At his irascible best, Alastair Little owns up to virulent prejudice, and the unbridled joy of some boiled beef.
How often does a chef get to take his partner away for the weekend, eat a good meal, stay in a ritzy boutique hotel in a city he has long wanted to visit and get paid for it? Jamie magazine did just that for me in 2009. The city was Vienna, which I liked a lot, particularly the sung Haydn masses in St Stephen’s Cathedral, but the point of the trip was the meal, and that is what has remained most firmly in my memory over the past decade. What follows is a reworking of that commissioned article through the foggy lens of elapsed time.
My trip to Vienna assumed inevitability 38 years ago following a phone call from my butcher with a special offer on ‘point-end rump’ of beef, an unfamiliar cut, which he tried to sell by telling me its other name was tafelspitz. This did nothing to enlighten me, but I ordered the meat anyway as it was relatively cheap and I wanted to encourage his initiative and enthusiasm for obscure cuts of meat. But what to do with it? There was no internet for instant research in 1982, so I scurried around the corner in Notting Hill to Books for Cooks and found Blue Trout and Block Truffles by Joseph Wechsberg, which contained a chapter called ‘Tafelspitz for the Hofrat’ about a hotel called Meissl and Schadn in the author’s native Vienna, whose restaurant served 25 different cuts of boiled beef with tafelspitz the leader. From then on I was a lost cause, as I adore boiled beef dishes in virtually any form. A trip to Vienna was always going to happen, I just never thought it would take a quarter-century for it to come about.
Oddly, when the magazine offered me the chance to review “the restaurant I’d most wanted to visit” it was not an easy choice, as by then I had virtually no interest in contemporary cooking or in the great and the good of the restaurant world. A virulent prejudice I still have. Then I remembered Herr Wechsberg’s book, dug it out and reread the relevant chapter with the idea of visiting Meissl and Schadn. It seemed an obvious choice, but the one slight snag was that it had been written in 1949 and refers to the pre-war period: the restaurant was bombed in 1945 and never rebuilt. Ten minutes on the internet yielded several pretty solid opinions that if I wanted to eat tafelspitz in Vienna, and I did, it would have to be at one of the restaurants called Plachutta. Although serving a mere 12 cuts of boiled beef, the group is generally regarded as the true standard bearer for Viennese cuisine.
A table for two was booked on the terrace for lunch on a lovely sunny day in the flagship branch, and naturally we ate tafelspitz. The etymology of the name is confused: some authorities translate it as ‘focal point of the table’, a view shared by the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph, who never sat down to a dinner or lunch without a dish of it present. However, it is more likely that the name refers to the shape of the cut of meat used, which is definitely pointed and in English called point of rump, or blade steak, and in French aiguillette (needle).
But tafelspitz is much more than a piece of boiled beef with vegetables. First, we were served some of the beef broth with a choice of three ‘fillings’: sliced herbed crepes, liver dumplings, or a sort of ravioli. If you boil beef for 400 people a day, the resulting broth should be very good, and this was spectacularly so. I was so busy guzzling it that I failed in my reviewer’s duty to record what the ravioli were stuffed with. Then on to the main event: the beef arrived in a copper casserole with pieces of marrow bone, sliced yellow carrot, red carrot, celeriac and leek swimming in more broth. Then came rösti potatoes, a dish of creamed spinach, and some stewed lettuce and peas, all in their own little copper pots. Two silver sauceboats were filled respectively with grated horseradish and apple and an intriguing chive sauce. Just in case there was not enough to eat, sliced caraway toast was offered to spread the bone marrow on. A horde of young waiters served all this for us.
Wechsberg refers to the apprentice waiters whose duty it was to bring all the side dishes and garnishes as ‘piccoli‘, and our piccoli were wonderful. Beginning to feel we were getting an abnormal amount of attention I started to watch how the neighbouring tables were fairing. Equally well, it turned out: annexed side tables were covered in copper pots, piccoli were clustering around them, every table was having tafelspitz and all the evidence pointed to total enjoyment. When restaurants send all the food out from the kitchen plated up and ready to eat they are reducing the waiting staff to mere plate carriers, and they should be much more than that. The floor staff at Plachutta provide pomp and circumstance to the serving of this venerable institution of a dish. Their labours add to customers’ pleasure the food is enhanced, the kitchen and dining
room are in harmony, and everything works.
The tafelspitz was excellent, as good a boiled beef dish as I have ever eaten. Austrian wines are a closed book to me, but I put myself in their hands and was not disappointed, although maybe surprised to be served Riesling with red meat. As in every other aspect of its business Plachutta has it all worked out. We were offered a selection of small puddings on a large plate to share. The three standouts were a good hot chocolate mousse, a suitably sharp rhubarb strudel and a very good poached meringue with three sauces that goes by the name of Schneenockerl (snowballs).
The Viennese do not do’ shabby chic’ – everything gleams in the city, and the appearance of this restaurant was in keeping with the prevailing aesthetic. On arrival in the morning I was unimpressed with how the place looked, no patina and all rather glossy, but once It filled up and all the bustle of a busy service got going, it worked. Mario Plachutta explained to me that the restaurant was so busy that it would be a wreck in no time, so they continually renovate its various rooms, one at a time, to maintain the high standards of decorative polish. ‘High standards’ just about sums this place up.
This article first appeared in Noble Rot magazine, Issue 24