Whatever her CV may suggest, Monika is not a dilettante; she is as much a chef as Thomas Keller. I know because over the years she has made a number of stunning meals for Toni and me at her West 73rd Street apartment. The idea of our trip was born at one of those dinners. Recently we burned a CD with “Up the Ladder to the Roof” and “The Girl’s Song”; booked a suite of rooms in Mühldorf at the moody Burg Oberranna, every American’s fantasy of a 10th-century castle in the Wachau; stuffed ourselves into a rental car; and I finally formed an opinion about Austrian food based on more than apple strudel.
“Austrian cooking doesn’t even have the benefit of being maligned,” Monika says in a speech I have heard her give 10 too many times. “It doesn’t get a bum rap; it gets no rap. People confuse it with German, but it has its own identity. It’s one of the great European cuisines, with links, obviously, to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s all there hiding in plain sight: the tortes, the sweet and savory dumplings, the boiled-beef and freshwater-fish dishes, the cult of the pig and potato.”
Just as she rejects schnitzel made in a deep fryer (it should be done in a pan), Monika does not tolerate industrial kaiser rolls, which are stamped out hourly by the tens of thousands and get their characteristic swirl shape from a plastic machine attachment punched into the dough. She wanted to acquaint us with the real thing, so we went to see Hubert Schweighofer-Steiner, who sells a tiny portion of his production at retail from his plant, squeezed between car dealerships on the outskirts of Tulln. Schweighofer-Steiner’s kaisers are formed by hand, so they’re a little uneven, a little imperfect, which, like a piece of hand-thrown pottery, gives them their cachet. Monika found the rolls appropriately chewy—“they’d be terrific with goulash”—and admired their special shine, the result of a potato-starch glaze (most kaisers are only brushed with water).
She was less wild about the flood of cream, which she said was absolutely not typical, at Jamek, about 50 yards from the Danube, in Joching. A posh favorite of the local Bürgermeister, the restaurant has a ravishing stone terrace where you dine amid old-fashioned roses, mixed borders, wisteria vines, and an emerald lawn with a velour pile. The waitresses wear checked dirndls, buttoned bodices, and smocked aprons and don’t even look ridiculous. Parsley sauce would have been more traditional with the pike quenelles—“they used to be on every menu in Vienna that way”—but Monika forgave the chef for substituting basil. Many of the main courses—which included a ragoût of veal heart and lung zapped with mustard, vinegar, and capers—came with a little green salad, plated together. “Salad in Austria is not served before or after the entrée,” Monika said. “It’s a condiment that furnishes acidity with fatty and other rich foods.” Right. The first of 17 different kinds of knödel, or dumplings, we would try over six days was made with Topfen, similar to pot cheese, rolled in bread crumbs and spooned with melted butter. The apricot hiding inside was so ripe and had so little fiber, poaching had turned it to liquid.
Dinner at Gasthof Zum Lustigen Bauern, in Zeiselmauer, was a bust according to the ladies, but not to me. I am not used to being the least demanding member in my party at a restaurant, but, ostensibly because I was the least knowledgeable about what we were eating, that was the happy case on this trip. It was just so freeing to have someone else in that role, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, hating everything! Austria has its own vernacular bistro tradition, embodied in Gasthöfe and Gasthäuser. The most important elements are the Schank—a corner of the dining room, often with a zinc or copper bar, where beer and wine is dispensed—plus a big, conspicuous crucifix. The Lustigen Bauern’s Schank is unusually handsome, set off by collections of carafes, antique ceramic canisters, and kugelhof molds. Homey elegance is tricky to pull off, but this place nails it with bare plank floors and snowy damask tablecloths. Toni thought the blood sausage wasn’t spicy enough, and Monika said the potato dumplings were overworked. Amid little puffs of exasperation I dared to like a type of schnitzel I didn’t even know existed, made with lightly cured pork instead of fresh.
Breakfast the next morning was chased by a 10 a.m. hard-cider and schnapps tasting at Seppelbauer, in the Mostviertel, the largest contiguous pear-growing region in Europe. On the way in, Monika said, “Wait till you see. The guys who make this stuff think they can drink Toni under the table and then get her into bed, but she’s always the only one left standing.” Two hours later we were still at it, auditioning literally dozens of alcohols and increasingly bony cider vintages—the driest were like biting into a block of granite—all made from obscure pear varietals. You’d have to be crazy to schedule a vinegar tasting after this, but I’m a little scared of Monika so I didn’t say anything. The wild-ramp and green-walnut vinegars sampled neat at the Reikersdorfer family farm, in Neuhofen, made me sick, though they were eventually delicious on the boiled-beef salads we ate at their Heuriger. It’s even more picturesque than Donabaum’s, if that is possible, with hikers seated outside on benches pulled up to tables covered in red-and-white–checked oilcloth. The air smells twitchingly of livestock, and the views stretch across the Danube valley to the mountains of the Waldriertel.