Saturday, July 07, 2007

Miscellaneous Food: Eastern Europe

I recently concluded a three-city trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest, and had a wonderful time exploring old Europe. Prague and Budapest I’ve always wanted to visit – simply because the architecture and spirit of the cities seem so magical and immutable. Vienna has been the seat of culture, music and history for centuries, so that too was definitely on the list.
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Although Prague is incredibly beautiful, the food there was a bit of a let-down. Either there is no good food to be had, or I was just looking in all the wrong places.

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Lunch one day was broiled chicken breast with a mushroom sauce and rice which, while competent, was neither appetising nor remarkable.

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Slightly more interesting was M’s dish – rice cooked with fruits. The rice had a brownish-yellow hue, and was cooked with raisins, kiwi and even grapes. Again, though, I’m not sure it could be said that this was a particularly enjoyable dish.

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Thankfully I drank in the sights and in that way assuaged my appetite.

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Dinner was not that much better – at a traditional Czech pub, I had the Czech version of beef ‘Stroganoff’, which was strips of beef cooked in a thick sauce, flavoured with some paprika and vinegar and served with rice.

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M had a special of the house – Smoked Moravian meat served with potato pancake and boiled cabbages. Personally I thought it was as awful as it sounded, but she seemed to enjoy it. It was a massive portion though, big enough for two people to share.

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With food like that, it really is no wonder life expectancy in the Middle Ages wasn’t terribly long.


Vienna, however, was a slightly different matter. With its tradition of kaffeehauses and numerous beisls (eateries), there was more than enough food to go around in Vienna. Also, Chubby Hubby had helpfully published a guide to Vienna some time ago.

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One of the first stops was Café Hawelka, a fairly well-known and popular joint to people-watch by the side of the street.

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Its terrace offers shade from the summer sun, and it’s conveniently located just off the main thoroughfare, making it a great meeting place.

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Unfortunately, though, its hot chocolate is pretty bad – tasting exactly like the Cadbury’s instant hot chocolate mix I had left England to escape. If you come here, stick to the coffees.

Café Leopold Hawelka
Dorotheergase 6, 1st

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Almost directly opposite Hawelka is Trzesniewski, the famous sandwich bar with the unpronounceable name. Apparently Kafka was a regular patron here. These open-faced sandwiches consist of squares of sourdough bread topped with things like paté, scrambled egg, mushroom paste and salmon.

Personally I didn’t enjoy them at all, as I thought the sandwiches were neither tasty nor substantial, but the place still seems to attract a regular stream of patrons.

Dorotheergasse 1, 1st

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The one thing that must be tried in Vienna is sachertorte, the famous chocolate cake that makes the perfect mid-afternoon snack.

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The two most famous cafes that serve sachertorte are Café Sacher and Café Demel, though the former eventually won the right to call its cakes the “original sachertorte”.

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Housed in the equally historic Hotel Sacher, Café Sacher boasts opulent decorations befitting the Habsburgs themselves, and a brightly-lit covered terrace to enjoy your cuppa and cake.

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The sachertorte itself is a slice of beauty, served with a big dollop of unsweetened cream to temper the sweetness of the cake. And sweet it is too – there is an incredible amount of sugar that goes into the chocolate frosting. The cake itself is not that sweet, and the sponge is moist and delectable, but you definitely need some water after finishing all of it.

Café Sacher
Philharmonikerstrasse 4, 1st

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Naturally we had to try the sachertorte from Demel as well, just to compare the two.

Demel has a pleasant outdoors terrace that allows you to enjoy the sights and sounds of Vienna, though on a hot day it can feel slightly stifling.

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Indoors the place reminds me of Ladurée in Paris; with a salon de thé and a counter selling all kinds of pastries and takeaway goodies.

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The hot chocolate at Demel still isn’t as good as the ones from Spain or France, but it was better than the ones being served at other Viennese cafes. The sachertorte, however, wasn’t as good as the Café Sacher’s, mainly because it was rather drier and denser. It was less sweet though, which was something I approved of.

Café Demel
Kohlmarkt 14, 1st

Austria's other famous offering is, of course, wiener schnitzel, the breaded and fried veal escalope that is another must-try.

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Zu den Zwei Liesln is a popular biesl famous for their enormous schnitzels – definitely the place to come to if you’re a schnitzel fan, though it should be noted that their schnitzels are not veal but pork. They have a very nice open-air garden courtyard that’s lovely in summer, so don’t be fooled by the door to the restaurant that appears to be closed and locked; the real entrance is just a few feet away.

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I had a goulash to start, which was a mistake, as this was almost a whole meal in itself – consisting of a thick soup, chunks of beef, potatoes and sliced sausages. While good, it substantially reduced my appetite for any more food.

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Which meant, predictably, that I could not finish the three massive escalopes I was served. While schnitzel is tolerable enough in small amounts, by the second escalope I was starting to become slightly sick of the fried pork cutlet, which reminded me of the ‘pork chops’ you get from the ‘Western Food Stall’ in any hawker centre.

Zu den Zwei Liesln
Burggasse 63, 7th

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One of Vienna’s better restaurants (you won’t find it listed in Lonely Planet) is Plachutta – a restaurant specialising in beef and nothing but beef. They pride themselves on a long tradition of using only the finest cows from Upper Austria and Styria, and use almost all parts of the cow.

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Plachutta specialises in tafelspitz, or boiled beef (a bit like an Austrian pot au feu), and its menu helpfully points out the different cuts of beef you may choose.

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The cut is then served to you in a gleaming copper saucepan, in a tasty beef broth that includes vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and leeks, as well as a generous hunk of boiled marrow and a portion of rosti. Sauces include sour cream and applesauce.

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Service here is excellent, with the waiters assisting you in dishing out the succulent hunks of meat and ensuring that your meal is an enjoyable and memorable one.

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Everything is laid out neatly on your plate, and the meat, far from being dry or unwholesome, is tender, juicy and flavourful. It goes surprisingly well with the sour cream, though I wasn’t too sure about the applesauce.

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One of the best things about tafelspitz though, is not so much the meat, but the wonderful beef broth that you can enjoy even after you’ve finished the beef. Clear, salty and bursting with flavour, I wish I had been able to finish the whole pot, but unfortunately I was rather stuffed by that point.

Wollzeile 38, 1st

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I am told that there the Austrians have a specific word, Jause, to describe the numerous tea-breaks that they have during the day. With so many cafes to choose from, that’s hardly surprising. One of the most famous though, is Café Central.

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Boasting an interior that looks like it came out of the 19th century, and its very own pianist, it’s easy to see why Café Central is such an institution in Vienna. Come here to while away a few hours in a delightful tête-à-tête, or just enjoy the music.

Café Central
Herrengasse 14, 1st

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What used to be Café MAK at the Museum of Applied Art is now Osterricher Gashaus and Bar - a sleek bar-restaurant that serves traditional and modern Austrian cuisine. The garden patio, with its shady canopy, laid-back atmosphere, chill music and well-heeled clientele is a definite attraction.

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I had the goulash, which was served with a bread dumpling and a thick, tomato-based sauce. Very hearty and very good, the meal would have been perfect if the weather had been a few degrees cooler, or if I had some extra bread to soak up the remaining sauce.

Osterreicher Gashaus and Bar
Stubenring 5, 1st

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Since it was so hot, we decided to go chill out at nearby Café Pruckel, a kaffeehaus straight out of the 1950s.

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It was so hot though, that even the eis chocolate I ordered did little to relieve the heat.

Café Pruckel
Stubenring 24, 1st

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So, we decided that the one thing that would be really cooling was ice-cream, and the one name synonymous with ice-cream in Vienna is Zanoni’s. With outlets almost all over Vienna, it’s difficult to miss, but we headed for the largest one near St. Steven’s Basilica.

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The banana milkshake I had was a bit too sweet, but it was very refreshing and very welcome on that hot day.

Zanoni and Zanoni


The greatest surprise of all, however, was Budapest, which not only produces some of the finest dessert wine on the planet, but also, as it turns out, has some truly exceptional food.

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Lunch was at Signo, an elegant lounge-bar that also served food. Lots of dark wood and off-white cushions, Signo was the epitome of zen, even down to the bamboo sprig adorning each table.

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When the food arrived, I was really astounded. I had already been impressed by the décor, but the presentation of M’s duck breast, served with pine nut sauce and mushrooms, was quite impressive.

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My own dish, chicken paprika, was a traditional Hungarian affair but clearly presented in a modern way. In Hungary, anything served with paprika and sour cream is automatically something paprika, but it appeared that my chicken had been slow-cooked to fork-tenderness, and was served with some excellent potato gnocchi. The chicken was tasty, the sauce piquant and sweet, contrasting nicely with the cool, thick sour cream, and all the tastes and textures worked really well together to present an excellent dish.

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Dessert was a sugar melon served with Tokaj sabayon and vanilla bean ice-cream. Sabayon benefits from the addition of the syrupy-sweet wine, giving a touch of class to the otherwise-simple dessert.

Signo Café
1137 Budapest, Pozsonyi út 4

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P, our Hungarian guide for the day, very kindly took us to a favourite hangout spot of his, Noir Chocobar, which, obviously, serves nothing but chocolate (although you can, and we did, have some palimka). Here you can have hot chocolate (served thick and authentically cloying, not like the Austrian stuff) in multitudinous flavours: dark, chilli, fruity, white, etc. An excellent place to come and relax in the evenings after a full day of sight-seeing.

Noir Chocobar
VI Kerület, Hegedü utca 6

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Our final meal in Eastern Europe was at Appetito, an upmarket restaurant and café on Castle Hill that served modern Hungarian cuisine (in fact there are a surprising number of such restaurants around Budapest).

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M’s first dish was a pear soup, served cold with a quenelle of lemon mousse. Although better suited to a dessert than an appetiser, the soup was very satisfying, redolent with the texture and taste of the Alexandra pears, and the mild, lemony cloud of mousse lending a complementary effect to the dish.

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I had a pappardelle served with stewed beef and tomato concassé that was equally nourishing. Cooked al dente, the pasta was excellent, and the beef, stewed to an almost melting texture and mildly spiced, was a good accompaniment.

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M’s second course was a terrine of Hungarian goose liver served with peaches and a vanilla bean-flavoured white chocolate sauce. Though sounding like an odd combination, the trio worked well together, as the goose liver was sweet and rich, enlivened by the fruitiness of the peach and the fragrance of the vanilla.

1014 Budapest, Hess András Tér 6

Definitely a series of inspiring and enjoyable meals in Budapest, I can’t wait to return in order to see what else this beautiful city offers in terms of food and wine.

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