Eating out in Europe: adventures in meat and beer part one – Vienna

Egon Schiele - Self portrait with raised bare shoulder, 1912For the last few weeks, I’ve been in central Europe; which explains the relative scarcity of blog posts, and the mild expansion of my waistline. Germany and Austria do not stint on the carbs. Or the meat, or the pastry, or the beer, or the portion sizes.

It’s been good.

Here’s the first part of a rolling write-up of places I’ve eaten, kicking off in Vienna.

7 Stern Brau

Located in one of the few (and, I think, oldest) breweries in the city, the Seven Stars Brewery looks and quacks like a tourist trap, so maybe it is. But it isn’t one in the bad way, and I loved it all the same. Inside it’s all wood panels and old brewing gear. Outside is a bustling beer garden. It’s huge, and a bit loud at peak time.

Huge mugs of their excellent beer come with giant servings of caricature-traditional Austrian food. It’s a the good-pub-meal end of the spectrum, because that’s exactly what it is. I opted for Käsespätzle and Kit went with an equally tourist/trad schnitzel.

The spätzle was rich, sticky cheesy, and full of smoked ham. It’s a dish of little noodle/dumpling/gnocchi things, and exactly the right kind of stodgy. There’s cream and melted cheese, and fried onions on top. It’s a good deal like a dirty cheesy gnocchi dish I make but with just enough cultural pedigree to stop you feeling bad about doing it to your face. Oh, and served in a giant iron skillet with no pretence of subtly or vegetables.

The beer was a little, well, gentle. The Märzen and Rauchbier both lacked a bit of punch and depth, and were more rounded than I’m used to. This isn’t exactly a criticism – they went well with food, and were certainly more refreshing than something fullsome like the Schlenkerler Rauchbier. In fact, this was something of a motif with the beers we tried – perhaps the Austrian style skews milder, or perhaps we just tend to order from the butch end of the spectrum for the beer festival.

Finkh

Down a side street off the main road into the old town, Finkh was not the easiest place to find. It doesn’t look grand or imposing, or have any signage – just a large iron girder jutting out of the front wall, with a black metal crow perched on it. Inside the ceiling beam continues, dominating the stark, concrete-floored space with a chunky, rusted winch system to one side. In essence it reeks of Hoxton style bar.

In keeping, the patron was a slight lady, chain-smoking, and three missed meals and an attitude problem away from the most laboured arts-student cliche.

This could have been bad.

It was not. It didn’t even pass within a few miles of bad. In fact, I think Finkh was the best meal I had in Vienna. The style bar vibe was the right kind of garnish – a little flourish that enhances without intruding. The lady running the show was earnest and enthusiastic, and didn’t at all mind that we rocked up at half nine looking confused and disoriented. Oh, and they served Schneider Weisse.

The food at Finkh is traditional with specials. It’s a lean menu of four or five dishes, a couple of starters and soups, and the odd dessert. I was tempted by the blutwurst, but opted for Tafelspitz (braised beef with trimmings) with gazpacho to start.

The gazpatcho was significantly better than mine. That’s not the highest bar, for sure, but it’d say it’s north of the centre. This was thick and fresh and spiced, heavy on the cucumber, and just perfect to cool down on a warm summer evening.

It was also massively too much food, given the giant strips of slow-cooked beef, fried potatoes, and mountain of spinach puree that arrived afterwards.

The beef could actually have done with a little longer stewing – brisket benefits from falling apart. But I can’t fault the flavour. More interesting was the accompaniment of apple sauce with horseradish, and a sauce of lightly flavoured soured cream. The horseradish was fresh and searingly hot, grated over the sweet apple puree to offset perfectly. Together they sliced through the solid richness of the beef. It’s a good pairing, and not one I’d seen done before.

Kit’s soup deserves a mention too – a light, asian-inspired tofu broth with a little coconut, and – I think – a dash of fish sauce. It’s the balance that caught my attention. The coconut was beautifully muted, and the soup not overly thick.

I’d recommend Finkh – the food was well executed, and the atmosphere kicked a little ass. Plus, it didn’t seem crushingly busy or piss-takingly priced. Check it out if you’re in Vienna

5Senses

Five Senses is built onto a Novotel, one metro stop shy of the splendid Prater amusement park. It has a good TripAdvisor write up, a deeply precocious website, and a menu that looks worth a shot if you can actually find it on their website.

The maître d’ didn’t much like the look of us, and I’m fairly sure that if we hadn’t had a reservation he would have gleefully turned us away. He actually did this to a couple who arrived shortly after us, and not looking drastically scruffier.

This kind of thing bothers me even when a place can live up to the airs and graces. 5 Senses cannot.

It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong. But the snooty air, mineral water price gouging, and charging for an amuse bouche you present as a free extra gesture: these are well-worn trapping of the eaterie in the Hyacinth Bucket zone. Grasping upwards with very little in the foundations.

There’s also only so flashy you get to feel when you open onto the lobby of a Novotel and spend half the evening bringing beers to a trio of bored yuppies tweaking a client pitch presentation for corporate downsizing consultancy services.

But I laid into the best restaurant in Cambridge for what, if you squint, looks like some nasty implicit class politics in its wine list, so I’ve got previous here, and I’ll cut 5 Senses some slack. The food was actually very good.

They have two menus – local with a twist, and wanky asian fusion. Both are well constructed, and had a few interesting things. This time, I caved and had blutwurst. It was delicious, and served with seasoned deep-fried onion, mash, and caramelized apple. The balance of herbs, fat, and scantness of barley were quite unlike a British black pudding. This stuff is serious and juicy. The amuse bouche was the star, however – a subtle aubergine puree with peppercorns, black and green. The texture was light and fluffy and the balance precise.

Five senses is perfectly fine, but given the next choice on our list was Le Ciel, I feel we chose poorly.

Finger sandwiches at Vienna's Trzesniewski cafe
Finger sandwiches at Vienna’s Trzesniewski cafe

Generally, Vienna seems like a pretty decent food city, and the museums are splendid. It’s also worth noting that the booze is crazy-cheap, and the Naschmarkt is a great place to pick up a light lunch.