To appreciate how far the restaurant scene in Vienna has come in recent years, it helps to recall the way things used to be. Up until about 10 years ago, Austria was still dining in the 19th century. Most dinners were a mittel-europäisch sloshfest of Schweinsbraten, Knödeln, and Kraut (pork, dumplings, and cabbage). No one denies that such courtly delights as Tafelspitz—the
blush-pink boiled beef famed as Emperor Franz Josef's favorite dish—is delicious, but most traditional carb-loaded, nap-inducing meals left you stuck to your seat like a suction cup.
If you consumed a plate-filling schnitzel and were able to eat anything after it, you were looked upon as a phenomenon—or an Austrian. A lighter, more nouvelle take on cuisine had difficulty making incursions because many meals were centered around Rehrücken (venison), served up in wine-cellar recipes of considerable—nay, medieval—antiquity.
Today, Vienna's dining scene is as lively, experimental, and as good as it is thanks in part to changing epicurean tastes and a rising generation of chefs dedicated to taking the culinary heritage of the nation to a new phase of Neue Wiener Küche (New Vienna Cuisine). No longer tucked away in anonymous kitchens, cooks now create signature dishes that rocket them to fame; they earn fan clubs and host television shows; there are star Austrian chefs in Vienna the way there are in New York and Hollywood, and these Viennese chefs want to delight an audience hungry for change. Schmaltzy schnitzels have been replaced by Styrian beef, while soggy Nockerl (small dumplings) are traded in for seasonal delights like Carinthian asparagus, Styrian wild garlic, or the common alpine-garden stinging nettle. The old goulash and bratwurst have given way to true gustatory excitement, though you can always find the time-honored standards of Wiener Küche at the Beisln, Vienna's answer to Paris's bistros and London's gastro-pubs.
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