In March I flew 4,464 miles to eat boiled beef. I admit this sounds absurd. After all, couldn’t I boil the meat at home? And why even bother boiling when I can braise, roast, or grill? Who would do such a thing to beef?
The Austrians, that’s who—and they’ve been doing it for a long time.
At the turn of the last century, during the height of the Habsburg Empire, the Austrians (and in particular the Viennese) transformed boiled beef into a staple of the imperial kitchen, a meal fit for a kaiser. Indeed, Emperor Franz Joseph ate it almost every day of his life. It’s called Tafelspitz: a narrow cut from the rump section of a cow boiled in a rich broth with vegetables. The broth is served first, followed by the Tafelspitz, cooked tender with an array of accompaniments such as spinach, roasted potatoes, and, most important, horseradish (freshly grated or blended with applesauce or in a breaded cream sauce called Semmelkren).
The manner in which the boiled beef was served evolved into an elaborate process. In the February 1953 issue of Gourmet, Joseph Wechsberg detailed the experience in his essay later titled “Tafelspitz for the Hofrat” and, by Wechsberg’s estimate, Tafelspitz was but one of 24 different kinds of cuts that could be ordered. The others had names less easily pronounced, such as Hieferschwanzl, Zwerchried,Mittleres Kügerl, Ausgelöstes, and Schwarzes Scherzl.
At the most famous Tafelspitz restaurant in Vienna, Meissl & Schadn, a hulking figure named Heinrich supervised the dining room. “The depth of Heinrich’s bow,” writes Wechsberg, “depended upon the guest’s social standing, his taste for, and his knowledge of, boiled beef, and his seniority. It took a man from twenty-five to thirty years to earn the full deep-bow.”
As for the service:
Now the waiter would step forward, lift the cover off the silver plate, and perform the “presentation” of the meat. . . . The waiter would serve the meat on a hot plate, place it on the table in front of the guest, make a step back, and glance at Heinrich. Then the guest, in turn, would glance at Heinrich.
There followed a minute heavy with suspense. From his command post, Heinrich would review the table with a short, sweeping glance, taking in the meat, the garniture, the accessories, the setting, the position of the chair and table. He would give a slight nod of approval to the waiter, and to the guest. Only then would a genuine habitué start to eat.
Of course, Wechsberg had been writing about the Tafelspitz scene long before World War II. By 1953, it was fading fast, leaving Wechsberg to lament that
today, most Viennese restaurants serve Rindfleisch or Beinfleisch, without any specification. . . . It is often tough and dry, and served by ignorant waiters who recommend to their customers expensive “outside” dishes, such as Styrian pullet or imported lobster. The waiters are more interested in the size of their tips than in the contentment of the guest’s palate.
A few Viennese establishments serve Tafelspitz to this day. But could the meal and the service be anywhere near as lavish as Wechsberg described it some 60 years ago? Thanks to the auspices of the Vienna Tourist Board and the Hotel Sacher, I was able to return to the imperial city for a few days to find out.
During 1993-94, I studied at the University of Vienna—although I probably spent more time hanging out at cafés and the wineries on the outskirts of town called Heurigers. (I’d always found it easy to zone out during lectures in English; in German it was easier, so much so that I didn’t realize my theology class was broken into two segments with a bathroom break in-between. For a half-semester, I was skipping out during the intermission and returning the next week completely lost. I dropped that class.)
But my impression from that year abroad was that the Viennese are by nature resistant to change. The only American fast food franchise I had seen was McDonald’s (and I knew all the different locations). On Sundays the city shut down. Not just liquor stores, mind you, but almost every store—even supermarkets and pharmacies. During a floor meeting in my dormitory, the students voted down the suggestion of purchasing a microwave oven because, as one Austrian girl put it, “microwaves are for the lazy.”
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.
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.