Wining and Dining: Vienna, Austria
Vienna, at the heart of Europe, is a city offering a unique blend of the arts, culture, music, and shopping, where 19th century Imperial traditions coexist alongside the latest trends. One doesn’t have to go far to see a Fiaker (horse-drawn carriage) being passed by a skateboarder.
Tradition is everywhere, from the Kaffeehaus (coffee house) to ubiquitous paintings and photographs of Kaiser Franz Joseph I., the Habsburg emperor who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1848 to 1916.
Vienna is one of the only cities in the world with its own cuisine (most cuisines are regional- or country-specific) and it’s not just Sacher Torte and Strudel. Rather, it is built upon the culinary traditions of the many outposts of the Empire. From Hungary came imaginative tortes and gulyás (which became Gulasch, or goulash, even though gulyás in Hungary is a soup), from Milan, the breaded veal cutlet which became Wiener Schnitzel, from Bohemia, hearty dumplings and savory meats—in Vienna, all this and more was mixed together, improved upon, and reborn as Wiener Küche (Viennese cuisine)
Indeed what many refer to as Danish is said to have originated in Vienna [the Danes call it wienerbrød (Viennese bread)] and the croissant is thought to have been created by Viennese bakers to celebrate the defeat of the Turks in the Siege of Vienna (the French consider the croissant to be in the Viennoiserie family). Despite the battle, the Viennese remain grateful to the Turks for having introduced coffee to the city, thereby starting the Kaffeehaus (coffee house or café) tradition that remains a big part of daily life in the city.
Vienna is also the only capital city in the world with a significant wine-growing region (ca. 700 hectares) within its borders. The city’s wines are best sampled in a Heuriger, a tavern offering wine from the last harvest (the word “Heurig” literally means “this year’s”) which can be found in outlying districts of the city such as Grinzing and Nußdorf. There locals and visitors enjoy a glass of locally-produced Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, or Zweigelt with light food and snacks.
For decades if not centuries, the fine dining scene in Vienna focused on formal, dark restaurants such as the Drei Husaren and those found in the Hotel Sacher and Hotel Imperial. Today, however, a new generation of restauranteurs is challenging that tradition with casual restaurants such as Österreicher im MAK and Steirereck Meierei. Beyond the nobel (luxury, literally “fancy”) restaurants are the bürgerliche (bourgeois or somewhat middle-class), and the Beisl (tavern or pub).
Join me on a culinary tour of Vienna as we sample the old alongside the new, the nobel, the bürgerliche, and the Beisl.
A walk through the Stadtpark past the tourists and the golden statue of waltz king Johann Strauß II playing the violin brings us to the Meierei, run by the Reitbauer family, which also owns the adjoining and far more formal Restaurant Steirereck, with which it shares a kitchen and menu items. The word “Meierei” means a dairy farm and a milk theme runs deep throughout the restaurant, with milky white walls, glass milk bottles on the tables, and green floors. Cheese looms large on the menu, with 120 varieties from 13 countries, many local.
Our meal began with the Hochzeitssuppe, or “wedding soup,” clear beef bouillon poured over four superb bites: a large Grießnockerl (semolina dumpling), a stuffed wonton, a crispy piece of Milzschnitte (lung strudel), and a small biscuit.
To accompany this, we were served a glass of Der Schrammler – Grande Reserve 2006, a wonderful gemischter Satz or field-blend wine made from Grüner Veltliner Nußberg and Rosengartl Alte Reben. This wine was created by Viennese winemaker Fritz Wieninger working with Adi Schmid, the Steirereck’s sommelier, and named after the Philharmonia Schrammeln, a group of musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The meal continued with Reinanke, a white fish native to Austria. The Reinanke, served with piquant cabbage slaw and lemon balm, melted in my mouth. The accompanying dumpling was light and fluffy.
We concluded the meal with scrumptious Zwetschkenknödel, plum-stuffed dumplings with plum ice cream.
Am Heumarkt 2A / im Stadtpark, 1030 Vienna
+43 1 713-3168.
Heuriger is the Austrian word for both the wines of the latest harvest as well as the place that they are served. The tradition of the Heuriger dates back to 1784 when Kaiser Josef II. (1741-1790) allowed wine producers to sell their own wines as well as food in their gardens without having to pay for a restaurant license. The Kaiser’s edit required that a Heuriger offer a limited selection of food, typically cold meats, cheeses, and cheese spreads such as Liptauer, so as not to compete with restaurants and also stated that a Heuriger can only be open for a limited amount of time each year. To indicate that a Heuriger is open, its owners hang Buschen, or pine branches, over the entrance (this is why a Heuriger is called a Buschenschank in some areas of Austria).
Weingut am Reisenberg
Weingut am Reisenberg is a Heuriger located in the hills of Grinzing (19. Bezirk or District) of Vienna. It’s a good 10-minute walk up a steep hill but it’s worth it: the view of the city off in the distance, past the vineyards, is stunning, especially as dusk approaches.
The wines at Weingut am Reisenberg are average for the region but the panoramic view do seem to enhance every sip. In true Heuriger fashion, dinner is a buffet; the buffet the evening I was there, it consisted of typical Austrian specialties including Wiener Schnitzel, Tafelspitz [boiled beef, sliced and typically served with creamed spinach, Rösti (fried potatoes), apple-horseradish sauce, and chive sauce], Spätzle (small egg dumplings), and, for dessert, Kaiserschmarrn.
Kaiserschmarrn is a pancake dish first prepared for Kaiser Franz Joseph I. (1830-1916) and roughly can be translated into the “emperor’s nonsense” or the “emperor’s mishmash.” The pancake is cut into pieces while frying, shredded, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It is typically served hot with apple or plum compote.
Weingut am Reisenberg
Oberer Reisenbergweg 15, 1190 Wien
+43 (1) 320 93 93
Winemaker Rainer Christ is a member of the WienWein group, which was founded in 2006 by leading Viennese vintners including Christ, Michael Edlmoser, Fritz Wieninger, and Richard Zahel. Their wines are among the finest from the Viennese growers and a visit to Heuriger Christ affords an opportunity to sample recent vintages. Christ’s 2008 Grüner Veltliner Bruch, 2008 Bisamberg Alte Reben (a gemischter Satz), and the 2007 Mephisto are worthy of note.
Weingut & Heuriger Christ
Amtsstraße 10-14, 1210 Wien – Jedlersdorf
+43 1 292 51 52
It’s rare that I write a review that warns readers to studiously avoid a hotel or restaurant but alas, this is one and it proves that the most beautiful and elegant settings can do little to make up for a surly host, glacier-slow service, and so-so food. In fact, the most interesting thing we were served was a refreshing towelette, the size of a mint, that unfurled into a washcloth when water was applied.
A restaurant that expects its diners to sit for meals that are dragged out over many hours should at least provide chairs that have good back support—or any back support for that matter. At the Kulinarium, function follows form with backless stools that ultimately resulted in my making an “early” departure (three hours after arriving, I should add) before the main course arrived.
The appetizer of foie gras fried with garam masala, caramelized chicory, and mango sounded more interesting than it was, although it was nicely paired with a superb Riesling Auslese 2006, from Salomon Undhof in the Kremstal.
The Kürbiscremesuppe (cream of pumpkin soup) with candied ginger and linseed oil, paired with a Morillon Kranachberg 2007 from Peter Skoff in Südsteiermark (South Styria) was ok but paled in comparison with other pumpkin soups I had recently tried.
A tasty piece of fried cauliflower, served with avocado and citrus fruits, was marred by the accompanying rubbery scallop. It was paired with a wonderful Grüner Veltliner “Goliath” 2006, from Birgit Eichinger in the Kamptal.
After waiting over 45 minutes for the main course after the cauliflower, I decided that I could sit no longer and took the Tram (local term for Straßenbahn or streetcar) back into the city center. The hard wooden streetcar seats soothed my aching back.
Sigmundgasse 1/1, 1070 Vienna
+43 1 522 33 77
ZUM SCHWARZEN KAMEEL
Zum Schwarzen Kameel is a Viennese institution, tracing its origins back to 1618 and its current location and well-preserved Jugendstil interior to 1901. Beethoven was a regular patron; somewhere in the restaurant’s archives there are hand-written notes by the deaf composer with his lunch orders. A combination delicatessen, sandwich shop, and white-cloth restaurant, Zum Schwarzen Kameel offers an enticing Heimkehrmenü, or homecoming menu, intended for Viennese who have been away and are now returning home. It also serves as a wonderful tutorial for non-Viennese who want the best of what Wiener Küche has to offer.
The Heimkehrmenü meal starts with hand-cut ham with shaved horseradish, and continues with Kalbsgulasch (veal goulash) with Spätzle, Wiener Schnitzel, and for dessert, Marillenpalatschinken (apricot Palatschinken, a rolled-up crêpe-like eggy pancake). The waiter said there was another possible main course after the Wiener Schnitzel, presumably for those who had not only been away from Vienna for a while but who had not eaten during their absence, but I declined.
A Sauvignon Blanc Rothüttl 2008 from the Weingut Gross in Südsteiermark (South Styria) was the perfect accompaniment.
Up front, in the sandwich area, Zum Schwarzen Kameel offers dozens of small and inexpensive sandwiches, ranging from salmon to salami to Liptauer cheese (made from a soft cheese such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, quark cheese, and spices such as paprika, caraway seeds, and fresh parsley).
Zum Schwarzen Kameel
Bognergasse 5, 1010 Vienna
+43 1 533 81 25
ÖSTERREICHER IM MAK
With a few exceptions (Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie in New York comes to mind), museum restaurants are hardly destinations unto themselves. But then again, most museum restaurants don’t have star chef Helmut Österreicher as the owner. Österreicher, who made his name as chef at the Restaurant Steirereck, has created a menu that offers both classic and (to use his words) “newly-interpreted” Viennese cuisine at the Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK, or Museum for Applied Art).
Reservations are recommended, especially for dinner, but there always seems to be room at Österreicher im MAK for those who have come to admire the MAK’s collection of Wiener Werkstätte furniture, glass, china, and silver, and textiles.
The indoor dining rooms were quiet the day I visited; given the beautiful, late summer weather, the place to dine was outdoors in the museum’s courtyard.
Our meal started off with a Kürbiscremesuppe, cream of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, which had just the right texture and flavor to make it the best pumpkin soup I could recall having. That was followed by an exceptionally tender Wiener Zwiebelrostbraten, Viennese minute steak with onions, accompanied by home fries. Not surprisingly, this was the best Zwiebelrostbraten I could recall having in the past few years.
Our server recommended the Franz 2006 from Weingut Weninger in the Mittelburgenland (Middle Burgenland), a full-bodied cuvee that is made from Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Blaufränkisch that perfectly matched the Zwiebelrostbraten.
The Mehlspeisen (Austrian for dessert, literally “flour food”) I selected from the Moderne side of the menu was a magnificent and airy gebackenen Topfen mit Hollerkoch (baked curd cheese with elderberry preserves).
Don’t let the modern look fool you: Österreicher im MAK is strong on tradition where it counts. The beverage selection is drawn solely from Austrian wines and spirits and the servers seem quite knowledgeable about them, and the kitchen draws heavily from local producers. Just remember, Klassiche (classic) Wiener Küche on the left and modern interpretations on the right.
Österreicher im MAK
Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna
+1 43 1 714 0121
RESTAURANT ROTE BAR IM HOTEL SACHER
Walking into the Hotel Sacher, built in 1876 and situated around the corner from the Staatsoper (State Opera) is like walking into fin-de-siècle Vienna, where Franz Joseph I. is still Kaiser (and König, king, of Hungary) and red velvet, grand crystal chandeliers, and polite service are the rule, not the exception. The Sacher may best be known not as a hotel but rather for the Sacher-Torte, created by the young apprentice baker Franz Sacher for a dinner to be given by Prince Metternich (1773-1859) in 1832. His son, Eduard (1843-1892), opened the Hotel Sacher in 1876; after his death, his widow, Anna Sacher, transformed the hotel into one of the finest in the world.
Seated for a late meal under a portrait of Kaiser Franz Joseph after attending a performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Barber of Seville, I started with the soup,
Kräftige Tafelspitzsuppe mit Wiener Einlage (strong consommé with a choice of Viennese inserts; the inserts were Milzschnitte (lung strudel), Frittaten (sliced palatschinken or pancakes, Leberknödel (liver dumping) oder Grießnockerl (semolina dumpling). I recommend the Leberknödel and Frittaten (ask for both).
While the restaurant’s Tafelspitz is far from the city’s best, it was served with delicious creamed spinach and magnificent hash-brown potatoes, and a choice of chive cream sauce or apple horseradish. Tafelspitz was a favorite of Kaiser Franz Joseph, who was watching over me as I ate, and he would have immediately recognized this version.
A sweet end to this late night supper was the Dessertkreation “Franz Sacher”, a medley of fresh strawberries, Apfelstrudel (apple strudel), a fruit tart, and of course a slice of Sacher-Torte mit Schlagobers (with whipped cream). This was accompanied by a superb 2006 Beerenauslese from Martin Pasler in the Neusiedlersee (Burgenland) region. This full-bodied, sweet wine is made from rich, ripe grapes affected by noble rot or botrytis and was an excellent way to conclude the evening.
Restaurant Rote Bar im Hotel Sacher
Philharmonikerstraße 4 A , 1010 Vienna
+43 1 51 45 68 41
For complete details of almost every course of every meal, watch the slide show.
–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.