It’s my anniversary! Two years of publishing Risa’s Pieces. Thanks to everyone for continuing to read! This is also my 100th post! If I were a network television show, I’d be eligible for syndication. That’s pretty exciting!
Now that I’ve almost recovered from the longest lingering ear infection ever, and survived Blizzard2016, it’s time to start sharing tales of our holiday trip to Austria. I thought I would begin with everyone’s favorite topic: food!
Vienna in particular is famous for two things: Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte. In German, Vienna is called Wien (the “w” makes a “v” sound), so the word Wiener basically means Viennese. Schnitzel involves very thin cutlets of meat, breaded and fried. Classic Wiener Schnitzel is made with veal, but it’s equally delicious made with pork.
Wiener Schnitzel is unsurprisingly very easy to find at restaurants throughout Vienna. The schnitzel itself is yummy, but I was less impressed with its ubiquitous partner: parsleyed potatoes. The side dish is basically cold chunks of potato with vinegar and parsley. It’s something approaching potato salad, but not quite. And that’s all you get: schnitzel and cold potatoes. Green vegetables seem to not exist in Austria, at least not in the winter. I didn’t see any the entire time we were there! I was also disappointed that schnitzel was not served with noodles, as it generally is in the U.S. (and as mentioned in the song My Favorite Things—Julie Andrews lied to me!).
Sachertorte, on the other hand, is a cake (“torte”) invented by Franz Sacher and made famous by the Sacher Hotel and Café Demel, which were involved in a prolonged legal dispute in the early-to-mid-twentieth century over whose recipe was the “original.” I’m honestly not sure why all the fuss, because the cake wasn’t even that good! We had ours at Café Demel, and while the café itself was charming, and the hot chocolate was decadent, the cake was a bit dry and not that flavorful. It also had a very thick layer of chocolate ganache on top that was overly sweet. It’s not just me being a hater either! My husband was also ambivalent about it, and so are some others I know who have tried it. We all prefer Austria’s other traditional dessert: apfelstrudel!
Apfelstrudel is apple strudel, and IT. IS. AMAZING. In the 11 days we spent in Austria, I think I ate apfelstrudel five or six times. It’s so much better than strudel you get in the States. It’s bursting with apples, the crust is firm but flaky, and the flavor is abundant. The best apfelstrudel I had was from a place called Café Braun in the town of Mondsee, outside of Salzburg. We were on the Sound of Music tour, which travels up to the lake country and Mondsee because that’s the location of the cathedral where Captain von Trapp and Maria were married. Our tour guide said that Café Braun’s apfelstrudel is the second best in Austria (the best would be his mother’s, of course!), and I think he’s probably right. If you ever have a chance to eat it, I highly recommend it. The view didn’t hurt either!
Another classic Austrian dish is tafelspitz, which is elaborate but delicious. I had never heard of it before our trip, but apparently it’s the national dish of Austria. We ate at a well-known restaurant called Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper before attending a performance at the Vienna Opera House, and tafelspitz is one of their specialties. (Even our Uber driver recommended it as a must-eat.) I really wanted the Wiener Schnitzel, so I left the tafelspitz to my husband. It is essentially a bone marrow broth with root vegetables and a large hunk of beef, along with potatoes, of course. (I’m pretty sure potatoes are the unofficial side dish of Austria.) The broth was just amazing—so rich and flavorful. The word tafelspitz is the Austrians’ word for the cut of beef (usually ox) that is used in the dish. It’s similar to a standing rump or top round cut in the U.S.
Speaking of broth, the Austrians have mad skills when it comes to broth. I had it twice in Innsbruck, with different accompaniments, and it was magnificent both times. On Nordkette mountain, we ate at the Seegrube, which is about halfway up the mountain at 6500 feet (2000 meters). I ordered the broth with a bacon dumpling. Let me tell you, if you’ve never had a bacon dumpling, you should remedy that situation immediately!
We stumbled upon a restaurant called die Wilderin in the old town of Innsbruck—cannot recommend this place enough. It’s nose-to-tail, locally sourced, organic cuisine at its finest. A little piece of hipster Brooklyn in the heart of the Alps! Their menu changes based on what’s available, but I think you probably can’t go wrong with anything they serve. I started with the duck consommé with thin pancake strips. Pancakes seemed like a really weird thing to put in broth, but it turned out to be scrumptious. My pumpkin apple risotto was perfect, and my husband’s lamb chops were the biggest we’d ever seen. I basically wanted to eat everything on the menu but had to settle for an appetizer, entrée, dessert, wine, and whisky. :O
One word of warning: not everything in Austrian cuisine is what you think it is. Take goulash, for instance. It’s a traditional Hungarian dish, and Vienna is very close to Hungary, so there are a lot of imported foods. When I was a kid, my mom made goulash with tomato sauce, ground beef, and elbow macaroni. According to Wikipedia, that’s kind of the “traditional” U.S. version. So when we walked past a restaurant called Gulasch & Champagne, I definitely wanted to check it out. Turns out Austrian gulasch is pretty much just large hunks of meat in meat sauce served with bread. Don’t get me wrong—it’s yummy, but it’s not even remotely what I was expecting! The restaurant was tiny and adorable though, and the variety of Champagnes available by the glass was impressive.
Falling into the category of exactly what I was expecting were the pretzels and beer. My Vienna guide book (Top 10 Vienna) had recommended Salm Bräu in Vienna for lunch, and it did not disappoint. The beer, the pretzels, the sausages—everything was delicious. We also greatly enjoyed the beer and pretzels at the Augustiner Brewery in Salzburg. They only serve one type of beer. You grab an empty ceramic stein from a shelf (liter or half-liter) pay the cashier a few Euros, depending on which size stein you chose, then visit the men with the casks. They fill up your stein and send you on your way. A number of food vendors line the perimeter, offering whatever beer-appropriate accompaniments you can imagine.
The options for tea in Vienna are also pretty good—not as ubiquitous as London, of course, but still plentiful. Our hotel, the Intercontinental, offered an afternoon tea service which was lovely, but too much food by far. Usually, if you order afternoon tea for two, each person chooses their own pot of tea, and then the (single) sandwich, scone, dessert tray has enough of everything for two people. At the Intercontinental, each person gets their own pot of tea and their own tiered tray with enough food for two, so you’re really getting enough food for four! It was kind of insane. We also discovered a very cute tea house (again, from the Top 10 Vienna book) called Haas & Haas. It’s very near Stephansdom, so we went there for breakfast one morning before touring the cathedral. It was almost a problem that we didn’t have a reservation (for breakfast! on a Monday!) but they managed to seat us. Everything was delicious, and all their teas are available for purchase in the adjacent shop.
While I’m on the subject, I should note that reservations are VERY IMPORTANT in Austria! There were nights when we had to visit upwards of five restaurants to find one that would take us without a reservation. And not just in Vienna—Innsbruck and Salzburg were the same way. Making reservations as a tourist is almost impossible because you never really know when you’ll be tired and hungry and where in the city you’ll be. My best recommendation is when you’re walking around and it’s about 5 p.m., start looking for places that seem interesting. Then walk in and make a reservation for a couple of hours later. Just remember where the restaurant is so you can get back!
The only reservations I made in advance were for dinner the night we went to the opera, and Christmas Eve. We were in Innsbruck for Christmas Eve, and most of the hotels and some restaurants offer a prix-fixe holiday menu. We attended the Hotel Schwarzer Adler‘s dinner, and it was phenomenal. We arrived just after 6 p.m. for an aperitif in the cellar. Around 6:30 we were all escorted to the dining room, which was decorated very seasonally, including a large Christmas tree with actual candles on it (that were lit! try getting away with that fire hazard in America!). Dinner was supposed to be five courses, but there was an amuse-bouche that was really more like a sixth courses. The only thing I didn’t care for was the wild fowl terrine, which was sort of a poultry paté. I found it dry and unappetizing, but I’m not a fan of paté to begin with. Before the dessert course the family that owns the hotel made a little speech, and then we all sang Silent Night, Holy Night, first in German, then in English (lyrics were provided)! It was without a doubt one of my more memorable Christmas Eves. Also one of the longest—we didn’t leave the hotel until 11 pm!
All in all, we ate very well in Austria, although the lack of vegetables did become tedious. I recommend all of the restaurants mentioned in this post, and would happily return to any of them. I’ll leave you with a few more photos of the many decadent meals we enjoyed.
Pumpkin apple risotto at die Wilderin.
Hot chocolate at Café Demel.
Housemade yogurt at Café Demel.
Smoked venison salad at The Seegrube on Nordkette mountain.
Hot chocolate at the ski resort café on Stubaier Gletscher.
Breakfast meat plate at Café Pamina in Salzburg.
Scrambled eggs and the ubiquitous brown bread at Café Pamina.
Oxtail ragout at Messer + Gabel in Salzburg.
Veal loin at Hotel Schwarzer Adler.
Christmas Eve dessert at Hotel Schwarzer Adler.