Thursday, December 27, 2012

Heinig, Vienna

Here we are, the day after Christmas, when all the stores say nothing on their web sites or windows about being closed...but they all are. "We take no holidays!" except the one that everyone but someone and me must know happens automatically on the 26th. Strange, because a lot of places were open on the 25th.

Heinig was an exception, and we had walked by a bunch of times and been tempted by the frivolous cheerfulality of its windows. How can you not like this? It wouldn't be Christian not to.
Maybe there's something holiday going on with the cakes in the case too - certainly there's a fair bit of fake snow. They look OK, right?
I loved all the little piggy items too. It must be a weiner thing, just letting the pink bits flop about like that.
They have two dining salons, and we went upstairs where it was quiet and kinda dark and we could look peacefully out the window.
As well as 'enjoying' the ambience. The ceiling is a neat shape, but the decor overall suffers from a bit of family-restaurant-itis.
With vacation winding down, I saw no reason to hold back, and went right for half a liter of beer. We had some desultory savory food too, but the gulaschsuppe tasted canned, as did the pancake souppen, and I'm forgoing posting pictures of them out of protest.
I should maybe forgo the whole thing out of protest, because the cakes were competent, not much better, and that's a disappointment after the grandeur and charm of the exterior and windows. We had an obligatory Sachertortten also, but there wasn't anything to write home about.
But I will most certainly be writing home to let the homefolks know that the coffee here was bad. Not competent, bad. I want to say it was worse than the bad one the previous day at The Iceberg, but in truth I've forgotten what order everyone was marching in the parade of bad coffee drinks in Weiner. Let's leave it at that.
Points for being open and all, but I can't in good faith tell you to go here. Every aspect of the presentation is better somewhere else (except maybe the presentation in the cake case).

Awww hell, I can't find a web site for these guys, and I'm too lazy to work on it right now.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Café Schwarzenberg, Vienna

Once, in the dreadfully cold winter of 1743, an enormous black iceberg washed up on the shores of Wiener. It still looms large, nay, it hulks in the memory of Wieners, and to remember the horrific sight while also defusing some of its mystery, majesty, and mummery, the Guldraus family named their eponymous restaurant after it - Cafe Schwarzeniceberg, more popularly shortened to the form you'd see above the door if you were standing outside at dusk, pondering the welcoming lights.
This is classic Wiener cafe as far as I'm concerned, and worth a visit just for the vaulted, tiled ceilings, suited waiters, and happy atmosphere. It's the oldest extant cafe on the Ring.
One thing I'll say is that it feels a lot more touristy than...actually most of the grand cafes we tried were pretty touristy. If you want local flaveur, Pruckel was definitely the place.
And if you want coffee, be warned that this is NOT the place. Actually, if you want coffee, let's cut to the chase - Wiener is not the place. I had coffee every day for a week in the city, and one, maybe two melanges (lah-tay, more or less) rose to the level of 'acceptable'. Contrast this with the terrific coffee you can get anywhere in a city like Melbourne, and the Wieners have a lot to answer for considering their proud history of coffee drinkin' and cafe-goin'.

This particular melange was distinguished by how bad it was.

But I was pleased with the ridiculous dark density of their mohn cake - good heavens, that's a lot of poppy seeds. Mohn, mohn, mohn - that's all you ever do!

I did have a better mohntorte for breakfast before going to the airport - a veritable brick of seeds, sugar and brandy - but you'll have to wait to see that.
You won't have to wait to see someone's Sachertorte rematch. It's in the picture just to the right. Still not as good as the original, but acceptable.

The self-description of this place as a 'stronghold of Austrian tradition' is pretty decent, and I think you should check it out for one of your afternoon snacks if you're staying the vicinity (as you might well be - many of the palace hotels are around this southeast region of the Ring).

I wouldn't be going for the food though.
+43 (1) 512 89 98

Figlmuller, Vienna

Festive Christmas luncheon! Nothing says Christmas to me like thinly-pounded veal cutlets, and nothing says thinly-pounded Wieners like Figlmuller - though how much of their popularity is due to the food and how much is due to the marketing is an interesting question.

As an aside, I enjoyed the atmosphere here tremendously, in mo small part because of the clientele. There was a big table of Japanese men, and it was comforting to hear them joking and talking, and there was an ancient couple in the back - I swear they were 90, they couldn't walk well, and they were each tucking into pounded Wieners. Very good play, I say.

I did like the festivity as well, even though this chandelier was hung over a table of frattish tourists.

Now, I'm sure there were a LOT of tourists all around me, but I didn't notice for the first few days that we were in Wiener. All the tourists are white! They blend in. And they all look the same.

After a few days the tourists became more obvious, especially the Russians. Anyone blowing smoke at you, pushing past you in lines, generally being a jerk? Russian. Or maybe Ukranian. Or Slovakian. I dunno. They all look the same.
So I had some wine to forget my Russian troubles. Cheap. Eminently drinkable. Served by a stern and aged waiter who was pretty nice - more businesslike than anything else, but in a way that let you know he was looking out for you. For example, the first wineglass smelled a little, and as soon as I asked for a new one, it was there, no complaint. I love it when the staff in a truly touristy place are also on top of their jobs.
I cannot comment on someone's knoedel, because it's a leberknoedel, and you know I don't like leber. I tried enough to be able to tell you that it wasn't entirely leber; the rest was some other meat, and I think a lot of bread crumbs. I really got used to clear soup on this trip; it's comforting.
As a throwaway side salad, this is great! It's not a gargouillou or anything, but look at all the varieties of leaf and sprout. Again, much better than a tourist restaurant needs to be, and a decent value.
This is the item. Take one Wiener, pound the hell out of it...actually, I have an uncomfortable feeling that this is done by machine. It's awfully thin and regular. I would also say it's just too big, because it's cold by the time you get to the other side, even when you have two people sharing it like we did. There's more bread than meat. I liked other versions. <sigh>
Check this out - all you diners and picnics who say you've got some potato salad for me? You got nothin'. These potatoes are perfectly cooked, the greens are fresh (and kinda weird - what are they?), the onions are delicately chopped, and that brown stain at the lower right of the bowl is...pumpkin seed oil. Good lord this was delicious. Have you ever had pumpkin seed oil? I thought not. Took me several meals to realize I should ask what it is, because it pops up a lot - a standard Wienercondimenten, it seems. Certainly there were 6 varieties at the smallish supermarket we later visited, one of which is now in my cupboard. It's weird to say, but I think the atmosphere and the potato salad were the things that made me like Figlmuller so much.

And maybe the wine.

By the time we left, people were waiting outside. They didn't seem disgruntled - it's a picturesque little alley, and the quality service inside keeps things turning over. If the line's too long here, try going to the end of the alley and turning right, whereupon you'll find the 'new' restaurant. I think the food's the same, and the atmosphere can't be all bad.

And there's wine.
+43/1/ 512 61 77

Monday, December 24, 2012

Oswald & Kalb, Vienna

Hola. My name is Kalb, but you can call me Oswald for short.

Hey, 'kalb' means 'veal', and the poster to the right of the door (very festive, lads!) said something like "The best wiener in Wiener!" so I think they rate their schnitzel highly. It was Christmas Eve, someone was sick, and I still felt like going out for 'Viennese Cuisine' and some wine. A bit of research made O&K sound like a good place, and I wasn't disappointed.
YOU would be disappointed, that is, if you were expecting to see photos of food. That's because in the rush of leaving the room, I managed to take my old camera and my phone, but not my new camera...or a memory card. So the pictures I accidentally took with my phone are all you get.

It's not such a big deal though - it's Viennese Cuisine, after all. So you by no means need to see a picture of the venison goulash I had as a main, nor the wine list (although I should point out if you're keeping score that the wine here was much more expensive than at other places - I was positively addicted to the tremendously drinkable $3 glasses at most places).

I would have loved to get you a closer picture of the couple in the back there, especially once the ridiculously tall, blonde was joined by a second one. I thought they were sisters, but the first one seemed to have had some work done. And none of that explained what they were doing with the round little balded bearded guy.

Christmas Eve was kinda festive, and with me being alone it wasn't that much fun. I took this picture in an effort to make myself feel like I was having dinner with these nice wieners.

Actually I DID feel like I was having dinner with the American family at the next table, a daughter and her parents. I've forgotten their names, which I overheard during the conversation, but even a month later I remember the details of the daughter's relationship 'troubles'. She wasn't sure if her boyfriend was right for her despite her parents' pressure to get married, and she enumerated his faults: he "doesn't plan enough dates" and "we're fighting about which church we should attend, his or mine." What a loser he is! I hope for his sake that she breaks up with him.

Word to the wise, check who's sitting near you. Another word to the wise, try the smoked eel here! It was really good.

On the whole, I wouldn't be dying to go here if I was you and visited Weiner. I would try the schnitzel, and I wouldn't take any shit from the staff, who seemed annoyed that I was taking up a table by myself in their mostly-empty restaurant, and not ordering food and drink fast enough.

That is all.

Cafe Central, Vienna

I was lucky enough to have taken a picture of Cafe Central at night before the afternoon we went, which was lucky considering I forgot to get an exterior shot. Although that pales in comparison to my failure to load a memory card into the camera the following night...

This cafe has an illustrious history involving Lenin, Trotsky, Hitler, Freud and others, but that was the version before the war. This location, which is more than likely more grand than the original, only opened in the 70's and was renovated in the 80's. Now it's the grandest and potentially most touristy of the big cafes (not that I've been to all of them, but it was pretty out there. We felt like there weren't any non-tourists.).

But it looks awesome, doesn't it? This used to be the 'bank and stock market' building, and there are Star-of-David decorations throughout to prove the connection to the Jews. The Jewish museum is in this neighborhood too, but we didn't make it there. Getting here around 1, we had to wait behind 3 or 4 groups, and this wait got worse after we were seated. We were also lucky enough to get 'good' seats - not first rate, but good. We were on the banquettes rather than at a small table with hard chairs, but banquettes near the door, so a bit drafty. Still, good enough to linger for a good 90 minutes. One thing that's great about the little-to-no tip system in Wiener - they never ever bug you to leave so they can get another table and tip.

This was a lunch, meaning you get to admire some food as well as coffee and cakes. We over-ordered a little.

Someone had sausages, healthy appetite there. Maximizing value for money, she chose the beef goulash sauce rather than mustard and horseradish. This was competent, with a thick, heavy, sweet goulash, although we both thought the sausage casings were too thick.
This looked pretty good when they put it down (rather too soon after ordering, when I think about it), and looks worse in the picture as so many things do, but was tasty. It's a 'crispy pork belly' attempt, not a great or awful one, and then disassembled brussels sprouts mixed with carrots and a fair bit of butter. Fatty. My chest hurts again. The cake thing on the right, or which there were two pieces, was truly awful. I didn't eat it, and neither did someone after trying a bite and agreeing with me.

The cakes here are a bit interesting - there are a few traditional torte and strudel options, but for the most part they tend toward the fancy. This is what happens when you order a 'black forest with alcohol' - not much of any of the key ingredients: squid ink, pine needles, and ethly alcohol. Pleasant enough, but nothing to order. 
The melange was something less than pleasant, though as I write this I have indeed had a worse one the following day. You'll have to wait for the name of that illustrious establishment.
But you can stop wondering right now, because the apfelstreudel was mediocre too. They cooked the apples a lot before baking, leaving them mushy in the final analysis, and it was underseasoned. Or underspiced. Or underwhelming.

Well, an interesting cafe right there. You can tell we weren't impressed with the food and drink. But the atmosphere is ace, especially if you get to sit and mellow out on the sofas like we did. No one's going to bug you about spending a lot of time, not even the other tourists standing near you waiting for their turn.

In fact, howzabout just going in, waiting in line for a few minutes so you can look at the walls and ceiling, maybe wander over to the cake case, and then leave for tastier environs?
(+43.1) 533 37 63 Ext. 24 or 61

Cafe Demel, Vienna

Were we excited to get to Demel? We were. Called by at least one seasoned observer the authority on Viennese cakes, this is the other famous one, and more appealing to me than the overtly touristed Sacher.
It turns out to be almost as touristed, but they do a better job in atmosphere and service of maintaining a special feel. Once you fight your way through the absolutely thronged pastry shop and cake display and smoking lounge, you'll start seeing lovely chandeliered saloons like this...
...after which you'll encounter the dreaded 'Escher Stair'. The number of people waiting on this staircase for access to the much larger nonsmoking area of the restaurant accordions with the time of day. Arriving before 12, we were near the top, and in any case turnover seems brisk. Visiting the 'powder room', as Viennese society would have it, during our service, someone remarked that the Escher Line was down the stair and through the smoking saloon, but it had abated by the time we finished our leisurely dine.

We sat at a table (you'll find, I think, that Viennese cafes have a hierarchy of seating - the cushioned sofa seats must be the best, while certain tables are better than others based on size and proximity to other tables and the migratory paths of staff intent on service). These (silk) flowers were next to us. It was pleasant. I won't be able to show you the elaborate ceiling trim, nor the lovely pale wall colors. Take my word for it.
Take my word for it that an extra roll won't go amiss, and that wine in Vienna is uniformly cheap and tasty. If anything, one might be able to fault it for being 'lunch wine', i.e., pleasant and easy-drinking, but this is no great shame when ordering it for lunch. In a week of drinking, I've yet to have a glass of wine that wasn't lovely. Strike that, the wine at Reinthaler's wasn't better than average. It was also EUR 3.50 for 250 ml. No crime, that.
The pumpkin cream soup, however, was so good that it WAS criminal!!! hahaha, if I keep this up I'll be able to write for TripAdvisor!

This soup was more cream than pumpkin, though not in an awful way, and the solid sprinkle of pumpkin seeds were diverting for both their crunch and salt. Soups are really a highlight in Wiener.
And gulasch soup is really a highlight! This one was really tasty. It was better-structured, with potatoes and meat that had been prepped by pros and cooked separately to get the textures right. Plus lots of paprika and caraway seeds. Who knew this stuff was so good?
Let's just pause between courses to reflect on:
1. How sensible we are, ordering only soup before our main courses
2. How nice the atmosphere is here.
I'll add that the service, while harried (c.f., line down the stairs and into another room), consists of middle-aged women in uniforms, and it feels very right. Our server took a few minutes to warm up a bit but then was lovely. This has been a somewhat consistent pattern, and I can only imagine the difficulty of working in a place like this where your ambition is to uphold tradition and provide proper service, while your customers come from any of a dozen countries in any given hour and bring with them a multitude of accents, ordering habits, and perceived rudenesses (except the Russians, for whom the rudeness isn't merely perceived).

Our main courses. In the background a Sacher Torte, missing the intermediate layer of jam and some of the moistitude of the genuine article, and a coffee, or rather a Viennese melange (I said 'ein melange, the waitress responded 'une melange', but we thought she was really Hungarian), and the best one we've had yet - coffee strong and aromatic enough not to get lost in the milk. And in the foreground, an Esterhazy Torte - that bewitching combination of almond meringue and buttercream, layered unreasonably (I'm pretty sure that people who describe the intermediate layers as 'sponge cake' or 'walnut' are just dipshits, by the by, although the almond layers aren't quite crunchy enough to be meringue). I don't shy away from sweet things, but this was in the category I classify as 'tooth-rotting'. Loved it.

On your way out, consider some very expensive cookies or cakes or chocolate! The setup is pretty, the service again does a great job of making you feel at least a little special even as they're grinding out a credit card payment for the 58th bag of cookies that hour, and the prices aren't crazy when you consider that you're in Wiener and it's Demel!

Practically free, maaaan!
+43/1/535 17 17-0

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gasthaus Pöschl, Vienna

Nothing that I read about Viennese restaurants or cuisine really got me excited about the eating component of this trip. I was just kind resigned to eating stodgy food, and drinking wine, and eating cakes, and that was cool. Plus we're staying in the inner city, and I imagine it's pretty touristy and pricey around here - hard to tell on your first visit. But I was pleasantly surprised to peek into Kleines Cafe, and read soon after that Gasthaus Poschl, just up the street, shares an owner with it (an actor and trained patissier). Reviews even said one should book in advance. We went early...

And yes, a booking would have been nice. The staff was pleasant about it, and we took two of the 6 seats at the counter. There were definitely tourists (I mean, one of them is writing this, and there were Japanese girls at the window table), but also locals doing a year-end thing, and it was convivial regardless. The staff were rushing around happily forgetting things, which one shouldn't get too upset about, and we were pleasantly surprised by the level of interest on the menu - especially considering that some places call this 'a traditional gasthaus'. I was emboldened to get two of the most basic dishes possible...

And found pretty much right away what's going on here: it's younger people who renovated an older space and are devoting themselves to cooking the classics really well. Differentiatingly well. There's nothing 'traditional', 'homey', or even really 'classic' about it - it has that freshness and zing that the best little places have, except they serve big sets of heavy food, like this really excellent schnitzel. I say 'sets' because the schnitzel came with a barely-pictured bowl of lightly-sweet, red-onioned potato salad, which was equally good. Very much in the 'ohhh, that's why people started eating this' category.

Someone had the tafelspitz. First time it's appeared here? I think so. Basically, boiled beef butt. Supposedly the emperor's favorite dish, here in a reputable version topped with a lot of nicely-boiled yellow carrot. Hey!
'Sets'? Did I say that? Because that perfectly normal portion of beef and veg also came with a deeelicious bowl of pumpkin soup and a huge, perfectly cooked and fried 'omelette' of potatoes. (I say 'omelette' because that's how it was shaped, and I say 'cooked and fried' because the potatoes didn't get that way just by griddling them quickly at one temperature, and I say 'perfectly' for reasons that should be obvious. Comfort food made with a lot of care and freshness, not like mom used to make at all (if mom was Viennese).

Ticking off the list of famous / standard desserts in Viennese cuisines, this is the 'Moor im Hemd', or 'Negro in Chains'. A dubious reference to be sure, and I'm dubious of the ingredient list too - recipes I'm looking at now describe it as simply a bundt cake, but I'd swear there were poppy seeds in here (at least one inquisitive board poster inquired mistakenly  after the 'Mohn im Hemd', or 'Poppy Seeds in Chains'.). Like what I've said before, this really was surpassingly delicious for a chocolate cake in chocolate sauce with whipped cream. Goodness me.

Let me not go on forever, or at least not any more than I do already. As we walked around after, someone remarked "You're in a much better mood now. It was that restaurant, wasn't it?" She was right. We finally found some food worth writing about.

Expressing in another way how much I enjoyed this: on our way out, we booked a return visit for 3 days later. (no website)
01 5135288

Cafe Sacher, Vienna

Do I feel a little guilty engaging in the most touristy of pleasures? Why yes, I do. You know how much I like seeking out hidden gems, but when you're traveling to a new city, that just isn't an option - either you're on your own, walking the streets, or else you're looking at reviews from other travelers who validated their own 'hidden gems' that, by virtue of said internettal validictory, aren't so hidden any more. This is how mediocre local restaurants can rise to the status of 'must do', potentially because the owner speaks English.

But that's all by way of silliness, and here we are outside Cafe Sacher, ready to eat some eponymous torte! Wait, it's a tourist spot, isn't it. We're ready to wait in line to eat some eponymous torte.

It wasn't THAT bad though. We waited less than 30 minutes in the rain with the pushy, smoking Russians, and this was probably prime-time. You can see by the almost-dark of the sky that it was between 3:30 and 4 (daylight, like life, is quickly extinguished in Eastern Europe), and for the most popular cafe in Tokyo, on a Saturday, at that time...sheesh.
So inside, we were subjected to the 'Wiener Tax' for the second time that day. "You must check your coats. 1 Euro each," and escorted into the lovely salon. The hostess tried to sit us at a table 1 meter from the door, and with both chairs facing it; when we declined, she whisked us off to the porch, which is darker and has none of this atmosphere. They use the Philippino staff for service out there. It's for troublemakers and Russians.
Not wanting to make any more trouble, we just ordered coffee and cakes. I guess it's a distinguishing feature that the melange at Sacher includes whipped cream; only time I've seen that in 4 or 5 melanges so far. But the coffee was iffy, much as you'd expect from an overworked tourist highlight. Too bad.
Apfelstreudel for the second time (hell, 'Viennese Cuisine' only has 10 or 15 items, so you might as well get the best ones). This was excellent, with the apples sliced thin, cooked to softness, spiced a lot, and sweetened adequately. Oberlaa needs a lesson.
Well, there it is. The dream of every girl visiting Vienna (and of the Japanese girls next to us, who were as startled as us when the waitress addressed them in perfectly pleasant Japanese). This may be the best Sacher Torte there is (although we've only had two so far). The cake wasn't dry, the doubled layer of apricot jam (top and middle) helps more, there's something seductive about the thickness and texture of the chocolate on top, and the dark chocolate medallion gives you a bit more bitterness to finish it off.

I'm sure as hell not telling you this is going to change your life, or you need to visit Vienna to try it (especially if you live in Tokyo and are accustomed to any of the good cake shops there), but it's incrementally better, and the ambiance is sweet (if the service is brisk), and for chrissakes, it's Sacher!

You've got a better recommendation, I'm all ears.
+43 (0)1 - 51 456 0