Becky Aikman and Fred Plotkin perusing the menu at Osterreicher im MAK in Vienna. Photo by Lana Bortolot.
By Becky Aikman
There may be no bigger gamble in travel than taking a trip with a friend; the results can fall anywhere between the disastrous and the sublime. But the odds were in my favor when I alighted in Vienna for several days of imperial decadence — fine food, fine wine, fine culture, fine music — with my very fine friend, Fred Plotkin.
It helps when the friend in question has impeccable taste, and Fred is celebrated for his. A frequent visitor to Vienna and a lecturer and author on food, culture and music (his books include Opera 101 and Italy for the Gourmet Traveler), Fred calls himself a "pleasure activist." He also introduced me to my husband, so who am I to question his taste in anything?
It's not often that one gets to tour one of the world's great capitals with such a well-traveled, cultured and entertaining companion. If it worked, our partnership might turn what could have been a round of routine sightseeing into Vienna With Fred, another adventure entirely.
Our rooms weren't ready yet when we made a bleary morning arrival at our wonderfully located Steinberger Hotel Herrenhof. So Fred morphed immediately into pleasure activist mode. He escorted me around the corner and past the exuberant Hofburg Palace, amply accessorized with gilded adornments, to the quintessential Viennese coffee house Demel.
Demel. Photo by Becky Aikman.
"Dessert for breakfast?" I demurred. But Fred knew what he was doing. The frothy 1888 decor alone, with every mirrored surface polished to a high gloss, gave me a much needed sugar shock, and the pastries Fred selected really jolted me back to life. His favorite was the Mohnstrudel, a simple-enough puff paste wrapped around a sweet poppyseed filling. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I was partial to the flamboyant Esterhazy, layer upon layer of almonds and walnuts
interspersed with the richest, sweetest buttercream.
I resolved on the spot to throw aside my Fodors — and my dietary principles – and place myself in Fred's capable hands. Together, we waltzed through an itinerary that would satisfy a connoisseur as insatiable as the Empress Maria Theresa.
Seeking insight as he polished off his coffee, I asked Fred for his definition of taste. He answered without hesitation. "It's the art of combining all five senses with a lifelong dedication to refining them," he said. "Snobbery," he added, "should not be a component."
In that spirit, he told me about his favorite bargain pastry shop in Vienna, Aida. At any of its 27 branches, the signature chocolate tarte, the Golatsche, costs less than half the price of a confection at Demel.
"Bear in mind about Vienna," Fred continued "it's not just whipped cream and pretty palaces. Vienna is a very vibrant city." Then we set off to prove his point at one of Fred's favorite sites, the MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts. It showcases the explosion of creativity in furniture, objects and interior design that occurred from 1870 to 1915 in Vienna, a period of creative vitality that set a direct course toward modern design.
"I adore this place," Fred said. "It has beautiful objects perfectly displayed. It also has a really fantastic restaurant."
I was in. As promised, the designs from the Art Nouveau period and the later workrooms of Joseph Hoffman rejected the pompous, busy aesthetic of the pretty palaces we had passed earlier. I had to agree with Fred that the highlight was the Thonet room, displaying a series of the simple yet iconic chairs, leading inexorably to the stripped-down forms of IKEA.
We skipped through the gift shop, full of ingenious and affordable lamps and bowls and satchels, and took a table on the terrace of the restaurant Osterreicher im MAK, under white canopies fluttering like sails. For 32 Euros, the renowned Austrian chef Helmut Osterreicher offers three-course menus of traditional and modern dishes highlighting fresh ingredients from the Vienna countryside. I especially enjoyed the minute steak with onions and crispy sauteed potatoes.
Fred at Julius Meinl. Photo by Becky Aikman.
Food remained the theme when we strolled through the Julius Meinl store, where lavish displays render 18,000 food products irresistible. Fred likes to bring home the house-blend coffee along with jams as thick as ambrosia, made by Staud. The apricot flavor is sunshine in a jar.
That night we attended the Vienna State Opera in its splendid home, the Staatsoper, built in the 1860s and restored after World War II right down to a marble staircase that cries out for showy entrances. But first, we followed the ritual of local opera buffs, snacking at Bitzinger, a sausage stand on Albertinaplatz, cattycorner to the opera house. Those in the know order the Kasekrainer, which translates — and I'm not making this up — as pus. When you bite into it, Fred explained, bits of melted emmenthal ooze out of the wurst like lava.
Fred saved our big meal of the night for after the opera, at the Hotel Sacher, located just behind the opera house. The traditional menu includes tafelspitz, a boiled beef more flavorful than it sounds, and, of course, the world-famous Sachertorte.
Erwin Gegenbauer, the king of Viennese vinegar. Photo by Becky Aikman.
In the morning we walked to the Naschmarkt, Vienna's outdoor food fantasia. Due to its once sprawling empire, Vienna is a culinary melting pot, with influences from Italy, Hungary, Bavaria and beyond, Fred explained. The fragrant offerings at the market reflect them all. We stopped to visit Erwin Gegenbauer, scion of one the market's oldest families, who produces some of the world's finest artisanal vinegars. Asparagus vinegar? Don't laugh — chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud serve them in their restaurants.
At the imposing Kunsthistoriche Museum, Fred steered me past paintings by Breugel, Raphael and Caravaggio to his favorite, the seemingly straightforward portrait of Pope Paul III by Titian. "Titian had the courage and insight to depict him as frail," Fred said of the rather hangdog pontiff. "He was being crushed under the weight of the papacy."
As we passed through the grand rotunda to leave, I confessed to Fred that I'd spent the early afternoon on my own in the seemingly unrefined pursuit of shopping. I had explored the newly vibrant Museum Quarter, or MQ, where antique stores full of Art Deco treasures compete with up-to-the-minute local clothing designers. Would our partnership crack because I'd lowered myself from loftier pursuits? Not a chance. "Shopping is culture if you're not buying mass market products," Fred assured me. He has brought home birthday candles from the MQ's giddy Birthday Shop himself.
We continued our delicate balance between high and low culture the next day on a trip out of town. Eisenstadt, an hour from Vienna, is the seat of the no
ble Esterhazy family, which, it seems, is known for more than its scrumptious cake. Esterhazy princes were the leading patrons of the composer Joseph Haydn, whose humble house we toured in town. Later that evening Fred and I attended a concert of his symphonies at Haydn Hall within the Esterhazy Palace. It is renowned for having some the best acoustics in the world, thanks to a plain wooden floor that contrasts with the frescoed ceilings.
As usual, Fred's insight put it all in perspective. "Beethoven grabs you by the throat," he said. "Mozart kisses you on the cheek. Haydn penetrates your pores."
Earlier that day, we had enjoyed my favorite meal of the trip at Henrici restaurant across the square from the palace, washed down with a bottle of the Esterhazy vineyards 2007 Pinot Blanc. For a prix fixe of 29 Euros, we feasted on a refined country menu of pumpkin soup with chanterelles, followed by crispy local lake fish served over a Hungarian grain with bits of sausage and red and yellow peppers, all while taking in the pastel facade of the palace. And for dessert? I could hardly pass up a slice of Esterhazy cake, seated as I was practically in the luxurious lap of the family.
So, you may be thinking, it all came down to whipped cream and pretty palaces after all. But you would be wrong. Traveling with my friend had opened my senses to art, architecture, food, wine and something else besides — perfect company. Pleasure doesn't get much more active than that — sublime.
For more about traveling with Fred Plotkin, visit FredPlotkin.com
Becky Aikman was a journalist for Newsday. Now she is writing a book for Broadway Books.