It’s a schnitzel bit funny…this feeling inside.
In every classic tale, there comes a time when our hero must go in search of some precious object or fabled item to gain experience and wisdom. She must travel far and wide, endure all kinds of hardship and danger, to find the reward she seeks and return, triumphant. From Star Wars, to the Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, the hero’s quest is what separates the boy from the man, the girl from the woman, and the story from the legend.
In Europe, my hero’s quest was for Wienerschnitzel.
Wienerschnitzel? you might ask, and rightly so. But every restaurant has Wienerschnitzel! It’s a pretty simple dish, after all – breaded and fried veal cutlet – and just about every cuisine has its own version using various meats. In America, it’s chicken fried steak and in Japan, it’s katsu. In Italy, it’s cotoletta, in France it’s escalope. It’s universal.
I didn’t want just any Wienerschnitzel, though. I wanted the best Wienerschnitzel. And armed with a recommendation from a friend and all of TripAdvisor, I set off for Figlmüller.
That was my first mistake.
It’s not that Figlmüller’s schnitzel is bad. I’m sure it’s great. But when I got there around 5 PM on a Monday, I looked at the entrance and groaned. The line was was out the door and down the block.
I hate waiting in lines. Don’t get me wrong, I love the things people wait in line for, and I understand why they wait for them. But I’d rather pay for my Ben & Jerry’s than wait half an hour on Free Cone Day. I’ll usually sit out the extra weekend or two to avoid movie theater crowds. And I have perfected the art of getting a Cronut without waiting in the notorious Cronut line. More on that in the future.
So that day, I left. I considered going back to Augustinerkeller, where I’d had an excellent Tafelspitz the day before, but when I travel I like to go to as many different places as possible to make the most of things. So instead, I Googled “best schnitzel Vienna” to find a place that locals went to for their schnitzel. And I decided to walk just under a mile out of the city center to Schnitzelwirt.
I wasn’t hungry yet, so I took my sweet time walking up through the city. I dawdled in the Museumsquartier, I detoured to take a look at an interesting block. Then, I stopped by an Aida bakery on the same block to pick up some pastries to munch on later that night. Finally, I approached the restaurant.
It was closed.
Down in the tourist areas, I’d forgotten that it was Whit Monday, and that many restaurants and attractions like the Naschmarkt were closed. So, it seemed, was Schnitzelwirt.
Undaunted, I turned to Google once more. There was a place back by Figlmüller that seemed promising, so I decided to make my way back along the route I’d taken. On the way, I stopped by Wienerwald, a chain restaurant, and the restaurant in Hotel Mozart, which both looked promising but not the experience I wanted. I had a feeling that restaurant number 3 would be the one.
When I made it to the third restaurant and checked the menu outside, though, I almost dropped my pink bag of Aida pastries. No Wienerschnitzel!
Oh, they had schnitzel all right, but it was Schweineschnitzel, with pork. And had I come all the way to Vienna to taste anything less than the most authentic veal schnitzel?
No, I had not!
It was almost 7 PM at this point and I was getting hungry. I decided that Figlmüller had probably slowed down at this point, so I trudged back over, determined this time to wait it out and get my schnitzel.
The line was even worse. Utterly defeated, I decided I wasn’t moving another step. This time, it was Figlmüller or bust.
My vow lasted about five minutes until I happened to look at Kussmaul, the restaurant across the street. It looked cool, dark, and almost totally deserted. To me, this wouldn’t normally be a recommendation (shouldn’t a good place be full?) but at that moment, it was all I wanted. I Googled the menu – did they have schnitzel? Yes, they did. So I hopped out of line and into Kussmaul without a second thought. I didn’t know until I was sitting in the blissful air conditioning doing a little more research on the place that it was actually a Michelin Guide restaurant. It was a stroke of luck at the end of a long road.
Recently, I read a really fascinating book on flavor. It turns out that taste depends not only on your tongue and nose, but on your eyes, ears, and, which I found most interesting, your perception. An expensive bottle of wine really does taste richer to you than the cheap grocery bottle. Food really does taste more flavorful served from white plates. And nothing is so delicious as a plain meal you’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into.
Well, I may not have bled, but I certainly did sweat for my Wienerschnitzel. And as I waited, alone except for a couple near by, a waiter, and the chef, I occupied myself with fears of whether or not the schnitzel would be worth the two hours of walking I’d done.
And then it arrived at last.
When I took a bite, I almost cried. It was light, it was lemony, it was the thinnest, crispiest of veal cutlets. Viennese nirvana. And I had earned it.
Now, it’s true that I could have just waited in line and gotten a schnitzel much faster and with a lot less effort than I did by wandering around Vienna for two hours looking for perfection. I will never argue with that logic. Even so, I don’t think anyone has ever wolfed down a Wienerschnitzel with as much satisfaction as I did that day. Logic doesn’t always win out.
Through toil and trouble, I had completed the first stage of my Schnitzelquest and become my own hero that day. And though I hadn’t known this test would be quite so trying, every painful step I took made my schnitzel taste that much better. Sometimes the victory really is its own reward.
The second stage of my quest, of course, would be recreating it at home.