Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Viva Vienna restaurant review - Sixta and the wonderful world of Schniztel!

image courtesy of www.sixta-restaurant.at

One of the first job interviews I ever had involved heading to The Coffee Mill in Yorkville, a sorely missed restaurant (see obituary here) that remains embedded in my memories. That interview landed me a job, but what remained memorable was eating perhaps some of the best schnitzel in Toronto. This was where my love for schnitzel began and I knew when planning the trip to Vienna that schnitzel would be the number one culinary adventure for me on my personal Austrian food map.

I won't mention Demel Bakery because, well, it merits a separate story, and this post is all about schnitzel.

What is it about this deep fried breaded piece of meat - veal for purists, chicken for wimps, that wets the appetite and excites the taste buds? I was in the country that invented ‘Weinerschnitzel’ - the original Austrian name that means ‘Viennese cutlets’, and I wasn't about to miss out.

If you research the dish, you'll find that it's origins are mired in controversy. Some claim it originated in Italy and was brought to Austria. Other food historians dispute that claim and say no such record exists about any Italian roots with the dish. Either way, this 19th century dish became extremely popular and remains so to this day.

Weinerschnitzel is traditionally prepared using slices of veal, but chicken or pork is often used - mostly because it's a cheaper cut of meat than veal. For me, schnitzel is not schnitzel unless veal is used. I think I may have mentioned in previous posts my food purist tendencies?

The meat is pounded into thin, flat pieces, slightly salted, and then rolled in flour, whipped(!) eggs and breadcrumbs. What I found fascinating about the recipe, is that the breadcrumbs shouldn't be pressed into the meat but instead, lightly dredged so that the crumbs stay as dry as possible so it can be "souffléd". The last stage of the cooking process includes the coated meat fried in lard or clarified butter until it is golden yellow. I love how original recipes insist that the Schnitzel must 'swim' in the fat, otherwise it will not cook evenly. Basically saying that the fat content must be quite high - I can almost feel the collective gasps of pain from nutritionists everywhere! The frying process also involves the Schnitzel being tossed around the pan, so that the fat coats every inch of the breaded meat. Are you drooling yet? You should be.

With the recipe in mind, I began my search for the best Weinerschnitzel restaurant in Vienna. I knew the dish was popular, but I didn't realize just how difficult it would be to reserve a place to dine - mostly due to popularity. I should have known but after hours of searches, we finally found Sixta, well known for it's exceptional schnitzel. I always find that when it comes to certain foods I love, my expectations for its preparation in restaurants are sky high. The aftermath of that lofty ideal is usually severe disappointment.

Not this time.

After arriving at this almost out of the way restaurant in central Vienna, my partner and I felt instantly at home. It's the kind of place that you just knew were mostly frequented by locals and that in itself led to an almost instantaneous homey atmosphere. We were served drinks while we perused the menu, but we knew what we wanted.

For starters, my partner ordered the Kürbis-Kokos-Ingwer Cremesuppe - the Pumpkin coconut ginger cream soup, and I had the Getrüffeltes Gänselebermus, Aprikosenkonfitüre with Toast - Truffled goose liver pate with apricot jam and toast points. You could probably hear the slurping and chewing of our tasty apps. I LOVE pate, and this was exactly what I expected. Creamy, tangy, savory pate with sweet jam, spread on toast, just - wow. Hiss soup was the prefect blend of sweet-savoury that comes from great stock, perfectly pureed pumpkin and just the right addition of coconut cream that won't overwhelm the pumpkin but boosts the pumpkins nutty flavour.

And then it came.

Wiener Schnitzel vom Kalb, or veal Wiener schnitzel with mixed salad and potato. It was served with greens tossed with a sweetened vinaigrette dressing, and a warm potato salad. Words cannot described my joy as I tucked into a piece of the juicy, yet dry veal outlet, added a potion of the potato and greens to the fork, then shoveled it into my mouth. An instantaneous power punch of flavour enveloped my mouth. The tender meat, combined with the salt and sweetness of the vinaigrette mixed greens and potato made me shake with pleasure.

A dessert of Apfelstrudel hausgemacht & Schlagobers or Housemade apple strudel with whipped cream followed our main course. Perfectly cooked apples sweetened with sugar and cinnamon, rolled in a house-made dough was delicious. But, I will add that I'd exchange the whipped cream for vanilla ice cream in a heartbeat. But the meal wasn't over yet.

Once the dessert dishes were cleared, out came the schnapps - which turned out to be a surprising, but lovely (and enthusiastically welcomed) complimentary treat. Now Austrian schnapps are not a joke and the house schnapps at SIXTA packed a pretty powerful flavour punch. These flavoured liqueurs are not at all what your Grandmother in Canada or the US are drinking. The flavours, ranging from apricot to hazelnut are deep, luscious and I loved every bit of it. Oh how I wish I took a picture of the contraption that was the schnapps bottle. Whatever it was, it poured a perfect shot of the tasty liquid. I had the apricot and was drunk after one sip. No joke. Did I not mention above that these schnapps were not like what Gran has in Canada? The alcohol content is, well, high. Drink it and enjoy - with care!

We left Sixta happy (drunk?) and very full, but also with a sincere promise to return the next time we had the chance to visit Vienna. Nothing makes me happier than when great traditional cooking meets my mouth, and Sixta hit all the right culinary notes enough to make a A Hungry Man highly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself searching for Wienerschnitzel in Vienna.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Viva Vienna! A trip to celebrate snow (and schnitzel)

image courtesy of Stephen Wilson

I'll start this post with a declaration: sometimes Youtube can be great. I wrote that because thanks to Youtube, I've discovered Richard Ayoade, a British actor, comedienne and sudden inspiration. That man is directly responsible for my trek to The Original Viennese Snow Globe Factory on my visit to the city of Vienna or Wien, in Austria (watch the episode of Richard Ayoade in Vienna here).

I've watched excerpts of his travel show on Youtube, and when he went to the Viennese Snow Globe Factory that was all it took for me to start planning my visit. Why? Because Richard Ayoade is my hero and 2? Because A Hungry Man love snow globes, or in my vernacular 'shakey up and down things'. Yes, it is a very simple (minded) description but it always make me smile when I say it, or hear it, particularly when repeated from my partner, friends or family. Yup, my words really will live on past me, not a bad legacy methinks?

I will emphatically and enthusiastically state that I love, LOVE snow globes. I remember as a young boy of nine, one of my absolute favourite snow globes was of the Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica. It was given to me by a family friend when we visited the city and it became a treasured piece. It broke five days later thanks to my being a klutz. Despite my spasm, broken glass and water everywhere, the love affair began and remains to this day.

As you can imagine thanks to the previous childhood story, my expectations for the factory were sky high. After watching Richard Ayoades show, he made the factory for me a 'must visit', especially when talking with the artist and designer of the factory's snow globes. It was exciting (to me), watching the artist discuss the tradition of snow globe creation but yet not revealing exactly what the snow was made of inside the globe - a personal mystery that I'm dying to know but refuse to find out - don't want to ruin the joy of the floating snow do I? Anyway, I was really looking forward to an experience that would match my entirely insane love for snow globes. But the question is, what can match insanity?

Now in order to get to the factory of snow globes in Vienna, it's a bit of trek to the outer boroughs of the city. As you sit on the tram, watching it make it's way from the wholesome sterility of the inner city to the suburbs, my partner and I found ourselves surrounding by more locals and less tourists. It was this slow but significant trek that gave us - in my opinion, a true glimpse of Vienna that isn't a part of the official tourist photos. What amazed us later on was the trek to the factory ended up putting the city on our list of definite return visits. In that journey we felt less like tourists and more like visitors as we watched the beautifully scrubbed and/or renovated historic buildings give way to housing complexes, neighbourhood stores, banks and grocery stores, and locals just carrying on with their lives. Real life in Vienna.

We got off the tram and made our way up a short but steep hill to the factory. When we arrived at the factory door and walked in, I was both happy and a bit dejected. Happy because I made it to the birthplace of the snow globe. Dejected because in my mind I truly believed the place would be much bigger. I mean c'mon, this is snow globes for God's sake. Everyone loves snow globes, don't they? Don't they?? And this is seriously the best you can do? C'mon , you're the 'original' snow globe factory , shouldn't the place be bigger, have more of a physical presence rather than a non-descript, small yellow building? Wait a minute - is that, yikes, a North American mindset coming through there? Hmmm.

We entered the store and made our way down the main (and only) aisle, looking at various types and designs of snow globes. Some were museum piece quality that weren't meant to be sold - or touched as we quickly found out. As we walked around I was thinking "Damn, we came all this way for this"? I really believed that there was much more to it. Still, we managed to find a few snow globes to take home as a memento of our visit. Sadly, the poop emoji snow globe wasn't for sale. Trust me when I say that I was deeply disappointed about that!

I left the factory completely dejected. Oh sure, I had souvenirs of the visit but my God I expected so much more. As we walked back to the tram staton, I asked myself what made it so disappointing for me. Was it the fact the factory was no bigger than a school classroom from the 1800's? Sure, that had an impact. Was it the fact that the coolest snow globes weren't for sale but were near items that were for sale thus making it very confusing and sad (pissed) when the thing you wanted were for display only? Oh yeah, definitely had an impact. Was it the fact that the place was called a factory rather than a museum, making it feel like items were less hand made and more mass produced? Yup, that particular thought wasn't far from my mind as we bought our globes. Was it the walk up the hill that left you (sorry, me) out of breath? Can't lie that that factored into the overall feelings of blah.

Blah experiences can happen, that's part of a life as a tourist. But isn't it a bonus that when you go out looking for something, you can end up finding something else much more interesting? Believe me when I say that I understood that sentiment after seeing the same snow globes for sale at a Christmas market not ten minutes from our hotel. I couldn't help but shake my head at that discovery yet I had to admit that I was still glad I went to a less familiar side of Vienna. I had a chance to discover a much more interesting side of the city most tourists would probably miss.

up next: Viva Vienna food!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

It's market time! Dazed and amazed at Budapest Central Market Hall

images courtesy of Steve Wilson

It's not difficult to understand why Budapest has become a serious food destination for a hungry crowd, and a Hungry Man. The explosion of nouvelle cuisine along with the honing of traditional dishes over the last decade has seen an increasing number of Michelin quality restaurants and the growth and exposure to new cultures thanks to immigration, has greatly changed the culinary landscape of this city.

I've been here for about two weeks now, and already managed to make my way to a few big dining destinations in the city, but restaurants are just one way to get a taste of Hungarian cuisine. The other way? The food markets.

The pictures in this post were taken inside what is called The Great Market or Central Market Hall - both describe the same marketplace in the centre of the city. It truly is a site to behold and the pictures do not give it justice. I'm serious. It is absolutely massive. I knew the minute I saw the front gates to the building that I would be completely bowled over by the eye popping range of foods on display. I walked in and yup, had an "oh my God where do I start?" moment pretty much immediately. I found myself standing there, slack jawed, in the middle of the main aisles thinking "what do I do"? "Where do I start?" just completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of food and other yummy treats just waiting to be tasted, cooked or bought. Throw in the fact that I speak Hungarian about as well as I play poker (I suck at it dear readers) I had to gear up for what would be a pleasant but baffling experience for this Hungry Man.

One of things I'm really starting to grasp in regards to Hungarian price awareness and cost, is that vegetables, fruit and meats are relatively cheap here in the city - it's one of the fews thing that is. It also fresh and purely organic, just a reflection of the way of life here and not a specialty aisle item as I would find back home in Canada. The eggs are not refrigerated and neither is the milk. The butter is a fresh and as tasty as you can imagine, but the salt content is very low and its tough to find salted butter. The meat seriously looks like it was freshly killed and then put on display. I have been vacillating whether to post the pic of the freshly killed chicken I bought. I mean this bird still had its innards, head and feet attached! But I came to the conclusion that although my culinary friends could probably appreciate it, my regular readers may not take kindly to that particular kind of reveal. I'll just leave it to your imagination.

All of the vegetables, fruit, meats and baked goods that are on display, just in sheer abundance throughout the market, is a glorious sight to see. What's also glorious is knowing that you can fill your basket with all of that goodness and come out spending less than 40 dollars! That truly makes Central Hall a 'must' visit. I'm lucky that I live close to the place so the shopping trip is easy, but once again it's the navigation of the language that is really something I need to work on for 2019. Thankfully the language of food is universal so you manage to communicate somehow.

I also took the elevator to the top floor of the market, just to check out the view and people watch. For about half an hour I sat there, took in my surroundings and just appreciated how massive the market place truly is. I'll also add that the market upstairs features mostly restaurants. I'm not sure if people actually eat there as it was early when I first visited and subsequent visits I never ventured upstairs again - Ill have to do a check next time I visit in the afternoon. There is also a grocery store in the basement and various places to buy Hungarian trinkets which I've been told not to do as it's not a real representation of what Hungarian culture is about. Always learning.

Next up - Viva Vienna - a weekend trip to Austria!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The true adventures of a lost evening: a night at Baraka

Image courtesy of Budapest Times

It was to be the start of something exciting, something promising, something adventurous and new - can you hear the Love Boat theme there? Those really were my true thoughts and good intentions as I headed out for my first night of fine dining in Budapest.

But remind me again, what is it that they say about good intentions?

Sometimes I worry that A Hungry Man Travels may have the potential to turn into A Hungry Man Moans - and not with pleasure. But I made a promise to myself, that the blog will continue to accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings, and you can choose to read or ignore, but it's my words and I stand by them.

With that said, on with the show!

It began with a walk on Váci utca (pronounced 'vah'- 'see' and 'ewwt'- 'kah', utca is street in Hungarian), a popular and busy shopping street in Budapest. Christmastime on Váci, particularly at night, becomes extremely, overwhelmingly popular, so navigating your way through all the people is akin to playing Frogger. When my partner and I finally arrived at Baraka, we were slightly flustered and a bit sweaty, but were warmly greeted by the front staff and manager. We were then directed towards the back of the restaurant where the main dining room was located - a stunningly beautiful room in its simplicity and elegance. Some of the diners get to face an open kitchen where they can watch the chef and cooks work on their meal. I've always been of two minds with open kitchens as I do with open concepts in homes, I understand the appeal but it has really become overly commonplace and annoyingly popular. Sometimes I just don't want to know what's happening back there. There is something to be said for separation and surprises, you know what I mean?

It's at this point we begin "The Real Adventures of a Lost Evening".

Once seated, my partner and I were greeted by Leonora, the floor manager and co-owner of the restaurant. She patiently explained the menu and the dining concept for the evening, in which the theme was 'chaos'. All the elements on the plate represented a form of chaos that would eventually tie the start of the meal together with the end in a chaotic fashion. Ok then. After some slight confusion over our reservation (apparently we weren’t in the system), we were presented with menus by an attentive waiter and maitre'd. We decided to chose the six course tasting menu with wine pairings.

Now I should mention that Baraka is a fusion restaurant where Chef has taken French cuisine and partnered it with Asian , specifically Japanese, flavours. I absolutely love, almost worship French cuisine. I intensively studied it in cooking school and it is my go to choice for cuisine whenever and wherever I can find it. I was prepared that there would be potential hybrids of classic French dishes at Baraka, and as this was my birthday dinner and the restaurant was chosen by my partner, I purposely decided not to do any additional research about the place. This was his surprise and I was happy that he took into account my obsession with French food for our night out. My expectations were a bit high admittedly, and I could not wait to eat.

My heart sank immediately the moment I opened the menu and noticed that with the tasting menu came an Asian-inspired soup - with shrimp, along with various other seafood dishes including lobster. This for me presents the difficulty of Asian fusion cooking with other international cuisines. Asian cooking often incorporates a great deal of seafood flavours, and thanks to a recently developed seafood allergy, a real blow to a self-confessed foodie, I can no longer partake in any dish with shellfish. After seeing and reading about the soup and its description - and it looked to me to be a rather tasty dish, I could feel the rumblings of discontent begin and it wasn't from hunger.

As part of the six course tasting menu, you have the choice of ordering three starters, a main and a dessert with a cheese plate accompanying the meal. Now before you think the starters are of North American proportions, be forewarned that the dishes are amuse bouche (meaning small) portions. I do not have a problem with that - in fact, I prefer it when it comes to four or more course meals as long as the dishes are absolutely bursting with intense flavour. I chose mostly meat-based starters and not the soup because of the seafood. Now to be absolutely fair to the restaurant, they were willing to provide a vegetarian substitute of the soup, but for me that’s akin to getting less than half of a dish - by taking out the actual seafood element of a seafood flavoured soup, it's missing the point entirely of that dish. I opted out of that and instead chose a rabbit dish, a foie gras dish and a steak and scallop dish. All dishes would be accompanied by local and international wines.

As I have mentioned before, this is a fusion restaurant that experiments with and attempts to marry French and Asian cuisines together for, again, what was promoted as a ‘chaotic’ mix of flavours. The first pre course amuse bouche arrived, and it was an interesting concept. Food placed inside of a fish bowl. There were pieces of chocolate and cheese, all artfully arranged on a pile of dirt. You didn't eat the dirt but I definitely loved the cheese. Not a bad start, but then came the starters.

What I found - after I had finished the last of my three starters, was a confusing rather than chaotic mess of flavours that did not at all make me appreciate the fusion. I was really concerned after being disappointed with the third starter, which was a steak and scallop dish, that something was wrong with my mouth. I was seriously questioning whether my taste buds were compromised after having a cough drop two and a half hours earlier. But it wasn’t that - I just wasn’t enjoying the flavours of any of the dishes. Of three starters, the only one that did stood out was the rabbit terrine, and for entirely the wrong reasons. The rabbit on its own was beautifully prepared and Chef had married it with a wasabi ice. I absolutely did not enjoy the two components together. The ice was jarring compared with the soft warmth of the terrine, and when paired with the wine it just tasted bitter in my mouth.

The wines that were paired with the starters were a completely different story. Wines ranged from a fabulous sauvignon blanc from New Zealand paired with the steak and scallop starter, to a local Hungarian Tokija wine paired with the foie gras, all were expertly and enthusiastically explained to us by the wait staff and sommelier as we had our starters. I made sure to get the names of all the wines that were paired with the meal.

Back to the food. The main course arrived and my dinner featured a beautifully prepared Hungarian deer with a dark soy sweetened sauce. The plate looked stunning but once again, it felt like my taste buds were failing me somehow. I found the sauce that accompanied the perfectly cooked but bland meat was just too metallic tasting for my liking. I honestly thought at this point in the evening that I was going insane. I was asking myself what the hell is happening here? Why is this dinner going pear shaped? Is it me? My partner was absolutely raving about his individual dishes and I’m counting the minutes until we can leave. This can't be it, can it?

But then the redeeming dish came out, in the form of a cheese plate. It was a truly fantastic mix of goat cheese (as an ice cream!), blue cheese in the shape of a mushroom as well as a creamy Brie all of which were supremely and utterly fantastic. There it is , I thought, this is the dish that made my dead taste buds finally came alive and jumped for joy. But here's the thing. I know why I liked it so much - because I could FINALLY taste the complexity of pure French cooking without it being waylaid or overwhelmed by additional Asian flavours, a sad and disappointing discovery I thought.

The chocolate dessert was another big hit. I love desserts and always try to save room for it whenever I dine out. As the meal wasn't overly filling, I was eagerly looking forward to the chocolate delights that were to come my way and I wasn't disappointed. Creamy, semi sweet dark chocolate dessert that harkened back to the amuse bouche we received at the start of the meal was a pleasant and very tasty surprise in my mouth. Now do you see the overall theme of the dining experience coming through there?

As the dinner came to a close, over coffee my partner and I were discussing the food and he mentioned that maybe the reason I wasn't enjoying the meal was because I prefer a traditionalist approach when it comes to French cooking. It was a fair argument to make, but the truth is I love adventurous cooking, in any style. In fact, I recall when I was in Ha Noi, Vietnam, I found this fabulous Vietnamese /French fusion restaurant which was truly one of the most remarkable meals I ever had. It was ‘real’ fusion that I found actually worked beautifully with French cuisine. But what I despise with some fusion cooking, is that it can often feel like a fight for flavour dominance with certain dishes.

The food adventure was over and I surveyed the state of the evening. The service was absolutely incredible, the staff took their time with us and were nothing but warm and professional. Still, I hadn’t felt this badly after eating in what is considered one of the top dining establishments in the city, in a very, very long time. I left the restaurant thinking was I out of my culinary comfort zone going there? Should I be furious that a considerable amount of money was paid for a meal that I barely enjoyed? No, what I thought was that I can chalk it up to just having a seriously off night, but more importantly, accepting that it was simply a case of just not enjoying what I had eaten and knowing that there is no shame in admitting that it sadly did not appeal to me.

I wrote this review in the afternoon on Sunday, December 9th. Tonight, I’ll be dining at another Budapest restaurant called Chess, and hopefully there will be some true gastronomic retribution awaiting me!

Update: December 11 - There wasn’t, it was bafflingly awful too. Not writing a review about that but will say that despite the food, the service was absolutely wonderful!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Hungry for Hungary? Part 2

pictures courtesy of James Mauro

I'm overthinking this.

Isn't that always the way? And the truth is that overthinking is the main reason why people tend not to do the things they want to do. This new adventure is happening and I'm excited to see - and write about this new journey.

One other thing: I know that my blog has been neglected these past few years. I know that I've lost people who have faithfully followed in the past, and I honestly don't know if this teaser will bring them back. It's been a long time since I've felt I had anything to say or write about. I felt badly for my poor, neglected blog - but maybe, just maybe, things are going to change. Maybe this is exactly what was needed to bring it back to life. I'll admit that it sure does feel good to write again - and more importantly, I will endeavour to focus more on the food aspect of the blog! hey, maybe I'll even make an attempt at podcasting (ed: don't get ahead of yourself Stephen)

A hungry man is in Hungary!! Sounds nutty but it's happening and if you don't think it does, just take a stroll and scroll through the archives of this blog, and then re-read this post. Now think about how my attempts with understanding or even learning the notoriously difficult Hungarian language will turn out. That alone should be enough of a reason to come back and visit the blog Nem ('Nem' means no in Hungarian - do you see how I'm trying?)

Next up,. a stroll through a Hungarian market and I had to review the flight I took to get to Budapest. The food was shockingly good! I was blown away and I have to tell you about it! And why wouldn't I, this is a food and travel blog is it not? Viszontlátásra' or 'szia' (goodbye) for now!!!