To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you ate and I’ll tell you at which museum.”
”Klimt with Schlag? “ Where else but at the Neue Galerie, the museum devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design. While Gustav Klimt, leader of the Vienna Secession movement, reigns at the upstairs exhibition floor, the bittersweet chocolate torte, named after him, triumphs at the street-level café.
“Schlag”, Viennese slang for whipped cream, is served with devil-may-care abundance over Austria’s classic torten lined up on the marble sideboard of the café and identified by name: Sachertorte, Klimpttorte, Sabarskytorte, Linzertorte, Mozarttorte, super rich cakes of bittersweet chocolate, nougat, hazelnut, pistachio, apricot or raspberry confitures. Schlag elevates the Viennese imported coffee to royal status- hence, Kaiser Mélange — while double espresso with Schlag, served in a glass, becomes Einspanner, named after the turn-of-the-century horse-drawn carriage.
The Café draws its inspiration from the fin de siècle Viennese establishments that served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life at the turn of the 20th century. The wood-paneled dining room is furnished with period objects, including lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann, furniture by Adolf Loss, and banquettes upholstered with Otto Wagner fabric. A Bösendorfer grand piano, hidden in the corner, takes center stage at Thursday evenings’ cabaret supper, as well as on Wednesday evening’s music recitals during the winter.
Sitting at a marble-topped table, it is easy to melt into the Viennese fairy-tale of a Kaffeklatsch. In fact, I have become so enamored with the place, I consider myself a habitué. I often come for breakfast. It gives me a chance to catch up with friends and is a nice way to thank someone who has done me a favor. While my guests debate whether to order the full breakfast menu, (available with a glass of Sekt) or, Palatschinken “Smoked Trout Crêpes & Horseradish Crème Fraîche”, I inevitably order one Soft-boiled Egg, served with a Brioche. And, while I am perfectly capable of boiling a 3-minute egg, I wouldn’t dream of doing so at home. (Freud, a café habitué himself, would probably explain.) By 11 o’clock, the line of people waiting to get into the building stretches around the block. Except for Wednesdays, when the museum is closed, the wait for a table at Café Sabarsky can run up to 45 minutes. The wait for a table at the downstairs less opulent Café Fledermaus is usually less.
The Neue Galerie was the brainchild of two long-time friends: the art dealer, museum organizer, bon vivant, Serge Sabarsky, and the art collector, philanthropist, entrepreneur, Ronald Lauder. Both shared a passionate interest in 20th century German and Austrian art and design and dreamed of opening a museum in New York to showcase the finest examples of their collection. Serge Sabarsky died in 1996. In November 2001, Donald Lauder fulfilled their dream and opened The Neue Galerie. The museum immediately became famous for its extraordinary collection and its background. Still, while most visitors come to see Klimt’s much lauded “Woman in Gold” and may look at Kirchner or Kandinsky, it is Café Sabarsky, that draws the crowd and accounts for the enormous popularity of the museum.
I tasted my first Grüner Veltliner at the opening membership reception. And, while I still prefer Riesling over Austria’s unique white wine, I fondly recall the hot Glühwein, handed to me upon arriving on a bitter cold December evening. Chef/owner Kurt Gutenbrunner features the classic dishes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Tafelspitz, Wiener Schnitzel, Goulash with Spätzle, and Kaiserschmarren. The goulash, spiked with paprika, reminds me of the mountains of fire-red paprika at Budapest’s Central Market Hall, which my husband and I visited on a trip to Hungary in 1987. The Kaiserchmarren, a shredded pancake, accompanied by fresh fruit compote, was said to be Kaiser Franz Joseph’s favorite dessert. The Kaiser was known to be a glutton. Whatever food he fancied was bound to be named after him.
Since I live close to the Neue Galerie, I often stop by in the late afternoon for a Grosser Brauner (Double Espresso with Milk on the Side), or Wiener Mélange (Espresso with steamed Milk and Foam.) I sit at my favorite table next to the marble fireplace, close to the window overlooking Central Park. Occasionally, I’ll treat myself to Gutenbrunner’s Selleriesalad (Celery Root Salad). Still greatly unknown here, or wrongly named, this one is echt (genuine) — a real winner.
Ready to go home, I pick up my coat at the coat check.
“Everything all right?” asks the doorman who has been at his post from the start.
I nod. Why dream of going to Vienna? Vienna is right here.