Where's the Beef?
In Vienna, and boiled the old-fashioned way.
Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Plachutta, by the way, was fed up that another restaurant down the street had, for years, claimed to be the home of the Wiener Schnitzel when all it served was “this very flat pork Schnitzel.” As he not so subtly put it: “This is like if you sell a Mercedes and in reality it’s an Opel. And I found it’s a shame that millions of tourists go away with the impression of having original Wiener Schnitzel, and it was not.” The other restaurant—Plachutta refused to utter its name—is Figlmüllers, and when the Gasthaus opened nine months ago, the rival owner allegedly told his staff, “This is war.”
Such is how, in my search for Tafelspitz, I stumbled upon the Great Schnitzel War of 2012.
Thankfully, Tafelspitz is on the menu at the Gasthaus; Plachutta recommended I try it along with a slice of Schnitzel. How could I say no? “The monarchy was not very rich,” he reminded me, which is why “you tried to use as much of the meat as possible. Boiling was a good way to use the parts.” And despite the caveat that eating Tafelspitz here is not quite the same as at Plachutta, the dish is nonetheless perfect: plenty of juice and not overly salted. The dish is also a hit with tourists from Asia, so much so that Plachutta is planning an outpost somewhere in the Far East. “This food that we do here, the soup and the boiled beef,” he told me, “it’s very popular in China, very popular in Korea.” But why not America? Plachutta speculated that the term “boiled beef” was a turnoff.
Wolfgang Puck agrees. “I just don’t think that boiled beef is an American thing,” said the celebrity chef and restaurateur who, besides Arnold Schwarzenegger, is perhaps the most famous Austrian living in America. Calling from the kitchen at Spago’s in Beverly Hills, the chef joked that “maybe if we have it with some barbecue sauce on the side,” it might work.
Puck once had Tafelspitz on his menu at Spago but, as he recalled, “it is very hard to sell it to the customers. I remember, when you cook it, you can’t just cook two orders or five orders, you cook 15 orders. So what I liked to do with the leftovers then is slice it when it gets cold, slice it really thin, and put onions and vinegar and pumpkinseed oil and salt and pepper on it and have it like a salad. That’s how I had to eat my Tafelspitz—as leftovers!”
This isn’t to say that Tafelspitz doesn’t exist in America. The problem is finding an Austrian restaurant that serves it. One called Seäsonal in midtown Manhattan offers Tafelspitz on its dinner menu for $28. Yes, a German restaurant might offer it, too—but don’t tell the Austrians, who doubt a German can distinguish one cut of beef from another. “You know what the Germans say?” asked Plachutta. “The Germans say, ‘I want to eat Tafelspitz, please bring me the shoulder!’ ”
When it comes to their cooking culture, the Austrians are fiercely protective. Heinz Reitbauer, regarded as one of the country’s top chefs, said that his job is “trying to bring Austrian cuisine one step further. . . . We never forget where we came from, our culture, our tradition.” At his Steirereck restaurant, which boasts two Michelin stars, he explained, “What we have to do is look at the healthier side of this cuisine.” One of the seven courses he served me was char cooked in beeswax. (While still a molten syrup, the wax is poured over the fish. After 10 minutes, the char is broken out of the hardened wax mold, gently cooked and tasting of honey.)
Reitbauer described Austrian cuisine as “a good mixture of a lot of different cultures.” To wit, Frederic Morton notes that at the height of the Habsburg Empire, “Thirteen million [subjects] spoke German. . . . Ten million spoke Hungarian. Five million spoke Czech. Three million spoke Slovak, and millions more spoke diverse Slavic or Arabic languages.” Morton also lists the equally diverse titles claimed by the kaiser, including emperor of Austria, apostolic king of Hungary, king of Jerusalem, king of Bohemia, king of Dalmatia, king of Transylvania, king of Galicia and Illyria, grand duke of Tuscany and Cracow, margrave of Moravia, and duke of Auschwitz.
Morton goes on to describe the monarchy as “a dynastic fiction, venerable, fragile, superb.” Fragile, indeed, as the empire plunged into a war from which it would never recover, its possessions carved up like a cow destined to be someone’s Tafelspitz, Schulterscherzel, andHieferschwanzl.
Luckily, the actual Tafelspitz has survived—albeit served in a less aristocratic fashion. Indeed, the only thing that could have made my trip to Vienna better would have been to eat boiled beef in the regal manner described by Joseph Wechsberg. Alas, that wasn’t possible. Meissl & Schadn closed its doors shortly after the murder of the Austrian chancellor Karl von Stürgkh in 1916. Stürgkh was shot to death by Friedrich Adler, the son of the Social Democratic party founder Victor Adler.
It happened at the restaurant, and Stürgkh was killed while eating his Tafelspitz.
Victorino Matus is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.