VIENNA — A visit to Vienna I made some years ago turned into a three-day sugar high as I went, like a bee from flower to flower, from one great cafe to another, eating almost nothing but classic Viennese pastries.
Older and wiser, this time I would do it differently: I would prove to myself and to my gentle and patient cardiologist, Dr. No Fun, that I could visit Vienna and keep to my low-fat, low-calorie. Although I was staying at the Hotel Sacher, which offers perhaps Europe's best sparkling-wine buffet breakfast, on my first morning, I ordered an egg-white omelet, made myself a plate of fresh fruit salad and poured a glass of perfectly fresh orange juice. I then checked into the hotel's recently added spa, for healthy rotation through the sauna and steam room, followed by herbal tea and dried fruit.
In travel, all prudence can and should be balanced with some indulgence, so for lunch, I had a classic Wiener Schnitzel at Griensteidl, one of the great cafe restaurants of the city. Just to make sure I didn't fall off the bandwagon, I surgically sliced away about half of the fried bread-crumb envelope that makes an expertly prepared Wiener Schnitzel, which is what Griensteidl serves, the surprisingly sophisticated medley of flavors that it is.
The next morning, I felt it was only fair, in light of my relative success of the prior day, to take just a bit of the Sachertorte that's always left out for breakfast at the hotel whose name the classic chocolate pastry bears, and to add a smidgeon of the hotel's private-label sparkling wine to my orange juice, turning it into a very modest Mimosa.
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For lunch, I chose Oesterreicher im MAK. The MAK is the city's museum of applied arts, but unlike most museums, where you are lucky to get only an overpriced cafeteria, here you are offered a chic restaurant synthesizing tradition with modern sensibilities. Chef Helmut Oesterreicher — the name literally means "Austrian" — has made a restaurant that mixes contemporary decor and an aura of cool with Austrian specialties: Those on the left side of the menu are made the old-fashioned way (with butter, cream, hearty meats — the very regional delights that Dr. No Fun has branded the foods of the damned), while those on the right side of the menu offer a lighter, healthier take on tradition (the election of which apparently would earn me a halo). I selected my low-fat chicken breast from the right side, but I snuck over to the naughty page for a Frittatensuppe — a beef broth with crepe strips that was actually quite light.
I had a meeting with business associates at Cafe Gerstner — and I could hardly refuse the offer of that classic cherry strudel. To do that in front of Viennese could appear rude — so I explained it to myself. Later, at the opera, where Gerstner is the house caterer, the Champagne flowed at intermission — and I'm glad to say that some of it flowed in my direction. Happily, on my healthy-heart diet, wine (especially red wine) isn't merely permitted — it's virtually prescribed.
The next morning, therefore, the Mimosa eye opener that I made for myself at the Sacher leaned, for medicinal purposes, more heavily on sparkling wine than fresh orange juice. I still had my egg-white omelet and fruit salad, but Sachertorte really doesn't seem complete without at least some whipped cream, and that was when I noticed that there were other fine pastries available to try, in nearly bite-size portions. By teatime, I found myself at Demel, which is known for its own take on Sachertorte. It would be foolish not to try that alternative, also with whipped cream, and in my carefully planned comparison test, I did notice that the apricot jam was positioned by Demel differently within the cake, but in terms of quality — they were both tasting just fine to me.
By dinner, I was starting to worry that I had lapsed a bit. I went with a colleague to Vestibuel, which is across from the Austrian parliament, in the grand and ornate home of the Burgtheater, which is one of the state theaters of Austria. As assorted dignitaries came and left, we each enjoyed a sensible dish of organic chicken. Chicken is deceptively easy to make — because it is easy to prepare too dry. The chicken at Vestibuel was moist and, most important, light and low in fat. A glass of Gruener Veltiner from the Austrian state of Burgenland went perfectly with the meal.
Gugelhupf is ring-shaped, ridged Austrian cake; rather chewy, it goes with coffee in Vienna the way that French fries go with hamburgers on Coney Island. I know that because there was a Gugelhupf right next to the Sachertorte at breakfast the next morning. It seemed as if they belonged with each other like yin and yang, like Gilbert and Sullivan, like — I allowed myself half a slice. I took a long walk to work off breakfast and ended up in the Stadtpark (City Park) —right in front of the Steirereck, which is often named by critics as Austria's greatest restaurant. And wouldn't you know it? I had remembered to reserve far in advance.
As with any restaurant holding two Michelin stars, service is leisurely and demure, and lunch will last nearly until midafternoon. Game being a showpiece of Austrian cooking, the meal was built around a main course of roast venison with Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts and, for the fruit notes, sloes. A challenge with game is to preserve the zest of the meat without letting it overwhelm the palette, and the result here was a perfection of balance. As red meats go, the venison was rather lean, and instead of the cheese course, the kitchen gave me a plate of small, sliced fruit and two flavors of sorbet.
The conclusion came when a waiter wheeled in what looked like a rolling garden. It contained potted plants, and you were invited to select which plant would provide the basis for your herbal tea. I chose the apple mint. For sweetener I was given a leaf from another plant native to South America. While I let the teapot steep over a candle flame for the required twelve to fifteen minutes, I concluded that, in all, I could be a proud of myself.
Having proven I could be temperate even through a two-star temptation, that evening, back at the Sacher, I dined in the intimate Rote Bar, favored by Viennese for after-opera drinks and dining. The room's pianist played pop and classical favorites. The chef and the waiter, sensitized to my needs, came up with a plan: the veal that forms the meaty core of Wiener Schnitzel was served without the fried bread-crumb covering but with a side of steamed white rice. I had returned to my diet in triumph.
I left the Rote Bar flush with victory. I got as far as the other side of the building when I came upon Cafe Sacher. It was my last night. I looked left and right to see if I was being noticed by anyone I knew — or anyone who looked like a cardiologist in disguise. Then I slipped into the cafe for a Sachertorte nightcap.
Old habits die hard. And in Vienna, a city that celebrates its culinary traditions, some old habits are built to stay.
IF YOU GO
Hotel Sacher, Rote Bar and Cafe Sacher: Philharmonikerstrasse, 4; tel: 43-1-51-45-60; www.sacher.com
Demel, Kohlmarkt 14, tel: 43-1-535-17-17-0; www.demel.at
Cafe Gerstner, Kaerntner Strasse, tel: 43-1-743-44-22; www.gerstner.at
Cafe Griensteidl, Michaelerplatz 2, tel: 43-1-535-26-92, www.cafegriensteidl.at
Restaurant Steierereck, Im Statdpark; tel: Tel. 43-1-713-31-68; http://steirereck.at
Oesterreicher im MAK, Stubenring 5, tel: 43-1-714-01-21; www.oesterreicheimmak.at
Vestibuel, Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring 2, tel: 43-1-532-49-99; www.vestibuel.at.