VIENNA-This is the third time in three days that I’m devouring a schnitzel bigger than my face. The pork cutlet pours over my giant plate, it’s pounded paper thin with a crispy golden exterior. I cut a triangle-sized bite, squeeze fresh lemon, dousing the morsel in its juices, and then smear it through the remnants of my potato salad. I wash the perfect bite down with a gulp of blond beer. This is so good! I’m already negotiating how I can fit in a fourth stop on my travels.
The server at Figlmüller – my dealer of choice for my schnitzel addiction – gets it. Herr Christian works 12-hour shifts, four days a week, at the Viennese institution, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at night. More than 95 per cent of the time, patrons order the famous schnitzel.
“I could eat schnitzel every day for the rest of my life,” Christian says when our neighbours ask him if he’s sick of the Austrian staple.
“When I start my day, I think they won’t be appetizing, but once I smell them, I want to take a bite,” he explains. We joke that he should take a mouthful. For quality control’s sake, of course.
With our joint love for schnitzel declared, he warms up. Christian says that three men in the restaurant’s basement pound out 1,500 pork cutlets daily – 500 portions each. They’re broad-shouldered men, headphones in their ears, techno music blaring, meat tenderizers in hand as they hack at the palm-sized flesh until it’s the size of a wafer-thin pizza.
From my rudimentary understanding of schnitzel making (I’m much more well-versed in the art of schnitzel eating), the cutlet is seasoned and coated in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs and it’s fried until golden brown. By the time it arrives in front of you, you’re too busy eating to bother to ask questions.
Christian – and the other servers we come across during our multiple visits – won’t divulge the trade secrets, though. Especially the ingredients for the restaurant’s famous potato salad.
Above: They make 1,500 schnitzels at Figlmüller every single day and there's always a wait to get inside.
This isn’t your grandma’s picnic potato salad. It’s creamy and luxurious – you taste acidity, salt, something sweet, something tart. It’s garnished with lamb lettuce dressed in balsamic vinegar. This is the potato salad that brings other restaurants to its knees – even they concede their own recipes aren’t as good. I start off sharing the side dish with my friend, but midway through our meal, we decide it’s time for a second serving.
Once Christian leaves the dining area, we swap guesses with the tables in the vicinity. There has to be a pinch of sugar, I suggest. Our Dutch neighbours are sure there’s white wine vinegar and the French are certain there’s Dijon mustard. This detective work ends with only one conclusion: its absolutely delicious.
Now that I know I can eat my weight in fried meat, it’s time to walk off the damage. We wade through the throngs of tourists in the city’s historic centre, explore the State Opera House and wander about the Austrian National Library.
While in the stillness of the room filled with centuries-old books, I hear it: my rumbling tummy. It’s dinnertime and I already know what I’ll be grazing on.
Tafelspitz doesn’t sound appetizing in the slightest and its translated description — boiled beef — doesn’t help its situation either. But I’ve heard enough about this storied dish, served in most Austrian homes – and in this case, a restaurant called Plachutta – to know that it’s a must-try.
Our server, Jakub, brings a steaming pot to the table. It’s filled with beef broth, hefty slices of beef shoulder and carrots, leeks and green onions. There’s strips of pancake that are soaked in the broth he ladles into my bowl. After a blustery cold winter’s day, this is hitting the spot.
He returns 10 minutes later. “Are you done with the soup?”
I most certainly am not – I want to nurse this soup all night but Jakub explains it’s only half of the fun of tafelspitz. He expertly scoops the two slices of tender beef out of the pot and onto my plate. The vegetables are adorned on top and to their left is a heaping pile of roasted potatoes. The bone marrow from the pot sits on top of a piece of brown bread ready to absorb the juices. And to top it off, the beef is paired with an apple and horseradish sauce, while the potatoes are dressed with a chive mayonnaise.
Left: Tafelspitz is a traditional dish served in most homes. Right: Belvedere Castle is one Vienna's most beautiful.
Turns out I can eat my weight in tafelspitz, too. Every speck of food on my plate is polished off. I’m ready to find and adopt an Austrian grandma so I can eat this dish again.
But the night is young, so we return to the cold to trek over to Café Central for some live music and to take in the Viennese café culture.
The thing is, you can’t have coffee on its own when you’re surrounded by pastries. Travelling to Vienna without a helping of apfelstrudel and chocolate torte would be obscene, so we order desserts for the table.
The apfelstrudel is warm, flaky on top, with sweet cinnamon in the centre and drenched in crème anglaise, which I liberally drown the pastry in. Even the garnishes are devoured: whipped cream sitting on a bed of chopped nuts and sun-dried apple chips.
I vow to never eat a bite again and wonder how I’ll fit into my dress the next day. But I get dressed in the morning, and well, I eat again.
It’s veal goulash this time and, with just a few bites in, I already know I’ll be sopping up the leftover gravy with bread. It’s served with spätzle – a soft egg noodle – that’s buttery and cuts into the spice of the goulash. My friend’s beef goulash comes with semmelknoedel, bread dumplings held together with onions, parsley and butter. We sit in silence, heads over our plates, eating until not a spot is left.
The server returns to our table with a second round of beer. He’s amazed at our insatiable hunger.
“Where does it all go?” he quips. Once we settle the bill, we don our parkas, toques and scarves. It’s time for more exercise to work off the calories and work up our appetites again.
For more information in Vienna, go to www.vienna.info / Austrian Airlines offers flights from Toronto to Vienna.