Melbourne, Australia and Vienna, Austria routinely vie for international awards as the most liveable cities in the world. It’s no wonder, therefore, that they are two of the most schnitzel-mad places in the world. Clearly, plentiful schnitzel and country names starting with ‘Austr’ makes for wonderfully livable cities.
Growing up in Melbourne, I understood that sushi was Japanese, pizza was Italian, rogan josh was Indian, and so on. However, when I moved to the Isle of Man at 29 years of age, I was genuinely surprised to learn that schnitzel was Germanic. Growing up, I had no conception of it as being an “ethnic” food – I just thought of it in the same way I might have thought of bacon, or steak, or any other core food: it was just a universal dietary staple. In Australia, figuratively every pub sells a chicken schnitzel, and a chicken parmigiana, and I was staggered to discover that this did not happen everywhere. Rest of the world: you have something to learn from Melbourne and Vienna. What else is one to eat at the pub when you’re out for drinks with the guys?
On my first trip to Vienna, I hardly saw the city, because I broke my knee in a freak accident in the mountains of Austria: a giant step was dangerously hidden behind my iPad as I watched my football from home. In the step altercation, I was thrown me to the ground in writhing agony as a random drunk guy sat and watched me from two metres away. He didn’t get up. Because I couldn’t walk for a while after breaking my knee, I didn’t get to see much of Vienna outside of the hotel room and my work room for that week.
Thus, I was excited for my second trip to Vienna: I was able to walk, and fully functional! My group of around 20 friends were visiting Vienna primarily to see the Christmas markets, and I was there for the schnitzel.
Staying just one night, I had four schnitzel-viable meals: Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner, Sunday brunch and Sunday dinner. Saturday dinner was assigned to a big group dinner a bit out of the city centre, leaving me with the limited opportunity to visit three schnitzel houses.
In the high-end pizza world, there is some division and debate about what makes a great pizza. My favourite and most trusted pizza critics, Daniel Young (Where to Eat Pizza, youngandfoodish.com, various newspaper) and Ed Levine (seriouseats.com) recognise that great pizzas come from both technical excellence (is it soft? is it balanced?) and also authentic stimulations of good times (is it authentic? does it remind you of your first-remembered pizza as a teenager?). In my pizza-consumption, I’ve soaked enough information from Young and Levine to be able to judge pizzas at least party by sight, but when it comes to schnitzel, I’m deeply inexperienced. I don’t understand the science of great schnitzel, but can only review them on how they make me feel.
These three schnitzel outlets are just the three that I visited: they do not represent some sort of comprehensive or total guide to great schnitzel in Vienna. These are just the views of some schmuck on the internet who loves great schnitzel for the memories it has brings back from his time as a child, as a teenager, and as a university student.
My friends had a huge group booking for a highly regarded schnitzel house, Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper. Due to my flight timings, I couldn’t join, and as it happens, I found a homely and welcoming alternative across the road. Mama’s Kitchen is not a fancy restaurant: it appeared to have just one single set menu, with just one meaningful choice: chicken or veal? As a starter, the traditional Viennese clear soup with pancake strips was served, and an apple strudel was served as a desert. The furnishings were spartan, the chairs were simple, the tables were plain. This restaurant focused on one thing: the schnitzel
The main was an excellent veal schnitzel: the batter was thin and light, with nicely developed air pockets throughout the dish. It was tender, and easy to cut through with a butter knife. The schnitzel was delightful, with a certain lightness on the tongue: certainly not overcooked, it was moist (I helped this with a generous squeeze of lemon juice) yet hearty. The veal schnitzel was extremely thin, which ensured that it was cooked comprehensively through, but without making the outer batter hard. It was soft throughout, and a wonderful golden colour.
Sliced fried potato was served with the schnitzel. For EUR25, including a bottle of mineral water, this was an excellent three-course meal.
JOSEM RATING FOR MAMA’S KITCHEN: EXCELLENT, 4/5
A Viennese institution, Demel is a hugely popular tourist attraction. Lengthy queues fill the restaurant throughout Sunday afternoon with many mature visitors seeking cakes, pastries and coffee. While waiting, a giant pastry preparation area is on display behind huge glass walls. If you’re going to wait half an hour for a table, you might as well enjoy the show of highly skilled pastry chefs manipulate thin pastry in ways that were truly remarkable to an uneducated observer like myself.
Demel is nothing like Mama’s Kitchen. It is a giant two-story restaurant in the center of town, with glorious Austrian paintings harking back to the city’s history as the capital of a true empire. Demel’s warm walls were evocative of a romantic Viennese history that set itself out to be a civilisational leader. These walls represented a city that saw itself as a historically meaningful cultural leader.
Once we got a table, with some help from our native Austrian friend Phillip, Demel’s schnitzels were certainly different from Mama’s Kitchen in that the batter was much thicker, and cooked for longer. This led to a deeper brown colour, and where the batter at Mama’s Kitchen was soft and moist, the Demel schnitzel batter was crisp and crunchy. On balance, I think that I prefer the softer and more moist batter of Mama’s Kitchen, but Demel’s schnitzel was certainly very very good as well. The interior veal meat was buttery soft and again – like Mama’s Kitchen – easy to cut with an ordinary table knife.
This schnitzel came with a side of cold potato, and a yoghurt-based cucumber (?) salad, but was much more expensive and slow than Mama’s Kitchen.
JOSEM RATING FOR DEMEL: GOOD, 3/5
This was my final of schnitzel-trifecta. A formal place, I arrived to eat alone, moments before various large groups arrived. Near the Mitte train station, this is an excellent destination if you’ve got an evening flight out, with the direct, express, City-Airport Train leaving from nearby. I think -but am not certain- that this schnitzel house is affiliated with Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper, and featured a genuinely excellent schnitzel, in a modern and up-market setting. With outstanding lighting, the staff were quick and attentive, and clearly a professional operation. The schnitzel was hurriedly eaten (I had a plane to catch) but it was as tender as the other schnitzel, without the slightly over-cooked batter that Demel suffered from. The meat was great, the batter was great, and although it was more expensive than Mama’s Kitchen, it delivered on both an excellent schnitzel and an excellent experience.
JOSEM RATING FOR PLACHUTTA WOLLZEILE: EXCELLENT, 4/5