Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 1 in Vienna: a wonderful introduction to the city's delights

The Original Sacher-Torte has been delighting cake lovers since 1832.  The torte was invented in Vienna by Franz Sacher, an apprentice to the then-prince of Austria's personal chef.  180 years later, the torte continues to be made using the original recipe, and is served (fortunately, to a much wider audience) at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna.  Somehow I had been plodding along life, oblivious to this creation, until one fine day this past February when -- on a tea break in NYC -- I had my very first taste of the Sacher torte.

It was still cold here in NYC when I departed for Vienna, which was already enjoying its first days of spring.  Naturally, one of my very first stops in Vienna was to have the Original Sacher-Torte.  But first: a morning learning the history of the beautiful city and immersed in 19th century imperial life at the Hofburg Palace.  Afterwards I set off in search of Cafe Sacher (the cafe occupies the first floor of the Sacher Hotel).  

Not really believing I was finally there, I waltzed into the hotel and was seated at a table in a sun-drenched room of the cafe.  (Of all the cafes in Vienna I visited, I was sure a table would be hardest to come by at the Cafe Sacher, but I was proven wrong: I was immediately seated there but was met with considerable waits at other cafes.)  I had no need to consult the menu: I ordered a tea and the Original Sacher-Torte.  

Out came the tea set: a silver tray bearing a pot of tea, a cup, and saucer.  And the Sacher torte: it was exquisite!  Two layers of chocolate cake; in-between, a thin spread of apricot jam, with a hint of tartness; and atop it all, a rich chocolate ganache.  A generous dollop of unsweetened whipped cream fought for room on the plate.  Every forkful revealed one flavor and texture melding into the other.

After an hour spent savoring every morsel of the cake and people watching, I set out to find a heuriger.  A heuriger (it means "this year's wines") is a wine-tavern which -- along with wine from the current vintage -- serves a hearty spread of cold and hot foods.  From the center of town I hopped on the D tram and got off at the very last stop in the Viennese suburb of Nussdorf.  Not more than a block away is the Schobel-Auer Heuriger.  

As soon as I stepped through the gate I was struck by the charm of the place: an outdoor garden with wooden picnic-style benches and long tables and leafy trees that offered shade; and the tavern itself: rustic, warm and inviting.  Inside the tavern a woman behind a long display case helped me make my dinner selection: a kidney bean and corn salad heavy with vinegar, marinated roasted red peppers, potatoes cooked with yellow and green peppers, a roast pork, and some sheep's milk cheese.  To wash it all down I was served a mug of their Gruner Veltliner.  Sitting on the outdoor bench with the sun on my back, I feasted on my big meal.

I skipped dessert to save some room for one last treat in the city: the buchteln.  The buchteln is a yeast bun, a sweet roll made of yeast dough, served warm and typically filled with a jam and topped with powdered sugar.  I read that the best buchlten in Vienna are served at Cafe Hawelka.  

It was late by the time I arrived at Cafe Hawelka. Dark and smoky, with a moody atmosphere, the cafe exemplifies the Central European tradition of writer/artist coffeehouses.  A mismatch of comfortable, worn armchairs and sofas along with some upright chairs dot the room.  

The cafe has no menu but that was no matter: I placed my order and moments later a plate of five straight-out-of-the oven buns was set in front of me.  The buchteln were moist and chewy; the plum jam was tart; the powdered sugar sprinkling was generous.  In-between writing in my journal -- aided by the strategically placed lamps scattered across the room -- I dug into the buns.  What pure comfort!  

That was how I spent my first day in the beautiful city of Vienna. My only regret of the day?  I couldn't manage to eat all of the buchteln.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The wonders of Viennese pastries

"The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."        -- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French lawyer and epicure

I couldn't agree more!  I am still reveling in the happy discovery I made at Cafe Sabarsky just last month.  A dear friend had brought me there as a postlude to a birthday lunch.  (The cafe, nestled inside the Neue Gallerie (a museum of early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design), offers up a menu of Viennese specialties, both savory and sweet: one can indulge in goulash, spaetzle, wurste, chocolate tortes, strudels and more.)

How do I describe the desserts we ordered that day except to say that with one bite -- one mere bite -- my mind was flung open wide to the wonders of Viennese pastries.  The apple strudel had layers upon layers of paper-thin flaky dough. The yielding crust gave way to cinnamon-spiced crisp-tender apples; strewn into the moist filling were some raisins and chopped nuts.  Not to be outdone, the Sachertorte also served up exquisiteness in layers: a velvety chocolate ganache, a dark chocolate sponge cake, and in-between a spread of apricot confiture.  Each dessert was accompanied by a generous mound of whipped cream.

This happy discovery has lingered far beyond that celebratory day.  Gone now are mid-day reminiscences of strolls in Paris, a croissant (or two) in hand.  Instead, I now dream of Viennese pastries.  And quite literally so: having learned that the Hotel Sacher in Vienna delivers the sachertorte worldwide (really!), I dreamt that I made arrangements to have one delivered to me here in NYC.  

But that might not be necessary, at least not yet: April will see me in Munich, and I've scrapped plans for a side trip to Berlin (long on my travel list) in favor of dallying a while in Vienna, to indulge yet again in Viennese pastries.

And so, here I sign off, in anticipation of penning a happy postscript postcard from Vienna.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Sweet & Savory Afternoon at the James Beard House

I have long been curious to dine at the James Beard House.  I subscribe to the biweekly "Beard Bites" which features the many events (including the dinners, which feature selected chefs) happening on a given week at the Beard House.  To be honest, the choices are so many and each so tantalizing that it's been next to impossible for me to just choose one.

Luckily for me, a friend organized a table at the recent James Beard Foundation's Valentine's Tea.  There is little that I love more than afternoon tea, so this made it an easy choice for me.  The foundation's Valentine's Tea is held most every year on the Sunday preceding Valentine's Day.  We were an all-woman's table, and it just so happened that this year's tea featured a cast of all-female chefs and pastry chefs: Ginger Fisher (The Marrow), Megan Fitzroy Phelan (Sullivan Street Bakery), Rebecca Weitzman (Clarkson), Patricia Williams (Smoke Jazz & Supper Club), Jennifer Yee (Lafayette), of NYC; and Tiffany MacIsaac (Neighborhood Restaurant Group), of Washington, D.C.  

The event was held on the second floor of the Beard House.  (Beard actually lived in this house; it's a Greenwich village brownstone which a former student who started the Beard Foundation purchased.)  The second floor is a cozy space, comprised of two small rooms and a landing overlooking the rear of the first floor, which is where the buffet-style tea was served.
a view of the buffet from the second floor landing
Where and how can I start to describe the decadent selection of savory sandwiches and sweets that greeted our arrival?  

Here is just a *small* sample of the offerings:
Savory tea sandwiches: House-Smoked Trout Reubens with Pickles, Fennel Sauerkraut, and Roasted Tomato Aioli on Marble Rye.  Braised Hudson Valley Rabbit with Olive Marmalade, Herb Salad, and Dijon Mustard on Housemade Potato Rolls.  Apple, Avocado, and Smoked Cheddar with Arugula and Red Onions on Multigrain Toasts.  Fried Chicken with Jalapeños, Pickles, Napa Cabbage Slaw, and Chipotle Aïoli on Sweet Potato Biscuits.  Bison Meatloaf Club with Bacon, Roasted Fennel, Piquillo Peppers, and Romesco Sauce on Sourdough.

Sweets: Plain and Currant Mini Scones.  Miniature Ho-Hos (really!).  Elderflower-Glazed Raspberry and Brown Butter Madeleines.  Pistachio-Rose Water Macarons.  Meyer Lemon-Honey Tartlets.  Blood Orange-Olive Oil Tea Cakes.  Maple-Cranberry Steamed Pudding.  Cinnamon-Raisin Buns.

one of my favorite sweets: the cinnamon raisin buns
Alongside the savories and sweets, teas from Tea Forte and cava and sherry were served.

my plate (on the first round - yes, I indulged!)

I stacked my plate with nearly every item on display.  For my second round, I focused on my favorites: the fried chicken sandwich and bison meatloaf club, and the tea cakes, steamed pudding, and cinnamon buns. 

It was a fun afternoon, and I already can't wait for next year's tea!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Two Days in Paris: Day 2

On my second day in Paris, I took a stroll along another not-to-miss-street: Rue Montorgueil. I was there early (read: 9 on a weekday morning), having missed an opportunity to dine at Claus for breakfast.

I have read only positive reviews of Claus, a "breakfast-grocery" shop nestled in the 1st arrondissement.  As grocer, Claus offers a small selection of gourmet breakfast products including gluten-free options (jams, tea, cereals, rice pudding).  The dine-in menu at Claus features their house-made muesli, yogurts, eggs, sandwiches, fresh juices, and a variety of baked delights including cakes and scones.  Claus is small (seating about 16), and even on a weekday morning was all out of seats by the time I had arrived.  Disappointing, but I will just have to add it to my list for the next time I'm in Paris (with a note to make reservations!).
Stohrer, one of Paris' oldest barkeries
Still needing some breakfast, I headed several blocks north to Rue Montorgueil.  Restaurants, cafes, bakeries, fishmongers, cheese shops, produce stands, and flower shops line this cobble-stoned pedestrian market street.  But it being an early weekday morning when I visited, the liveliness and bustle characteristic of the street were absent.  I stopped by La Maison Stohrer, one of the oldest bakeries in Paris (it opened in 1730) and picked up a brioche praline.  The pink specks dotting the brioche drew my eye; what I did not know (until I bit into it) was that the specks were actually sugar-coated almonds and hazelnuts. While delicious, the brioche was very sweet, rather too sweet for breakfast; it was, after all, candy-studded bread.

January is the month for winter sales in Paris.  Most everywhere you go, you will see "Soldes" signs splashed across shop windows.  I headed to St-Germain-des-Pres for some shopping on my last day in Paris.  The area abounds with shops, from fashion boutiques to trendy accessories shops to luxe home stores.  As is always the case, a few hours spent shopping meant I was ready for a meal.

Lunch was at Les Relais de'l Entrecôte, a short walk from the main shopping streets of the 6th.  Entrecôte is a Parisian steakhouse; its interior is that of a classic French brasserie complete with banquette seating and wooden tables that are covered in brightly colored tablecloths (red, blue, green, yellow).  The waitresses wear a classic uniform of black dress and white apron. The restaurant has a no-reservation policy and there is often a queue of people waiting to dine for lunch and dinner.  Having arrived at noon on a cold winter weekday, however, I was seated immediately, although the restaurant filled up quickly over the hour I was there.  
Entrecôte has a set menu for lunch and dinner -- steak frites -- and restaurant goers are given only a few options for their meal: how they would like their steak prepared (well done, medium, or rare; nothing in-between), and their choice of beverage and dessert.  Having read about the restaurant, I had come knowing what to expect, though I can't say I was fully prepared: after some translation difficulties, which my waitress resolved by enlisting the help of someone who spoke English, I managed to order my steak "medium."  

The meal was delicious!  A salad (field greens tossed with a tangy mustard vinaigrette and topped with chopped walnuts) was brought out first, moments later followed by the steak, which was presented in four strips, cooked perfectly, and smothered with a tasty sauce poivre which I soaked the frites in.  Halfway through the meal, a surprise: the waitress came by with a "refill" of more steak and frites!  Alas, I had absolutely no room for dessert after cleaning my plate.  

After a bit more shopping, I made one final stop before leaving St-Germain-des-Pres: an afternoon tea break at Mamie Gauteaux.  

The moment you walk in Mamie Gauteaux, you feel as if you've stepped inside a dear friend's home.  The main room, filled with wooden tables flanked by chairs and small stools, gives way to a table counter displaying the day's selection of cakes and pies.  High shelves, lined with delicate, colorful bowls, run along the cream-colored walls.  Nestled between two tables is an antique stove, further lending to the cheery charm of the cafe.  I ordered the lemon meringue tart: the pastry was crisp and the giant, marshmallow-sized meringue puffs nicely balanced the tart lemon curd.  
the lemon meringue tart at Mamie Gateaux
And this is how I spent my second day in Paris: following my taste buds, reveling in the deliciousness that is this city. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Two Days in Paris (told through food): Day 1

Rue des Martyrs
A Parisian friend had suggested as part of my itinerary for my short stay in Paris a stroll along the Rue des Martyrs, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  He had described it as a quintessential Parisian street offering a glimpse of village life; after having visited the street, I couldn't have described it any better.  Bakeries, butchers, cafes, cheese and charcuterie epiceries, and shops selling everything from chocolates to eyewear line the street, which stretches from the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Church northwards (and uphill) to the base of Montmartre.  

seafood restaurant
a cheese & charcuterie epicerie
a fishmonger
the selection of choux at Popelini
this cookie shop sells 9 varieties of chocolate cookies, along with several other flavors
chocolates sold at Jeff de Bruges
My first stop was Maison Landemaine, a delightful bakery and my friend's favorite in all of Paris.  I could hardly choose from among the pastries and breads artfully displayed inside: croissants (plain, chocolate, or almond), tartes fines (tarts filled with apples, pears, or apricots), baguettes prepared with a variety of flours and leavens, paris-brest, eclairs, and more.  I hemmed and hawed for a while before finally settling on the tarte au pomme (apple tart).  It was exquisite: the crust was light and buttery and the thinly sliced apples atop it were fanned into a spiral and kept moist with a finishing glaze.

the tarte au pomme at Maison Landemaine 

The timing of my trip coincided with a Brassai photography exhibit ("For the Love of Paris").  I spent the rest of my morning there, after which lunch was in order.  
amazing falafel in the Marais

During prior visits to the Marais, I'd taken note of L'As Du Fallafel.  The restaurant is hard not to notice: it's painted a bright green, and long queues of hungry people perpetually wait outside it, the line often spilling into and interrupting the heavy foot traffic along Rue des Rosiers.  There is more to L'As Du Fallafel's menu than just falafels (the menu runs two pages long and includes dishes like chicken shawarma, lamb kabobs, and salads), but I had come for the falafel sandwich.  It was, in a word, incredible: a warm pita bread stuffed with light, crispy balls of falafel and topped with a salad of cucumbers, pickled cabbage, and grilled eggplant, and drizzled with a hummus-tahini dressing.

Since I was already there, I visited several of my favorite shops in the Marais, working up an appetite for dinner.  Dinner was another of my friend's recommendations: Le Verre Vole. 

Le Verre Vole

"Bistronomie" (loosely translated as serious food in a casual environment) would be the best word to describe this gem.  It's a modest-looking restaurant sitting on a nondescript street in the 10th arrondissement, with a 2-room dining space taken up by wooden tables and mismatched, beat up-looking chairs.  The daily-changing menu is hand-written -- in the front room, on a chalkboard and in the back room (which you get to by descending down some stairs) on a mirrored wall.  
Galician-style octopus

pan-seared pollock with carrot puree

apple crumble
The evening I dined at Le Verre Vole, they were offering two selections each for a starter, main course, and dessert.  As a starter, I had the Galician-style octopus: an octopus tentacle served with boiled baby potatoes in an olive oil-paprika sauce.  For my main course, I had the pollock: it was pan-seared (tender with a nicely crisped exterior) and sat atop a carrot puree and some roasted baby carrots; on the side was a shaved fennel salad.  I had a delicious glass of wine to accompany my meal, chosen by the waiter (I didn't see a wine list). My dessert was an apple crumble: cubes of baked apple, a streusel topping, some scattered pumpkin seeds, and a dollop of yogurt.  

It was the perfect meal to end a delicious first day back in The City of Lights.