When I think of Vienna, I often picture the city in the sepia tones of the past. But a short visit in the shimmering heat of summer revealed the colourful and vibrant culture that infuses the city in 2011.
As appreciative eaters, my husband and I were especially keen to experience Vienna's renowned cuisine. With only four days to spend, we decided to concentrate on Viennese and Austrian cooking (yes, there is a difference, but more about that later).
Call us out of touch, but we were surprised by the gastronomic vitality we found.
Our first stop was obvious: Zum Schwarzen Kameel (The Black Camel) has been serving Viennese diners since 1618. Beethoven used to eat there.
On a recent warm Friday afternoon, the café tables on the Bognergasse were filled with relaxed Viennese, enjoying coffee and wine as they looked forward to the promise of the weekend.
We sat down to sample the jourgeback (little rolls of assorted fillings) and open-face sandwiches of salmon and spiced ham on traditional brown bread.
Afterward, Peter Friese, the gracious proprietor, ushered me into the art nouveau dining room.
In the 1950s, Friese says, patrons wanted his parents to rip out such outmoded wood and tile. Fortunately, they didn't have enough money to renovate. "I think it's good that my parents were not that rich," he says, gesturing to the gleaming wood alcoves that now make up one of the most beautiful rooms in the city.
That tension between history and up-to-date culinary values is also present in the kitchen, Friese says. Some of his chefs have even refused to cook wiener schnitzel, he tells me with a touch of indignation.
Today, people want more healthy fare and the passion for the Mediterranean style of cooking is inescapable. So the menu at Zum Schwarzen Kameel gently evolves with contemporary styles of cooking. After the war years, Friese explains, Viennese cuisine reflected the straitened circumstances of its people. Meat was boiled and often breaded in order to make tough cuts of beef and lungs and hearts more palatable. Vegetables were baked under thick layers of cream.
Today, the vegetables are fresh and barely cooked. Organ meats are served in smaller portions or incorporated into other dishes. The changes occurred so subtly, long-time clients never complained. "They don't feel the changes," Friese says.
But he makes it clear that he doesn't go in for the current fashion of listing the source of every ingredient. "If you do [something]for a long time, people trust you," he explains. In the case of this family establishment, a long time is nearly 400 years.
We left Zum Schwarzen Kameel with a better understanding of the cultural traditions underlying the feasts yet to come.
Dinner that night was at the well-mannered Walter Bauer. The traditional Austrian sausage called Leberkase was succulent and the dessert of tart, fresh rhubarb and strawberries gave sheer enjoyment, but we found the atmosphere in the cavernous dining room rather staid. We felt ready to dive into someplace more chaotic.
The next morning, we woke up early to join the many Viennese who make a weekly excursion to the riotously colourful Naschmarkt.
We found delicacies of Mongolian, Ethiopian, Tibetan, Vietnamese and every other conceivable ethnicity on display. Young hipsters filled the modern restaurants in between stalls. The delicacies on display at the market included black truffles, morel mushrooms and more varieties of asparagus than I knew existed.
For dinner that night, we headed to the thriving MuseumQuartier, where we found the art-and-design mavens on the leafy terrace of Glacis Beisl. This bistro, set atop the old city walls of Vienna, specializes in updated versions of traditional schnitzels, goulashes and pancakes. The chefs use organic beef for the classic boiled dish and enliven it with chive sauce and crisp apple horseradish. Local wines are served by the glass.
On Sunday, between visits to the Museum of Fine Art and a few iconic works of architecture by Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, we had time for only a small sampling of Vienna's treasured coffee houses. By a small sampling, I mean about eight.
Café Sperl, Café Landtmann and the Demel were essential stops. Café Hawelka seemed as good a place as any to submit to the famed treat Sachertorte. Inside those hallowed walls, it was just as it should be: intensely dark chocolate cake, a layer of apricot jam and a cloud of whipped cream.
In the evening, we strolled to the banks of the Danube and another hot spot: The restaurant Motto am Fluss stretches out, white and gleaming, above the strikingly designed city boat terminal. On this night, fashionable young Viennese were lounging in deck chairs in convivial groups. We ate fresh trout and watched passengers disembark from the fast ferry from Bratislava.
Monday morning came: We had only one remaining opportunity for lunch and we decided to make the most of it.
Vienna's current culinary temple is located in the city's cool and green Stadtpark. Its name is Steirereck and its visionary chef is Heinz Reitbauer Jr. I spoke with Chef Reitbauer about his passion for locally sourced ingredients. The lamb he serves comes from his own family farm in the region of Styria, where he has joined a co-operative of about 30 neighbouring farms.
Many chefs today make a point of becoming acquainted with the farmers who supply to them. But Reitbauer grew up with his farming neighbours. He is certain that this elemental knowledge of the farms and their growing cycles allows him to extract the best from his ingredients. Just across the fields in Styria, his father, the acclaimed chef Heinz Reitbauer Sr., still oversees the family restaurant in a circa 1616 inn.
Viennese cuisine has a longer, richer tradition than the more humble Austrian cuisine, he explains, but over the years they have melded together. In any case, both are quite rich and heavy. He is finding ways to use more healthful ingredients that are still local.
For example, Reitbauer loves olive oil and respects its reputed health benefits, but he uses the oil of pumpkins and groundnuts that are grown on Austrian soil for the same effect. "We have 30 different kinds of oils in our kitchen. I cannot bring an Austrian taste with olive oil."
Will he cook wiener schnitzel?
"Of course!" But it will be prepared with the best-quality veal, clarified butter and breadcrumbs. "You close your eyes and you say, 'That could be Austria.' For us, this is the most important thing."
This year, Steirereck was voted the 21st best restaurant in the world in the closely watched annual awards sponsored by San Pellegrino.
We found out why over lunch on the terrace.
"Would you like to see a menu or shall we bring you a selection?" asked our server. We quickly agreed to have the chef choose our dishes.
Soon, the plates began to arrive. A wooden box containing a piece of raw char was brought to the table. The server explained that he would pour molten beeswax over the char. The fish would cook before our eyes.
Ten minutes later, he returned to whisk the char back to the kitchen. When it reappeared, it was plated and with basil cress, sour cream and char caviar strewn with a yellow carrot and quince vinegar "pollen."
The next dish, wittily named "Red Herring," was a clever reinterpretation of traditional lenten herring salad. In Reitbauer's version, marinated alpine salmon is combined with rubinette apple and borage.
If the ingredients are unorthodox at Steirereck, the visual composition of the dishes is stunning. This is not, it must be said, a restaurant for travellers on a slim budget. Entrees range in price from about $44 to $62. It is worth the splurge.
One artful creation turns out to be piglet cheeks poached in buttermilk that has been infused with pine needles. The morsels are swathed in bright green kohlrabi marinated with lemon marmalade and juniper berries. The tinges of pink come from preserved rhubarb with ginger.
All of that was followed by a dessert of poppy-seed noodles with damson plum ice cream and another of black walnut sorbet and quince nectar.
The dishes kept coming; none were less than divine.
We closed our eyes.
"This tastes like Austria."