If I thought the flavor of Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna restaurants would be a revelation, I was wrong. It was ambience in that historic Austrian city that gave us our money’s worth.
Wiener Schnitzel is a simple dish, made of thinly pounded veal scallops, breaded, fried and served with wedges of lemon. In Vienna, it was much like what I’ve had in the United States, and something like what I’ve made at home— only bigger, much bigger. It filled the plate and draped itself over the sides. I’ve seen chicken-fried steaks in Texas that would look puny in comparison.
But where the dish fell short of our expectations, the atmosphere took over. On our first night in Old Vienna, my sister, Marcia, and I claimed a table outside on the sidewalk area at Café Leopuldo. Under a big, striped awning, we had glasses of cold Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s famous, crisp white wine and watched the stylish Viennese hurrying home from work, or out to play. Having both come from the drought-parched Western United States we lingered as long as was decent, soaking up the coolness of the evening and enjoying a light rain that came and went.
Cafe Leopuldo’s Wiener Schnitzel was dramatic in size but flat in taste. Lots of lemon juice and some salt made it more palatable.
The following evening, after a concert and a long walk through narrow streets, we came to Zwölf Apostekeller, a restaurant in an old house at Number 3 Sonnenfelsgasse. Once again the meal would consist of Wiener Schnitzel, this time accompanied by big plates of German potato salad. The folks who had planned our concert tour of several Central European cities had chosen this venue. Wiener Schnitzel was served to us all; once again, it was a plain, straightforward dish that I’d guess ranks among that country’s comfort foods rather than its haute cuisine.
But the place where we dined was remarkable. After dozens of us crowded into the structure, we were led down several flights of stairs. We came to the cellar, then kept going. Finally, in a sub cellar, we found our seats for the late meal. Tables lined narrow aisles that ran the length of the space. Strings of twinkly lights cast a glow in the subterranean gloom. Above us was the awe-inspiring sight of a brick vaulted ceiling, said to be part of a rebuild of this cellar in 1561. The house itself dated back to 1100. Wrapped up in that kind of history we really weren’t overly concerned with food.
Later, describing Austria’s famous dish to friends, I mentioned that the breading was bland. I’d have added some salt. Of course, Americans are famous for their salty food, which Europeans visiting here sometimes have trouble with. So, it probably was just a matter of taste.
And let’s face it, where in the U.S. can we sit down to dinner in a house built more than 900 years ago?
1 1/2 pounds sliced veal scallops, pounded thin (see note)
1 1/2 cups flour
1-2 teaspoons salt
Pinch of white pepper
1 1/2 sleeves Saltine crackers, crushed, or 3 cups cracker meal
1 teaspoon salt, if desired
Canola oil, for frying
2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish
Note: I like to order a piece of veal and slice it at home, then pound it thin. I think this makes a more tender cut than the ultra-thin slices of veal scallopine you find already cut at the store. If you don’t want to slice your own, just ask the person at the meat market for slices between 1/4-and-1/2-inch thick. Flatten with a mallet and put slices on a plate. Veal is expensive. If you want to spend less, you can substitute pork for veal.
Put the flour in a large, flat bowl or plate; add salt and pepper and blend in well. Scramble eggs in a large, flat bowl. Put crushed Saltines or cracker meal on a large plate and blend salt, if using, in well.
Pour oil to the depth of about an inch-and-a-half in a good-sized skillet. (Preheat oven, too, to 150 degrees. This is so that if you are doing the schnitzel in batches, you can put the fried pieces on a large plate or baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Don’t stack pieces on top of each other and don’t cover them; they’ll get soggy.)
To bread the veal pieces, press each piece in the flour, turning to flour both sides. Shake off excess. Dip each piece in the beaten egg, to thoroughly coat. Then, press each slice into the cracker meal, turning to coat all sides.
When the oil is hot, but not smoking, gently slide the bread pieces into the oil. It should sizzle energetically, but not foam up or threaten to fry over the side of the skillet. Fry one side of each piece to a deep golden color, but not to dark brown. Turn, and fry the other side until it is gold. Each side will take a minute or more. Take out of the oil and blot lightly on paper towel. Sometimes, if the oil gets too thick with crumbs that have fallen off, I pour the oil off, clean out the crumbs with a wadded up paper towel, and then reheat the oil. If you leave crumbs in the pan they will get brown and bitter, and stick to your veal cutlets.
When all the pieces are fried, put on plates, garnish with lemon wedges and serve.