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Where's the Beef?

In Vienna, and boiled the old-fashioned way.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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This trait was evident even in the late 19th century. “Oceans of light already poured forth from other capitals,” writes Frederic Morton in A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, “but within [Vienna] one still relied on gas lanterns.” The telephone, meanwhile, “could not seem to become a democratic utility. Austrians treated it like a rococo bauble.” One Austrian diplomat told me that well into the 1970s, phones were still rotary and came in only two colors, black and white.

So, how much has changed since my year in Vienna? The schilling has been supplanted by the euro. Germans, in search of better jobs, now comprise the largest foreign group in the country. The Turkish population is less secular because of an influx of immigrants from Anatolia. The kids are as addicted to their smartphones as they are in America. Sushi shops have sprouted up throughout the city (the restaurant Unkai at the Grand Hotel is highly regarded). For the last decade, Starbucks has been operating several locations within the city, mostly teeming with tourists and twentysomethings.

And though American coffeehouses have adopted the European attitude of lingering, some of the Viennese cafés have taken on the American impulse to turn over tables faster to boost revenue. While I was having a late breakfast at Café Central (the same place once frequented by Theodore Herzl and Leon Trotsky), the waiter was quick to bring my order, followed by the check. There were plenty of customers filing in, and they needed to be seated.

All that said, there are some things that never change. You’ll find that movie theater tickets are still for specific seats: The cheapest are toward the front, the more expensive in the back. At the drugstore you still have to tell the employee what product you are looking for. “Wait here,” she says before heading downstairs. A few minutes later she returns, asking, “Is this the dental floss you wanted?” And the answer had better be yes.

Riding public transportation remains easy. The transit officers rarely check for tickets. In my entire year abroad this happened to me only twice. Of course, each time I broke into a nervous sweat fumbling for my pass: There’s something terrifying about being asked (in German), “Your papers, please.”

Sunday is still a ghost town, with the exception of a few cafés and the American chains, which now include Burger King, Champions, and T.G.I. Friday’s. (Luckily, most Austrians have a good handle on English. Otherwise, the latter would have to be called Gottseidank, es ist Freitag!) And yes, you can still find Tafelspitz.

To be precise, I did not have a Tafelspitz cut at the Österreicher im MAK, a posh cafeteria at the Museum for Applied Arts. I had theSchulterscherzel (shoulder cut) with a side of roasted potatoes, kohlrabi, and Apfelkren (applesauce-horseradish). It was a beautiful, flavorful piece of meat that could have been sliced with a spoon.

For dinner, I hit the Café Sacher, known primarily for its chocolate Sachertorte, although some will argue that its Tafelspitz is the best in the city. “For it indeed represents, in its cut and preparation, whether with apple horseradish or with cold chive sauce, an absolute peak of culinary art,” proclaimed Friedrich Torberg in 1961. “It is more delicious than anything that in former days was listed under ‘Beef Dishes’ on the menu at Meissl & Schadn, which, as might be recalled, was quite a lot.”

The dish came to my table neatly arranged. I savored both the rich broth (with its semolina dumpling) and the Tafelspitz itself—albeit a leaner cut than the Schulterscherzel. And though I will never know how it measures up against Meissl & Schadn’s, I was at least able to compare the dish with one from the king of Tafelspitz, Mario Plachutta.

Now, Plachutta did not actually boil the beef himself; he’s a highly successful restaurateur who was born into the business and whose father, Ewald, is a critically acclaimed chef. In addition, we met the following night not at his restaurant Plachutta, home of the Tafelspitz, but at his newest eatery, Plachutta’s Gasthaus zur Oper, where the main attraction is the breaded veal cutlet known (even to Anglophones!) as Wiener Schnitzel.

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