Conquering Central Europe One Plate a TimeSeptember 1, 2015
- Jessi SingsonWords
I was searching for something a little less beurre and baguette across la tour Eiffel. A little less paella and afternoons spent drinking sangria. A little less familiar, and a little more uncomfortable in a soul-searching kind of way. I wanted to escape my cultural comfort zone within the holy trinity of Europe: France, Italy, and Spain. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a special place in my heart for carbo-loading on fresh pasta thrice a day, but I wanted to feel the thrill of jumping into a culture (and cuisine) I knew nothing of.
This led me to an adventure through Central Europe, lands of the schnitzel, sauerkraut, and pork everything. And beer—can’t forget beer.
I was excited to dip my toes—or fork?—into the cuisines of Vienna, Prague, and Munich. Would I relish in the daily pork knuckle, veal cutlet, and sausage? Or would I fold early and seek out the nearest MSG-laden bowl of fried rice?
(Spoiler alert: We made it to day 11 until someone’s plea for comfort food, a.k.a. Japanese udon. I also ate käsekrainer every time I came across a würstelstand—cheese-stuffed sausages from sausage vendors to be found left, right, and center. So the daily wurst was indeed a thing, and my self-control apparently non-existent. Holiday calories don’t count, right?)
Once you’ve gotten your fill of the above though, things get interesting. Here are some very delicious alternatives to the more traditional, and often quite heavy, dishes of Central Europe.
Despite all the hype around pork knuckles, and roast pork, and pork crackling, I quite possibly enjoyed all the fresh—and always superbly cooked—seafood the most.
For lunch with a view, there’s Palmenhaus in Burggarten. A refurbished green house in the middle of a park, its terraces are the perfect place to while the hours away in the summer. Besides the atmosphere, Palmenhaus offers a changing contemporary menu as well. From whole grilled brown trout with peas, cassava crisps, and orange cardamom sauce, to veal saltimbocca with braised tomatoes and artichoke risotto—Palmenhaus serves perfectly cooked seafood and meat with rich, lick-the-plate-clean sauces.
A more laid-back alternative is the Naschmarkt, which is Vienna’s most popular market. You can find your usual fruit and vegetable vendors, spice merchants, and bread shops, but also more intriguing offers like a caviar and vodka stall. There’s an extensive selection of cuisines for the adventurous or the homesick, depending on which side of the world you’re from.
La Marée is one of the more polished restaurants in Naschmarkt: a haven of white tablecloths and air-conditioning when the market’s assortments have tired you. The waiters are friendly, the Austrian wine is refreshing, and most importantly, the fish is fresh. So are the scallops, crabs, shrimps, mussels, and oysters! You can taste the respect for their ingredients in each sweet, juicy, briny bite.
Snack on obložené chlebíčky in Prague, which are popular two- or three-bite open sandwiches. While these “little breads” are hardly a new concept, the delicate and light Czech version is popular enough to have entire fast-food cafes dedicated to it. They’re gorgeous and definitely more appetizing than your convenience store ham and cheese slice on white bread. Check out Bistro Sisters in Old Town, and enjoy the neat rows of bright, meticulously crafted rectangles with the most interesting toppings. The beetroot and goat cheese is a must-have.
If you have the cash to spend, spend it at George Prime Steak. Your well-versed server will roll out a tray full of different cuts of meat, and lovingly explain the differences between each. Your server will also educate you on the aging times of each steak, how it affects the flavor, and the best cook to have on each cut depending on its fat marbling. Trust your server.
I had the best steak of my life here, and surprisingly, the best oysters as well. Order the bone-in cowboy style rib eye with a side of truffle butter, and oysters baked with champagne herb butter for the time of your life.
Similar to the Naschmarkt in Prague, there’s the Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Originally a farmers market, it has now grown to 140 stalls that include not just fresh produce, but artisanal cheeses, spices, gourmet finds, and those inescapable liter-mugs of beer.
Get yourself to the fast-food chain Nordsee, it’s right next to the beer stand. We ate at Nordsee all the time (in Vienna and Prague, too). Not because it was convenient, near the hotel, and cheap. . . but because it was actually damn delicious, and convenient, near the hotel, and cheap. It was either breakfast of fresh seafood sandwiches and fried, breaded shrimp, or lunch of cooked-to-order prawns, salmon, baby octopus, and whatever in the display got us drooling.
Nearby Viktualienmarkt and the city square Marienplatz is Weinhaus Schneider—an intimate, candlelit fondue restaurant that oozes old world charm. There’s a range of fondues available, from cheese to meats to chocolate. Order some chicken, beef, and pork to dip into hot oil, or try the veal and venison for something different. They also serve hot bubbling raclette to be scooped onto bread, potatoes, and vegetables, as well as more traditional Bavarian specialties.
So did the soul-searching work? I’d like to think so. The palaces, museums, and streets of preserved architecture were more magical than I could have imagined. The food caught me by surprise. I came back home with a reignited enthusiasm for fresh seafood, a newfound love of sausages, and the realization that I love German beer in all its liter-mug glory.