After a brief moment when I thought we might be eating at a backup restaurant where we were also holding a reservation, we settled down to dinner that night at Sodoma, in Tulln (Monika was initially offended that branzino was on the menu instead of trout—“pandering to Viennese businessmen!”). The first time she ate at Sodoma, a Gasthaus in the same mold as Bauern and nearly as good-looking, she invited herself into the kitchen, leaving only after getting the chef’s recipe for salsify in a Riesling–brown butter sauce with spinach dumplings. The food at Sodoma is exceptional (especially the headcheese and clear beef broth with crêpe slivers). The trouble is everybody who works there knows it. There can be an attitude problem.
The cult of the poppy and poppy seed in Austria reaches its apotheosis in Armschlag, nicknamed das Mohndorf (literally, “the poppy village”), as we observed the next day at lunch at Mohnwirt, a Gasthaus that is the village’s major draw. Armschlag is threaded with a charming “poppy path” that ends in a cooperative selling 10-pound sacks of poppy seeds, poppy-printed tea towels, and poppy honey, plus an excellent drizzling oil, chocolate, soap, and schnapps made with or from the seeds. If you’ve only ever had them on bagels or in cakes you have no idea what they can do. Adorned with thousands of old poppy-seed grinders and dried rafter-hung bunches of the pods, Mohnwirt uses the seeds in noodles, dumplings, to crust fish.... This is not to take anything away from the restaurant’s beautiful Viennese-style torte, seven five-millimeter layers interposed with a mixture of whipped cream and poppy seeds.
There were other hits, other misses, though in a pattern established early on, I refused to agree just for the sake of peace when my companions pronounced a miss. The restaurant Pollak’s Retzbacherhof, in Unterretzbach, is hung with Helmut Newton–style photographs of women wearing grapes instead of panties, and Toni and Monika’s indignation flared until I thought we might have to leave. They swallowed their outrage because Monika was determined I try the semolina-filled strudel, cooked in broth, bathed in butter, and served with a vinegary salad of green beans and red onions. In the event, she liked it. Erwin Poller, of the Pollerhof estate, in Röschitz, near Retz, set up a table in his vineyard, threw a cloth over it, and guided us through a tasting of regional cheeses, cured meats, pickled walnuts, and the Grüner Veltliner and Gewürztraminer that put him on the map. No fancy credentials are required: Poller will organize picnic-style lunches like this for the average wine tourist. Chef Josef Floh, of Der Floh, in Langenlebarn, is a little foam-happy for my taste and, I would have thought, Monika’s. But after arctic char in a creamy, garlicky cucumber sauce, and crispy crêpes piped with parsnip purée, she crowned the Gasthaus the best of our trip. “Josef is doing amazing things for the food of this country,” she said. “If I were the president of Austria I’d give him a medal.”
With our last meal behind us, I poked Monika. While acknowledging the limitedness of our tour I said I found Austrian cooking sophisticated, fascinating, complex, its own thing, and profoundly satisfying—but with none of the virtues we have all been instructed to find desirable for the past three decades. Austria never got the memo about “things tasting of what they are.” Then I thought, there are so many cuisines these days that bend over backward to deliver clear flavors and bright tastes, what do we need another one for?A fashionable fetishizing of these qualities has led the world to forget that there are other ways of looking at food. Usually a remark like the one I made about Austrian cooking’s being great but a difficult sell triggers a lecture from Monika on the French-Italian conspiracy to hold Austrian food down. But she took it well.
Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.