “ambassador.” But I digress before I’ve even begun. . . .

Vienna has a reputation for having the best desserts in the world, which is why a most thoughtful fellow invited me. The sachertorte could be the most famous. Other dishes of great renown are tafelspitz, or boiled beef; weiner schnitzel, which is deep-fried breaded veal; mohnnudeln, big potato gnocchi-like noodles covered in a sugary poppy seed goop; rindfleischsalat, beef salad made with leftover tafelspitz, and lots and hams and cheeses and dense dark breads. In other words, the traditional foods are gout-inducing, cholesterol-raising heavy fare that nobody should be eating on a daily basis.

Because I had accrued oodles of miles on my credit card, I was able to travel for $0 in business class, an experience I have had only once before in 62 years. “Oh, boy,” I thought, “this means I can hang out in the lounge of Austrian Airlines!” Their motto is “the charming way to fly,” which is a charming motto.

Airport lounges are as quiet as tombs, have comfortable seating, free booze, and often (so I hear) splendid buffets. This lounge had cold cuts, potato chips, macaroni salad, Chex mix, candy, and pizza. It was on a par with hospital food. I exited the lounge and found a stall called New York/Istanbul and enjoyed a gozleme, a flat bread stuffed with spinach and spices. Delicious . . . and green.

Things improved on the airplane, which had a “chef” taking meal orders. When researching the airline I came upon a travel story in which the writer actually believed the “chefs” on Austrian Airlines were going back into a real kitchen to cook the meals to order. Not so. As most of us know, open flames are not a good idea up in the air in an airtight capsule. There were offerings of white asparagus soup, beef fillet, prawns, tortellini, a cheese trolley, and desserts. The Austrians are also big into coffee, so there was a whole coffee menu to choose from after the meal. The coffee is divine everywhere in Vienna, even at McDonald’s. (Yes, I got an espresso one morning at McDonald’s.)

I had a full day to explore before my friend Benson arrived, so I wandered around and had a lunch of huge white asparagus topped with diced tomatoes, accompanied by buttery, parsley potatoes, and a very large bowl of hollandaise. To top it off I ordered a side dish of Vulcano ham, a cured ham that is aged for six months, marinated with herbs, and smoked briefly with beechwood. Oof, good start.

On our first night we tried to muster up some enthusiasm to try traditional Viennese food and went looking for Plachutta, a restaurant with three locations throughout the city and renowned for its tafelspitz. We got lost and settled on a nice little Italian joint called Sole and had shredded raw artichoke and fennel salad, sea bass with a potato crust and sautéed spinach, followed by tart lemon and blood orange sorbets. This place was so good (and healthy) we went back again another night.

Our days were spent in museums — two full days at the Albertina, viewing much Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Secessionist movement. We explored a farmer’s market where we found fraises des bois, tiny Alpine strawberries that are sweet and perfumy and very different from the larger ones we are used to. 

Most breakfasts were consumed in our hotel, where the buffet had a staggering array of more meats and cheeses; bircher muesli, a mixture of soaked oats with yogurt, nuts, and fruit; pretzel rolls; dense, dark, brown breads, and big jars of jams like sour cherry and gooseberry. Lunches were often at museum cafes, and they were excellent. At one I had a baked sweet potato topped with fresh porcini (also known as bolete) mushrooms, micro-greens, and a soy dressing. At another I had some darned good sushi. (Sorry folks, I just didn’t want to gain 10 pounds a day.) 

We fell in love with one of Vienna’s famous pastries called Esterhazy, similar to a Napoleon, which is composed of layers of hazelnut dacquoise (meringue) filled with buttercream, and topped with a sugar icing. The apple strudels everywhere were also delicious, and often served with vanilla sauce, because why should a rich dessert have to be served without more sugar and fat?

We spent one evening touring the local TV station ORF, and watching the evening news broadcast, which is five minutes long. Benson’s friend, a native Austrian named Christian, explained to us that Austria is a very relaxed, neutral country, welcoming to immigrants, and with very little fear of terrorism. Quite refreshing considering its history.

By our third evening (I only had four days), I forced my host to indulge my need to try the traditional foods. We found one of Plachutta’s locations and tucked into weiner schnitzel and the boiled beef tafelspitz. It was far better than it sounded. You choose which cut of beef you would like (rump, tongue, shoulder, whatever), and it is presented in a beautiful copper pot full of broth with carrots and leeks. You begin with the broth, which comes with either noodles or sliced pancakes. 

It was insanely good. The accompaniments are applesauce with horseradish, shredded fried potatoes, and chive sauce that is made with milk-soaked white bread, then turned into a mayonnaise emulsion with vegetable oil and lots of chopped chives. The meat is cut superthin and is very tender, like the best brisket you’ve ever had. There is a thick bone full of marrow in the broth, which is meant to be slathered on toasted brown bread and sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was the best marrow I’ve ever tasted. Alas, Benson’s weiner schnitzel, while tender, was merely two slabs of oily, breaded veal with a wedge of lemon.

On our last night we tried a Turkish restaurant surrounded by weapons stores. It was so bad (smoking allowed inside, pee yew!) we left after trying only the hummus, fried zucchini, and falafel.

The next and last stop, the famed Hotel Sacher, was ground zero for that famous sachertorte. I’m going to be sacrilegious here and say I was underwhelmed. It is a somewhat dry, not very chocolaty cake with a layer of apricot jam and a somewhat gritty chocolate glaze. Truth be told, I would take a French fruit tart or éclair over this anytime. 

The architecture, music, art, people, and parks of Vienna were truly wonderful, but I did not come back thinking, “Hot diggity, I can’t wait to try that recipe at home!” I prefer colorful and crunchy vegetables, things that have spice and zest, healthful things. Fish and rice, not noodles and cream.

It was a glorious trip, however, and I would go back in a heartbeat. Besides the beauty of the city, I became enamored of the language, which often combines several words to create a new word and meaning. For instance “kummerspeck” literally translates to “grief bacon,” that syndrome many of us have experienced of overeating to soothe us after a breakup or job loss or stress. “Torschlusspanik” means “closing gate panic,” that feeling of being afraid you’re missing out on things in life and you’d better hurry up and do them. “Erklarungsnot,” which brings Beavis and Butthead back to mind (heh-heh, you said ‘snot!’) literally translates as “explanation poverty,” and is used to describe dishonest politicians, children who lie about their homework, and various other liars and cheaters. That word will come in handy every day back here in America. 

Perhaps my favorite word of all, because it relates to food, is a word regarding laws and the labeling of beef. I have no flipping idea what it means literally but here goes: rindfleischetikettierungsuberwachungsaufgabenubertragungsges. 

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