Vienna offers quite a few of Brian Johnston's favourite things, chief among them a world-famous crumbed dish.
During a visit to Vienna years ago, I had an epiphany. I'd long considered schnitzel a pub-menu staple, no more than a greasy stomach-filler of overcooked meat in a lumpy coating, accompanied by flaccid chips. In Vienna, however, this deceptively simple dish is delicious. Forget the modern and molecular. A good, old-fashioned Viennese schnitzel is something I could eat again and again.
This realisation comes at Osterreicher im MAK, a restaurant attached to Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts.
Here Helmut Osterreicher, a top Austrian chef, leads a movement to revive and modernise classical Austrian food. His schnitzel is impeccably light. I knife into its breadcrumb coating with the satisfying crunch of a good creme brulee, and find succulence beneath.
The accompanying salad is rich in pumpkin-seed oil. A potato salad, studded with chopped red onion, has a pleasing vinegary edge.
"For the Viennese, life without the Wienerschnitzel is hardly imaginable," Osterreicher once claimed. I'm now equally obsessed. Each time I return to Vienna, I continue my feverish search for good schnitzel and its traditional accompaniments: cucumber salad, lamb's lettuce, parsley potatoes or potato salad.
"You could say the epicentre of schnitzel is Figlmueller, a century-old family-run restaurant in the old town. I'd guess they have the largest, thinnest schnitzels in town," says Astrid Pockfuss of the Vienna Tourist Board. An hour later, I'm tucking into a schnitzel that's indeed supersized. It's paper-thin and flops over the plate's edge, though locals grumble the plate is smaller than elsewhere.
Never mind. Figlmueller's schnitzels must be 30 centimetres across and pleasantly crispy. They're cooked in three pans at varying temperatures, not tossed into a deep-fryer. The cucumber side-salad is excellent, too, but I feel the restaurant's hordes of carnivorous tourists detract from a genuine Viennese atmosphere.
Pockfuss mentions going to a beisl if I want more local surrounds. "Beisl are simple, bistro-like diners that are experiencing a renaissance in Vienna," she says. "The schnitzel at Rudi's Beisl [rudisbeisl.at] is loved by people in the Fifth District and beyond, and comes with three different salads as side dishes."
Everyone in Vienna has their favourite schnitzel joint. Schone Perle (schoene-perle.at) is frequented by the Second District office crowd. Some cite casual Am Nordpol (amnordpol3.at), others designer restaurant Skopik & Lohn (skopikundlohn.at) or the traditional Ofenloch (restaurant-ofenloch.at). My hotel concierge claims the perfect schnitzel is served at Steirereck (steirereck.at). It's certainly the most expensive schnitzel I eat in Vienna, at €24 ($30), but comes with two Michelin stars.
I'm a fan of Cafe Drechsler, a suave diner that manages to retain its old-time cafe appeal despite a Terence Conran revamp. It serves classical Viennese comfort food, including a hard-to-beat schnitzel. As 1950s gourmet journalist Joseph Wechsberg once observed, you should be able to sit on a schnitzel and not get a spot of grease on your pants. The schnitzel at Drechsler would surely stand the test.
If you want to mix schnitzel with all-out cosy tradition, head for the hills. Mayer am Pfarrplatz is a vineyard heuriger (wine tavern) on Vienna's outskirts, where locals sample the latest vintages and munch on pork knuckles. It dates from the 17th century and was a favourite of Beethoven. I like sitting in the courtyard under the vine trellises as an oompah band plays, tucking into very decent schnitzel served up by dirndl-clad waitresses.
However, I reckon I found my ultimate schnitzel on my most recent Vienna visit. Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper serves the real deal, made with veal rather than pork. Its coating is bubbled into hillocks, a trick achieved by the chefs splashing oil and shaking the pan during cooking. A beer from Ottakringer brewery provides an excellent accompaniment.
Schnitzel is such a simple dish, so often badly cooked. But sometimes in Vienna, it rises to perfection.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Austria National Tourist Office and Emirates Airlines.
Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14hr 30min) with connections to Vienna (5hr 30min). Return economy fare from $2502 from Melbourne and $2520 from Sydney, low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 303 777; see emirates.com/au.
Staying there Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is an ultra-modern design hotel with marvellous top-floor restaurant. Rooms from €250 ($334) a night. Phone 1300 855 975; see sofitel.com.
Hotel Topazz in Vienna's old town features chic, compact guest rooms with a funky design edge. Rooms from €189. Phone +43 1 532 2250; see hoteltopazz.com.
Eating there Cafe Drechsler, phone +43 1 581 2044; see cafedrechsler.at.
Figlmueller, phone +43 1 512 6177; see figlmueller.at.
Mayer am Pfarrplatz, phone +43 1 370 3361; see pfarrplatz.at.
Osterreicher im MAK, phone +43 1 714 0121; see www.oesterreicherimmak.at.
Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper, phone +43 1 512 2251; see plachutta.at.
More information austria.info/au