Saturday, 13 September 2014

Before sunrise - Vienna part I

Until this point in my life I had only every heard of Vienna through the somber Ultravox chart topper and Richard Linklater’s masterly film ‘Before Sunrise starring a young Ethan Hawke and Juliette Delpy. If anything it is through the goggles of the latter that I liked to imagine this romantic city, full of history, baroque grandeur and mystique. I must say that from my recent trip I was not disappointed, although I had a little more cashola than the two protagonists of that film of fleeting ecstasy and youthful carefree. 

I arrived in the old city at 11:30 on a sunny September morning and proceeded to check into my hotel, located on the edge of Old Vienna. The Hotel Am Parkring was immediately welcoming and, after having grabbed a quick shower I hit the streets to find something to whet my growing appetite (I had neglected to partake of breakfast). Fortunately, for a comparative ‘rube’ a friend who resided in this fair city gave me a recommendation. Cafe Korb, located just off the main square Stephensplatz promised to offer the finest Wiener Schnitzel in the capital (that is flattened veal escalope, breadcrumbed and flashed fried). Served with a potato salad dressed in vinaigrette and accompanied by a crisp, hoppy beer I wolfed it down enjoying the deliciously crisp, savoury flavour of the meat against the sharp, clean flavour of the potato salad. It was a perfect introduction to the holiday and gave energy for an afternoon of getting to know the city. 

The centre of Vienna is characterised by an imposing, Gothic church. It’s an ornate building, not much to my liking but inside is a different matter. Some of the most amazing carvings can be seen in there, my favourite and one which is touted rightly by the guide books is a charming depiction of the cathedral’s sculptor which cheekily pokes out of one of the walls to give a more human face amongst the grim agonies of the saints getting martyred and the holier-than-thou saintliness of the blessed virgin. 

Of course going into a cathedral is thirsty work, especially when you have followed it up with the garish and flamboyant interior of Peterskirche just round the corner. In need of a refresher I found a very agreeable bar opposite this latter location. Le Cru is a lovely little bar come shop specialising in Champagne and Champagne only. Buying from both the big names and from the smaller, boutique supplier you can be sure of an original vintage and something a little different. It’s not the cheapest place with a flute costing between 8€ - 14€ depending on what you go for but, of the two I tried I must say that I couldn’t fault the quality or the temperature served.To make matters better, as I was ruminating on the culture I had taken in, I was served by a young lady who was rather reminiscent on Vanessa Paradis - another blessing indeed! 

Much like Rome, Vienna’s streets are a museum in themselves with amazing carvings, moulding and plasterwork arresting the visitor’s attention endlessly. It was then that I happened upon the inevitable cigar shop - damn how they seem to appear like oases to me in these far flung locations. It was then that I thought that I could take advantage of the fact that you could smoke in most establishments in the city, especially coffee shops. It them became my mission, after purchasing a very smooth, Partagas No. 3 I chanced upon a lovely little place on Franziskanerplatz, a pretty little square about three minutes down from the bustling centre. 

Kleines Cafe was full of locals enjoying an afternoon coffee, and, as is my custom, I like to try and blend in, steeping myself in the local culture (albeit with a massive cigar as opposed to the Lucky Strikes that everyone else seemed to be chain smoking). The outdoor seating was filled so I opted for a seat in the small front bar with vaulted ceilings, glass tables and worn leather banquettes. It was one of those places you could imagine the great turn-of-the-century intellectuals, philosophers, artists and poets crowding around, enjoying a glass of Gruner Veltliner (a popular Austrian white wine) debating the hot topics of the day and fermenting ideas. 

I opted for a strong black coffee and a glass of fire water, the local apricot schnapps and the perfect foil to the rich taste of the cigar. I positioned myself where I could see when the next table would become available outside and as soon as one freed, with the deft leap of a jungle cat, I pounce securing a spot to puff merrily away on my stogie as I enjoyed the afternoon sun. 

Pangs of hunger were not too far away and, after a very badly made Old Fashioned at Kruger’s American Bar, an experience saved only by a conversation with a charming Danish lady from the pharmaceutical industry, I returned to my hotel, showered, shaved and donned a jacket in readiness for dinner for one. 

There is something strangely enjoyable about dinner for one, especially in a foreign country and, being a Friday night I drew a lot of looks when I took an outside table at the very pretty little restaurant around the corner from my hotel called Zu Den Drei Hacken. The evening was balmy and although I had been making beer my drink of choice on that day, I decided to go with a chilled glass of Austrian riesling which dry and crisp. I started simply with some slice ham with horseradish on black bread which was tasty if a little unexciting but given that this was a traditional restaurant I wasn’t too surprised and anyway I was holding out for the piece de resistance the deep fried and breadcrumbed calf’s brain. 

When i told people after the event that I had sampled this delicacy, I was met with incredulity and warnings of CJD and BSE yet I would urge you to try one if you regard yourself as a foodie. So inspired by the great Stefan Gates I embarked on this organ adventure. When I ordered the dish I was imagining the dish as prepared by the Italians, chopped into delicate little morsels coated in a crispy shell. The waiter looked rather surprised as he took my order and asked if I would like it fried or roasted. I plumped for the former and wasn’t disappointed. With a flourish the waiter produced the dish, a whole brain on a plate, it was huge, the size of a small victoria sponge. I ordered an Austrian Chardonnay to go with it and it came with an acidic potato salad and some dressed frisee. 

Now, before you balk, brain is delicious and I urge you to give it a go. It has a soft, creamy texture which I can imagine would put people off but has a buttery, delicate flavour and is incredibly rich. The salads were a perfect foil cutting through the offal’s fattiness. My clean plate and full belly at the end of the meal was testament to how good it was but I found that I had not the room for pudding so I finished the meal with a glass of schnapps and a strong black coffee. 

I found a suitably appointed little bar for a nightcap and drowsily contemplated my next day. It seems that brains are a good narcotic as I slept like a log that night!

Thanks for reading. In a few days I will publish part two so stay tuned!

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