The Washington Post
By Anne Calcagno
March 12, 2015
Vienna is so proud of its cuisine you can buy postcards of whatever you’ve eaten or, just as likely, of the dishes and desserts you’ve missed. Planning to indulge for a weekend, I arrive in the Austrian capital armed with a list of specialties long as a Hapsburg sash. But I’m also schlepping a conundrum: I crave savory foods, but my husband seeks sweetness. We risk brawling through our brief vacation unless we sacrifice or separate — him bingeing in kaffeehauses on sachertorte and apfelstrudel, me haunting gasthauses for wienerschitzel, mushrooms, cheese.
Must we divide to conquer Vienna? Even guidebooks, Web sites and articles seem to separate Viennese food into savory or sweet.
But we decide to try to match my savory yin to my husband’s sweet yang — and right off the bat, we taste the promise of triumph. At Cafe Diglas, a crouton-seasoned, nutmeg-infused pumpkin soup blends flavor opposites with delicate aplomb. Almdudler, the local soda, fizzes sour-sweet lemon with a piquant herbal aftertaste.
A regular, named Sonia, leans in: “You are in one of the original kaffeehauses — from 1923. A favorite of famous dignitaries.” We nod happily as we bite into a nut-crusted sugar-powdered croissant, consuming another legend: In 1683, it is said, Viennese bakers shaped the pastry after the crescent on the Turkish flag so Austrian citizens could joyously devour the Ottomans long after the enemy’s defeat.
Under the mint-green arches of Cafe Central, which once welcomed Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Loos and Peter Altenberg, we scan the menu for mutual satisfaction. Bingo! Sellenrien mousse merges celery mousse, crispy pumpernickel chips and tangy apple confit. Cream of chestnut soup — maronicremesuppe — combines faint bread-pudding sweetness with earthly nuttiness. And marillenpalatschinken folds tart apple jam into salty flat crepes; he eats more jam, I eat more crepe. By the time the pianist riffs the theme song from “Titanic,” we’re drowning in our own savory-sweet medley.
At Cafe Drechsler, we have creamed spinach coupled with fried egg and potatoes while nibbling belegte bröte: pumpernickel slices topped with sweet-cream butter and bitter, crunchy chives. My cloth bag holds vinegar we got at Wiener Essig Brauerei Gegenbauer’s stand in the Naschmarkt. Before a scaffolding of medieval-looking glass globes with spigots, vendor Nico had explained, “It takes three years to brew our vinegars, without pasteurization or filtration. Sixty types, from fruit, balsamic, apple cider, wine vinegar, the Spanish sherry grape.” He instructed me to drizzle mine on ice cream. I will.
Cafe Dreschler satisfies lovers of savory foods and sugar fiends alike with a dish of creamed spinach and an egg over potatoes. (Anne Calcagno/For The Washington Post)
At the trendy restaurant Motto am Fluss, designed to resemble a glittering speedboat moored on the Danube Canal, intense flavors intermingle. Owner Bernd Schlacher is an urban strategist with an organic vision: “There was nothing much here five years ago. Schwedenplatz, an intersection. It needed change. To modernize tradition, we employ delicate precision, seeking no trite statement but a new authenticity.” With a nod to Austria’s hunting tradition, we order saddle of fawn with sugary champagne cabbage and pumpernickel dumplings. Then wild duck breast on crisp savoy with bacon, served with fruity sauerkraut compote. Multiple playful cocktails, from “Bang Bang” to “Yellow Submarine,” succeed at inventive savory-sweet infusions.
A new food movement is afoot in Vienna, spawning zesty combinations of sustainable local food sources: fish, fruit, game, roots, honey. Vienna boasts 600 beekeepers tending to 5,300 bee colonies housed on venerable rooftops such as the Vienna State Opera when they aren’t out pollinating gardens.
Even the august traditional restaurant Plachutta, which has famously served the boiled beef dish called tafelspitz and more to Pelé, Harry Belafonte, Woody Allen and Henry Kissinger, underscores in its menu: “Our beef comes exclusively from cows and calves raised on lush Austrian pastures . . . raised with the highest welfare standards.” Beef, bone marrow and root vegetables sizzle in a copper saucepan. No ordinary applesauce accompanies the dish it’s pungent with freshly grated horseradish.
At the Guesthouse Brasserie & Bakery , I test the vegetarian meal option: mouthwatering goat cheese with pumpkin confit and caramelized nuts; chestnut agnolotti with crunchy parsnip in poppy seed and balsamic vinegar; fig-and-pine-nut tart over chocolate ice cream. I sidle over to spoon my husband’s cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup with lemon verbena and shellfish; he filches confit. Next, a bite of braised rabbit in sherry-cocoa jus blended with kumquats. Pausing to sip white Grüner Veltliner, we no longer question Vienna’s versatility. It’s taught us about our own.
At the end of our last evening, strolling towards our hotel, we decide to share a käsekreiner (smoked pork sausage mottled with cheese). The gruff vendor at Würstelstand am Hohen Markt pauses over his mustards: “Süss (sweet)? Or scharf (spicy)?” The question feels personal. My husband winks: “Both.”