In the US the answer to the question of, “What are we doing for dinner?” was never, “Let’s go out for Austrian food!” But for a cafe or (maybe) two in Georgetown, there are no Austrian restaurants in the DC area. Why, I do not know. The country’s cuisine is welcoming to even an armchair epicurean.
Austrian cuisine is not unlike American cuisine; both reflect their historical influences, and food origin controversies abound on both sides of the pond! Hamburgers? American, although Genghis Khan and his peeps were eating minced horse and camel meat centuries beforehand, just not stuffed between sesame-seeded rolls with a side of pommes frites.
Apfelstrudel? The mention of the savory, flaky pastry conjures up images of a long afternoon in a Viennese cafe, with a classic melange and the strudel holding court on your table. Yet at the turn of the 20th century in Austria, the Hapsburg Empire counted at least 10 ethnic groups in their fold, among them the Hungarians, whose Almasretes was like the friendly frontier line between the Hapsburgs sweets and the Ottoman Empire’s Baklava.
Weiner Schnitzel? Most likely a derivation of the Italian Milanese Cotoletta. But to the victors go the spoils, and so Wiener Schnitzel, like Apfelstrudel, is a “must-eat” when in Vienna. We prefer HuhnerSchnitzel (chicken schnitzel), prompting the children to laugh that Austria’s national dish is a “flat chicken nugget.” (Sorry, Austria.)
One Austrian dish that I have taken quite the liking to is Backhendl, a 19th century delicacy and “culinary symbol of the wealth of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie,” although it never officially made its way to the Imperial Court. In America we call it fried chicken, the origins of which are Scottish. I have savored no fewer than a half-dozen or so variations in the last year, only one of which was akin to what a McBackhendl might taste like should the dish ever be co-opted by the Golden Arches.
I share with you now some of the genteel goodness I have enjoyed this past year. Backhendl a la Esterhazykeller, a cozy cellar in the Inner Stadt, tucked away in a courtyard and the ideal setting for lunch on a cold and rainy late autumn afternoon.
Backhendl Salat a la Cafe Residenz Schönbrunn. Delish if but a bit predictable, as the restaurant company serves the same fare at Cafe Hofburg, but sometimes knowing that your salad will not be swimming in dressing and your lunch will be in a most agreeable palace atmosphere is not so bad.
Backhendl Salat mit Kürbiskerne (pumpkin seeds) at an unpretentious beisl along the Donau. Kürbiskernoil is my new favorite oil.
The first of my two local favorites, Backhendl nach Wiener Art, at a restaurant in the Inner Stadt housed in the former Imperial cow shed. I realize the photo is from late December, of Anna Grace’s New Year’s good luck stuffed pig and my glass of house red wine, but the dish resembles that at Esterhazykeller. And this photo is more interesting.
Finally, a little closer to home, Backhendl im Nest mit Salat at one of my preferred heurigen in the 19th. Crispy chicken, perfectly seasoned erdapfelsalat and a little gespritzt (white wine with soda water) with friends in a shaded garden rimmed with chestnut trees…small wonder the aristocracy kept this to themselves.
Should you visit, I would delight in taking you on my personal Backhendl Tour. Guten Apetite!