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Christmas in Vienna

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Photo: Monika Hofler

Outside Vienna’s Upper Belvedere Palace, a Baroque steed rears in frozen delirium over a stall peddling teddy bears and toy Santas. Perhaps the marble Lipizzan is in a frenzy for a bite of Kartoffelpuffer, fried potato pancakes the size of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or a chomp of the pretzel-shaped glazed doughnuts, big as an eagle’s nest. All around us, wursts sizzle on griddles, angels glitter, and pinecones dangle at booths overflowing with Klimt-inspired jewelry and scented candles. Just when I can’t feel my toes from the cold, a dozen hot punch varieties—kirsch-gingerbread, anyone?—come to the rescue. Such Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) scenes replay on a dozen elegant squares in Austria’s imperial capital. Which other city on earth stages a more festive December? On the Graben, the pedestrian thoroughfare, younger revelers in high-tech parkas and grandmas in pillbox hats promenade under chandeliers with myriad tiny white Christmas lights. The scent of pine mingles with mulled wine vapors and the char of roast chestnuts. Time for yet another Melange (a Viennese cappuccino with an optional cloud of whipped cream) on a smart silver tray at a historic café?

Food is reason enough to come to Vienna in winter. The opening day of our weeklong eating adventure passes in a carnivalesque blur. Poppy-seed kuchen and Styrian pumpkin bread at the raucous market under the spires of the Rathaus (city hall). Oysters and champagne at a holiday stall set up by my favorite restaurant, the fin de siècle Zum Schwarzen Kameel. That many-layered Dobos torte with a brittle caramel top—where was it? Oh yes, at the gleaming mahogany counter of Demel pastry shop. Sinking onto the pillows at the Hotel Sacher, I fall asleep with a lingering question: What on earth was Umadumkugl punch?

Back to the Beisl

The next day my boyfriend, Barry, and I slurp salty restorative beef bouillon at lunch with Severin Corti. We are at Gustl Bauer, a defiantly old-school tavern on the atmospheric Am Hof Platz (remember the square where Harry Lime vanished into thin air in The Third Man?). Corti, the restaurant critic for Der Standard newspaper, dissects Viennese classics for us. Goulash? Must contain equal amounts of onions and beef—no tomatoes. “Juicy” is how he rates Gustl Bauer’s famed schnitzel, with a “perfect” thickness of a third of an inch. “Bread crumbs and clarified butter create an almost pastry effect,” Barry chimes in. “Yes, shameless in its butteriness,” Corti agrees, unironically—then instructs me to alternate bites of my Christmas carp (breaded and fried à la schnitzel) with forkfuls of mayo-drenched potato salad. Where to find Vienna’s best Sacher torte, I ask. “That most overrated sweet in the world?” Corti snorts. “With that tank-resistant chocolate glaze?” Ow. Before bidding us a hasty auf wiedersehen—so many Christmas parties to go to!—he telephones a certain Frau Karrer. Scoring an impossible table at Gasthaus Pöschl for us. Tonight!

Dark-wood paneling, sturdy furniture, a blackboard scrawled with Viennese classics from headcheese to boiled beef—that’s a Beisl, Vienna’s answer to the trattoria or the bistro. The petite Pöschl, off the intimate Franziskanerplatz, is an ur-Beisl—only with blond-wood paneling and a creative flair in the kitchen. The burly proprietor? Hanno Pöschl, one of Austria’s best-known screen villains. The “certain” Frau Karrer? His wife, Andrea, diva of dumplings and warm plated desserts. Wedged into a corner table, we observe actorly men in black turtlenecks and ladies in arty scarves. Laughter gusts to the vaulted ceiling. A meal at Pöschl, we discover, is a master class in punctuations and grace notes: elegant onion wisps and drizzles of dark nutty pumpkin oil on the headcheese, sweet-sour pickle and crisp caraway-perfumed cabbage to relieve the richness of Blunzengröstl (a blood-pudding-and-potato hash). Tonight’s revelation: Beuschel, the iconic Austrian stew of (gulp!) lungs, heart, and tongue. In Frau Karrer’s hands the offal tastes almost mushroomy, cooked in a Riesling sauce spiked with capers and anchovies and served with her yeasty, steamed-then-fried Bohemian dumplings. “Blood pudding! Lungs! It’s what we Viennese eat,” Herr Pöschl propounds over hazelnut schnapps, “while tourists are ordering schnitzel.” I look around me. Everyone here is local. Everyone is having a schnitzel.

In Vienna today, creative chefs are abandoning cutting-edge sauces and vigorously re-embracing their roots. Meinrad Neunkirchner is one such chef: promoter of knotty heirloom vegetables, lover of elderflower vinegar and candied rose hips, veteran of Michelin-starred Aubergine, in Munich, and Troisgros, in France. A few years ago he and partner Eva Homolka transformed a loud boozy pub in the suburban 18th District into a dreamy gourmet gasthaus—a foodie tavern—called Freyenstein. Homolka outfitted the cozy rooms with Klimtian mottled gold, mismatched leather seating, and neo-Jugendstil torchères. Neunkirchner serves up a single nightly degustation menu: a dozen miniature dishes presented in duos and trios—at bargain prices. No wonder locals try to keep the place to themselves. Tonight festive bottles of Austrian Sekt pop open under a Christmas-wreath chandelier. Young foodie couples snap iPhone shots of their mini venison wursts and ruddy goulash sauce spooned around eggplant and potato dumplings. Sourcing from within a 200-mile radius of Vienna, Neunkirchner finds the country’s most flavorful, biodynamically raised chicken to serve with velvety celery mousse and chestnut cream. To follow: a sharp Austrian sheep-milk cheese with black-walnut preserves and aromatic dandelion syrup. Dessert is a coconut-coated Topfenknödel—a curd dumpling, light as a snowflake.

Nature and Nurture

The following evening the vibe turns more festive still at the Michelin two-starred Steirereck. Under the ceiling of white plaster leaves, a fanciful bread cart glides behind a mulled-wine trolley, an emanation worthy of Hansel and Gretel. Nearby a young waiter sweetly dusts sugary “snow” over Christmas cookies...while trying not to stare at the May-September couple canoodling at a central table. We too fasten our eyes on our plates—mainly because Steirereck has surprisingly leaped to the number nine spot on Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Tasting chef Heinz Reitbauer’s showy dishes of botanic exotica, I can see why. “The limequats and bergamots are grown for us in the hothouse of the Schönbrunn Palace,” the chef’s wife explains. Each dish arrives with a paper annotation. Crosnes, for instance: “small knobby tubers, likened by Chinese poets to jade beads.” They are crunchy and sweetish, braised with coriander and rose hip, then served with a polenta cooked with celeriac juice and bok choy marinated with balsamic vinegar and thistle oil. The cooking is masterly—but the information overkill and presentation theatrics distract. Not to mention the couple now practically snogging. “Botanists driven wild by the menu?” Barry suggests, as we nibble on the snowy cookies from a silver dish lined with fir branchlets and edible pomegranate paper.

Downstairs sits Meierei, Reitbauer’s casual place, conceived by the same local theater-design studio as a starkly white space with painterly surges of green echoing the Stadtpark outside and a wall of blue-glowing milk bottles. Its über-chic notwithstanding, Meierei is a Beisl in spirit, with perfectionist versions of vernacular hits—a complex pork-hock soup scented with horseradish and marjoram; a textbook goulash properly sweetened with onions in a mellow sauce you want to eat with a spoon. Reitbauer also salutes Meierei’s past as a dairy depot with a dizzying selection of milks—horse milk; goat milk; milk in flavors like tonka bean or geranium—and some 120 farmhouse cheeses, about a third of them Austrian. We settle on extra portions of Kuh, a stunning mild blue aged in a Beerenauslese produced by the sweet-wine king Alois Kracher.

Haute Dogs

Behold the Hotel Sacher at the holidays! In its snug lobby, Russian oligarchs’ wives preen-pout in their furs and guys in cashmere sip punch beside a grandly graceful yule tree. From our room we spy on the anorexic ballerinas across the street at the Opera House ballet studio. Then turn our gaze to all the tuxedos and minks scrambling for their post-opera wurst fix at Bitzinger Würstelstand Albertina. We too grow addicted to Bitzinger. Every day we stop at this sleek, glowing sausage stand for a fatty bratwurst with blistered skin, or a slender, elegant knockwurst, or a dark smoky Waldviertler. But, oh, the Käsekrainer! Imagine—imagine—a sausage that oozes cheese from the inside. With a slab of dense brown bread, a sweet pickled pepper, and—warum nicht?—a glass of champagne. So beloved are sausage stands in Vienna that even the city’s swellest brasserie, Vestibül, pays homage to them. In this opulent space dripping with marble and plaster, haute chef Christian Domschitz serves a wooden board of spicy skinny Debreziner sausage, boiled Sacherwurst, and the iconic Leberkäse (a kind of crusty baked bologna loaf) ensconced in a feathery bun with oniony mustard. This is wurst, if you please, in what was formerly Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sissi’s private entrance to the Burgtheater. You’ll also be pleased by Domschitz’s breezy high-low spins on Austrian classics—like his signature lobster medallion with silky, lightly cured sauerkraut braised with Szegedi paprika and finished with cream. A perfect foil for a powerful Wachau Riesling.

Sweet Vienna

Visitors come to the Ninth District for Sigmund Freud’s house-museum on Berggasse. Me? I’m instantly cured of all angst by the sight of the window at Xocolat Manufaktur, on nearby Servitengasse. Owner Werner Meisinger greets me inside with a spoonful of artisanal apple balsamico. The vinegar enlivens his exquisite milk-chocolate praline…because Xocolat is not your grandmother’s Viennese confectioner. Fed up with industrial Mozart marzipans and stodgy imperial-style sweets, Meisinger—author of a book called Sweet Vienna—opened Xocolat more than a decade ago. Today it’s a pocket kingdom of inventive bonbons. “I try to resist globalization—with chocolate,” Meisinger says, handing me a white-chocolate riff on Marillenknödel (apricot dumpling) and a Powidltascherl—a Bohemian plum-jam-filled pastry reimagined as a dark-chocolate flavor bomb. Really, who needs Dr. Freud?

Truffles eaten, Meisinger takes me on a tour of his sweet Vienna. First stop: Tian, a sleek restaurant featuring a stylish sweets display by a young pastry genius, Thomas Scheiblhofer, whom Meisinger applauds for his modernized, miniaturized strudels and caramel-mousse tartes. “Fantastisch!” he enthuses about the shocking-pink roasted-beet crème brûlée encircled with lime curd. At Fruth, by the Naschmarkt, we enter a different century, a tiny white world of frilly meringues and heart-shaped marzipan pralines. “Austria’s best Vanillekipferl,” Meisinger says, assessing the fragile almondy crescent cookie. I eye the poppy-seed macaroons, but he urges us on—toward “Vienna’s greatest strudel.” We find it amid the cathedral-scaled arches of Café Central, where Freud and Trotsky played chess (not with each other). “Sure, it’s touristy here,” Meisinger allows. “But the pastry chefs keep Viennese traditions vital and fresh.” The apple strudel is proof: majestically tall, with a crisp pastry so thin you can read your newspaper through it. The filling is vivid with tangy Granny Smith apples, textured with bread crumbs slowly roasted in butter. More proof: the Kaiserschmarren, a torn-up caramelized pancake you dab with a celestial plum compote.

“Any scoop on Leon Trotsky?” I ask the maître d’ as we leave. He shrugs, leafs through his reservation book.

“Sorry,” he informs me. “Don’t see anyone under that name.”

Kaffe Culture

Every morning we indulge in the Hotel Sacher’s Gugelhupf: a moist, richly glazed cake studded with candied citrus. Then, after flaneuring along the frozen cityscape, cold and footsore we seek warmth at historic old coffee houses. Spiffed-up classics like Landtmann—Slovakian Christmas shoppers scarfing down $16 strudels—leave us cold in the end. But Café Prückel, near the Stadtpark, delights with its look of a banquet hall—in Poland circa 1950: waitresses with Cold War–era manners; worn, creamy fabric draped over gorgeous Midcentury bones of sofas and chairs that belong at the MAK, the unmissable museum of applied arts across the street. By the Opera House, we sweep right past the over-confectioned Café Mozart thronged with Japanese cake-worshippers and into the world-weary embrace of Café Tirolerhof. Here the walls are the color of Franziskaner (that’s espresso with milk), light streams softly through arched Moorish windows, and an elderly waiter ignores my pleas for another Kleiner Schwarzer (espresso, no milk).

In the end, like most locals, we surrender our hearts to the 1880’s Café Sperl, near the Naschmarkt. Is it the nicotine-stained plaster cupids or the quaint marble sink by the loo? The billiards in the back room or the parquet floor polished to a gleam by decades of foot traffic? The maternal waitresses delivering plum cake with a loose tangy glaze? Like an old Christmas present from faraway childhood, the Sperl stirs the soul. Okay, but what if the soul desires serious caffeine? Then it’s Unger und Klein im Hochhaus. A round, glass-walled architect’s plaything inside a renovated 1930’s skyscraper, the new-wave coffee haunt hails from the owners of the pioneering wine bar Unger und Klein. Chrome, tanned leather, the Constructivist red of the coffee packaging—amazing how much design can be crammed into a space the size of a newspaper kiosk. The rich, complex coffees here are drawn by expert baristas from beans from Andraschko, a cult Berlin roaster run by an expat Viennese couple. The Bar Italia roast (a cuvée of four arabica beans) is a perfect match for the Lebkuchen. Glazed with bitter dark chocolate and raspberry stripes, the intense minimalist sweet completely changes everything I know about gingerbread.

To Market

Locals grumble at the “wasabi nut–ification” of the Naschmarkt, the century-old, mile-long market close by the gleaming tomb also known as the Secession building. Globalized nut mixes and all, though, the Naschmarkt remains a rich grazing ground. Gegenbauer, for instance, dazzles with barrel-aged vinegars: quince balsamico, late-harvest Blaufränkisch, tomato or sour cherry. A drop is squeezed onto the back of your hand to try, like precious perfume. The market’s newest magnet is the dark-wood communal table at Kim Kocht Shop & Studio. Korean-born Sohyi Kim commands an unlikely success story. Immigrants to insular Vienna often work waiting tables, but Kim launched a sleek product line and a mini restaurant empire after gaining a cult following with her diminutive reservations-only Kim Kocht, in the Ninth District. Here, at the handsome bento box of a place at the market she tickles Viennese taste buds with inventive dim sum and sweet-fiery bibimbaps (try the bibim noodles with tuna). At our lunch, the arrangement of velvety, lightly smoked duck breast, candied kumquats, pumpkin gnocchi, and gingered red cabbage makes a convincing case for Austro-Asian fusion.

On a gray drizzly Saturday, a chorus of tips sends us to Karmelitermarkt, in the fast-gentrifying Karmeliterviertel, Vienna’s old Jewish quarter. The drizzle turns into a downpour. We dodge the elements inside Kaas am Markt, a Slow Food–approved deli and café. For the price of some stale pastries at a historic haunt, we breakfast on dizzyingly aromatic dark bread, salami from a free-ranging Austrian Schwein, and a tangy dip of Quark cheese and scallion with radishes. Breakfast spills over into a lunch of supple, ash-coated Upper Austrian Camembert, oozy raw-milk Muenster from way-western Austria, and a mildly pungent, semi-hard mountain-goat cheese called Bergziegenkäse. Our bottle of buttery Kremstal Riesling is empty and the winter sun is finally shining outside!

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