Das Schnitzel Kaiser

Walk into just about any restaurant, pub, or beer hall in Germanic Europe and there is sure to be one staple on the menu, the schnitzel. In fact the schnitzel and its various incarnations can be found all around the world. Veal, pork, chicken, turkey even fish and vegetables can all be given the schnitzel treatment.

In Australia it takes the form of the mighty chicken parmigana, a breaded chicken fillet, covered in Parma ham, tomato sauce and melted cheese. In the USA there is a hotdog chain called Wiener Schnitzel, but for the real deal or as I like to call it,  “Das Schnitzel Kaiser” or ‘The Schnitzel Emperor’ we have to head to the source where it all began – the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Now before we dive in and devour our schnitzel it is worth mentioning there is some controversy over the schnitzel’s origin. Most agree that the schnitzel recipe was bought to Vienna by Austrian General Joseph Graf Radetzky, a man more famous for the musical piece composed bearing his name by Johan Strauss Senior than any military victory he ever achieved. While down in Milan he discovered the Cotolleta alla Milanese and upon his return to Vienna the Emperor Franz Joseph, asked for the recipe.

Another story believes it originates from the Byzantine Empire, where in the 800’s Emperor Basilieios insisted on eating meat covered in sheets of gold! As you can imagine this practice was frightfully expensive so the sheets of gold were replaced with the golden coating of breadcrumbs. Regardless of the origins, Vienna is where one must head for the perfect Wiener schnitzel.

Wiener Schnitzel is the national dish of Austria, and the term Wiener schnitzel is rigidly protected. To call your schnitzel a Wiener schnitzel it must be veal, any other meat and you may refer to it as the Wiener Style, the Wiener Art or the Wiener Escalope, but not, repeat not a Wiener schnitzel.

This way to schnitzel heaven

This way to schnitzel heaven

Just like the Emperors of old, there is one Vienna institution that towers above all others in the culinary world of the schnitzel, a restaurant called the Figlmüller. In this small little restaurant nestled in the back alleys of St Stephens Cathedral, Figlmüller has been dishing out world-renowned schnitzels since 1905. So popular has it become that literally just around the corner a second restaurant was opened in the early 2000’s and every night people hungrily wait in line to try this enormous piece of history.

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Natalie with her monster Schnitzel

Painstaking attention to detail and schnitzel pride come to the fore to feed the starving masses a schnitzel that is the size of a pizza. Every cut of meat in hammered out by hand with a mallet until it is wafer thin and roughly 30cm in diameter. It is then shallow fried in three different pans until a golden colour. So particular are the chefs at Figlmüller only one type of bread roll is used to supply the breadcrumbs. It is served, hanging off the plate with a slice of lemon and that’s it! If you have room the traditional accompaniment is either a small green salad or a side dish of delicious Germanic potato salad, but again only if you have room.

A German friend once told me there are two ways to tell if you have the perfect schnitzel. Firstly, when you cut into the schnitzel there should be a small air pocket between the breadcrumbs and the meat, and secondly believe it or not, is to place a napkin on your schnitzel and then sit on it! That’s right, if you sit on your schnitzel and no oil soaks through the napkin you have the perfect meal. If you do decide to test this theory out on your next visit to Vienna, don’t blame us if you are asked to leave!

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

People lining up on a rainy night in Vienna

Whether you get oil on your trousers or not, Figlmüller regularly wins awards for it’s schnitzels, and the huge lines every night come rain or shine to try Austria’s National dish can’t be wrong. Figlmüller truly is ‘Das Schnitzel Kaiser’.

– Dean

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Hometown Tourist: Mind The Gap, Fine Dining on a Victoria Line London Tube

Ask any Londoner and everyone has an opinion about the tube. Increased travel costs, tube strikes, signal failures and closures due to maintenance works, we have a love hate relationship with the world’s oldest underground system. However fine dining on the tube? You have to be joking!

Well, Alex and the team at Basement Galley turned a disused London icon into an amazing pop up restaurant experience.

As we continue to explore our hometown and uncover quirky and different experiences around London, Natalie had booked the Underground Supper Club and had cryptically only told me that ‘we are going out on Saturday night’.

Whilst we walked from the Blackhorse Road tube station on the Victoria Line, I wondered where Natalie was taking me. We arrived, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the treasure trove of the (currently) closed Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum awaited. A miss match of semi restored London Routemaster buses, fire trucks, Bedford lorries and old military trucks greeted us, and our restaurant for this evening, a former Victorian Line tube carriage was parked up ready for boarding. This was a playground to be explored!

Not your standard restaurant entrance

Not your standard restaurant entrance

I won’t lie, when we arrived at the barbed wire gates behind which sat the skeletons of these trucks, trains and buses and Natalie proudly announced ‘We’re here!’ I was a little sceptical. I truly wondered where she had brought me. However as soon as the staff greeted us, we could tell we were going to be in for a unique experience and a great night.

It was a beautiful spring / summer evening as we milled around nursing a G&T and explored the yard of old relics. Chatting to a local enthusiast, we loved hearing all about his restoration projects with two Routemasters taking all his spare time. One had been ‘rescued’ and when he found it there was a tree growing off the back platform – he had his work cut out!

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

One of the Routemaster London buses currently being restored

At just gone 7pm,we were invited to ‘mind the gap’ and board our tube carriage. Head Waiter Chi welcomed us to the Underground Supper Club before Head Chef Alex introduced himself and explained some of the history of the Basement Galley and the idea behind their pop up restaurants.

The tube carriage set for dinner

The tube carriage set for dinner

What followed was without doubt one of the most enjoyable dining experiences we have had in London. Five courses of Alex’s finest creations, with each course raising the bar, all set in the unique ambience of the tube.

Dinner is served...

Dinner is served…

The menu for these evenings changes monthly, with refinements made each time they host evenings. It was one of these experiences, much like the Melbourne Tram Car Restaurant, where you sit back and ‘think how did they produce this in that tiny kitchen’! Alex’s small team were busy bustling away in the museum cafeteria. The results of which would not have looked out of place in a Michelin-Starred restaurant. The joys of a supper club mean, generally speaking, you eat a set menu and mingle with other diners. Out of five courses the only thing Natalie and I left on our plates was the duck bone. Alex is a graduate of the Le Cordon Blue School in Paris and trained with some of France’s top chefs. Fuse this French cuisine with some Heston Blumenthal style ways of combining flavours, and the results were magnificent. Whoever knew that Green Pea soup could hold such hidden surprises (I can’t spoil the surprise!), that Kohlrabi made a great substitute for mash and that strawberry and black pepper are a match made in heaven, to name but a few.   The whole package was just brilliant, and we loved Alex’s idea of teaming up with other local specialities and business such as coffee served from local Camden coffee company ‘Black Sheep Coffee’.

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

Local Camden coffee provided by Black Sheep Coffee

The one thing that struck us was the incredible passion everyone had for their job. From the drinks and wait staff who mingled, chatted and appeared so proud to be involved, to the amazing food Alex and Christelle (Sous Chef) had created in the primitive museum cafeteria kitchen. That love and passion really shone through.

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Head Waiter Chi, Natalie, and Master Chef Alex

Now I know what you are thinking, how do we experience this for ourselves? Sadly the Underground Supper Club is coming to the end of the line. In two weeks time Alex and the team host their final weekend in the disused carriage. Following this they have some other exciting projects up their sleeve and plan to ‘pop up’ in other new settings around London.  Never has the term, ‘quit while you are ahead’ been so true. We can’t wait for their next restaurant to ‘pop up’! Our advice, if you haven’t done so already, is to sign up to the mailing list. Who knows where we may meet and in what unconventional setting in the future!

–       Dean and Natalie

You all know how much we love trains

You all know how much we love trains

P.S At the time of writing there were still some seats available for the final Friday evening of their last weekend (30th May 2014). You can buy your Travelcard for dinner here.