Cafe Sperl, Vienna 04-2012

Cafe Sperl definitely wasn't on my final list of places in Vienna. I had noted in my Rough Guide that it had "decent" food (and coffee) but there were other things higher up for the two days there. Funnily enough the reason I ended up there was because I met another backpacker in the hostel and she said it was on her list more for the atmosphere as being one of the historical cafes in town.

I'd already taken down Figlmuller and Steirereck, and the foodhall of Julius Meinl was more a place for upmarket expensive gourmet items rather than a meal place in itself. So I thought why not?

The cafe does have a remarkably ornate interior and I can see why people come here. Next to us sat an older couple who were more surprised by my new friend's ability to speak German than us being there.

We ended up sharing Tafelspitz (boiled beef, potato hash, carrot) and apparently the national dish of Austria. Cafe Sperl may have even won some national awards for the best version back in the 1990s or early 2000s. The dish was nice and the meat soft, but overall I couldn't see the big appeal of it. It's possible the unexpected social nature of the meal disturbed my opinion.

I wouldn't mind coming back again and trying it again.

Trzesniewski, Vienna 04-2012

Many internet views of Vienna list Trzesniewski as a must-visit. It is a simple place off the main plaza specialising in snacks of eggs on bread. It really isn't any more complicated than that.

There is a lot of variety to pick from - all kinds of spices and vegetables which have been layered between slabs of essentially chilled scrambled egg. On this occasion I chose picantes (peppers), mushrooms and paprika.

The bread isn't anything special worth particular mention - it is untoasted and quite plain. A nice sourdough would be a better option. The topping is as expected if you read the above description - chills scrambled egg with a particular flavour injected. It really isn't any mindblowing experience that others seem to gain from eating them.

Next time I would order whatever topping you want. It is certainly fine for a daytime snack while wandering through the lovely central streets of Vienna, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find it.

Figlmueller, Vienna 04-2012

When you look up the various options for wiener schnitzel in Vienna, the name Figlmueller (since 1905) frequently pops up. It has gathered opinions ranging from best schnitzel the world has ever seen (rated restaurant #19 in Vienna on tripadvisor) to a simple tourist trap. Of course it is difficult to know without going there.

I'm a believer that "touristy" does not always mean overpriced/underqualitied, although it is certainly more common than not. Nonetheless given there were no consistent other nominees and that multiple sources rated this as the godfather of schnitzel venues (guidebooks, maps, hostel staff, internet various sources) there was no way other than to try it. In any case, despite serving 1400 schnitzels per day between two locations they are all (allegedly) hand cut from pork tenderloin, flattened to 34cm wide and 4mm thick, breaded with kaiser roll crumbs and fried a few at a time.

Once you reach the place and stand in line with other tourists (there is a small original venue in an alley and a larger expansion around the corner) you understand why so many write this off just from the principle of it.

After a 45min combined wait in line & at table after ordering, the recommended dishes of Figlmueller Schnitzel and Potato-Fried salad with styrian pumpkin-seed oil arrived.

I'm not an expert on schnitzel as I don't eat it often - but I would like to think I can recognise a decent one. Although deep fried, there is only a slight of oil on a napkin pressed against it - a nice start. The pork is very thin, reasonably juicy with a lovely crispy coating of golden crumbs to give it texture. It is huge - I could have finished it but the repetitive taste would need to have been broken up by something. The salad was adequate (nothing special) and not enough in itself to offset the fried crumbs/pork flavour.

Not an unreasonably expensive dish at €13.90 considering how popular and tourist-frequented this place is, but I was certainly content with it. The central areas were a little softer than the edges but I suppose this is expected as it cools down and the crumbs were far from the soggy-falling-off kind that I would expect from a thicker schnitzel or have certainly had in pubs back home.

Next time I would order the Figlmueller schnitzel again if I was a first-timer. However if I was to go again, or alternatively with other people, I would go around the corner to the Backerstrasse location to try the Veal version (more expensive at €19.50 and more authentic, but reputedly less flavoursome as pork which is why Viennese apparently prefer pork nowadays.)

Steirereck, Vienna 04-2012

Located in Vienna's Stadtpark, the world's #21 restaurant (and #1 in Vienna) was always going to leave me with high expectations. After a disappointing food experience in the region (ie. Prague), I had some doubts as to just how good this place would be. Suffice to say it was sensational.

The degustation menu gives two options for each course - I let my waiter select what he felt were the better dishes, with the exception of the cheese platter (as I know I can't eat that much on my own).

Part of what makes Steirereck in the top 50 is attentive and particular service. Part of what makes it special is the location. Part of what makes it unique is the small "cheat cards" for each dish which allow you to read them in anticipation and analyse what you are eating, rather than the usual procedure of having the waiter overwhelm you with a paragraph of information which is rarely remembered.

And so to the food; 4 appetisers appeared (radish with powdered rhubarb, basil leaf with morels, raw celery marinated in juice with housemade salted sherbet, a dish of apple and cabbage). All were nice introductions into the meal; the celery was the most unique with a powerful sweetness accompanying the usual raw bitter flavour.

In addition an enormous selection of bread appeared for the choosing. All kinds of white/brown/sourdough with nuts/fruit/herbs for the picking and served with normal butter and sour cream butter. Of particular note, the Loaf with Black Sausage was superlatively sensational - a moist rich buttery bread with flavoursome black sausage running through its texture. One of the best breads of my life - I wanted to buy a loaf to take with me but they politely declined.

Of the set course:
- Schwarzauer Mountain Trout with Melon, Cucumber & Purple Salsify Shoots (amazingly delicate raw trout enhanced by the sweetness of honeydew)
- Green Asparagus with Sheep's Cheese, Hop Shoots and Bergamot (asparagus with a sweet, slightly sour orange flavour)
- Danube Salmon with Broccoli, Black Rice and Camomile (a white-fleshed salmon superbly treated which restored my faith in ordering cooked fish from a restaurant; the side accompaniment had a slightly unpleasant bitter taste)
- Jerusalem Artichoke with Peppers, Red Onion & Duck Offal (duck heart was nice, the stomach and other ingredients unremarkable; a few too many flavours and textures to identify individual quality)
- Barbecued Cap of Alpine Forerib with Beans, Truffle Potatoes & French Sorrel (medium-rare, well seasoned, luscious soft beef with a crispy surface, salty sauce and potato and a citrus tangy sorrel to balance flavours)
- Moro Orange with Rosa Bianca Aubergine, Angelica & Malt (good orange and sorbet, but the puree and celery/orange mix was quite strange)
- Rapeseed Custard with Vanilla, Mango & Toffee Icecream (lovely toffee and salted caramel icecream, maiji leaves juicy and absorbing the mango/passionfruit flavours)

The course was finished with a selection of dried citrus fruit/rinds (much too strong for me) served with different types of chocolates.

All in all a great meal which restored my faith in the ability of food served in the region to be more than meat and potato stews.

Next time I would order the degustation menu again (although the a la carte options look like excellent alternatives) - definitely order both Trout and Salmon dishes, Forerib and the Rapeseed Custard as they were all fantastic dishes. I would swap the Asparagus for the alternative (currently Mushrooms, Cashews) and similarly the Duck dishes (for Duck Breast with Fennel/Prunes/Pistachioes). If you are a cheese person, the selection is well known here (more than 120 types) but otherwise i would omit the Blood Orange dish and get the 6-course degustation instead.