Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tales from Vienna: Cigarettes, kaffee, kunst

Jetlag am sonntag
We arrived early, perhaps too early.

The only sound was that of a lonely jazz track and the barman taking orders. It was a quiet night, he told us, looking at the couples on the lounges. He was right. They gave the bar an atmosphere of exclusion that allowed for neither conversation nor diversion.

So we sat at the bar and listened to Philippe. His last job was working at a former speakeasy in Paris. It was down a side street from the Lourve. ‘Had we been to Paris? I’ll give you the address. You’d like it.’
And so the conversation went.

The bar glistened and a bottle of Talisker single malt caught the light from the muted wall lighting. The bar had the feeling of a film noir set, of anticipation and suspense. Smoke clung to every surface, yellowed the light before unwillingly disappearing outside through the vents in the tortoiseshell windows.

It was going to be a night where either nothing or something happened.

More people joined us at the bar and the conversation was as generous as the drinks. Phillippe turned his attention from us, two travellers, to a group of business men. They had replaced one of the couples and were sitting intently, huddled as if to protect a shared secret.

Beside us, a couple sat. He drew on his cigar with the expertise of a man well acquainted with a good Cuban and his blonde companion stared blankly into space. We watched him in the bar mirror, admiring his technique and his vanitas.

By midnight and several mojitos later, the crowd had settled in for the evening. Two men hovered near a group of women, attempting to make eye contact as a necessary prelude to an introduction. The couple to our right had disappeared into the night and another anonymous couple replaced them and looked fugitively towards the lounge.

We were about to leave, when suddenly Phillippe rushed from behind the bar. There was a commotion. People looked around in confusion as our barman grabbed a man that was attempting to flee down a narrow stairway to the public telephone. An arm lock turned into a body hug as our barman dragged the man across the bar into the side street. No words were spoken.
The explanation came from another, a local at the other end of the bar. We exchanged looks. ‘He was in here last night. He was told not to come back.’. I wondered why but the man had returned to his drink and so did I. Conversation over.

As for Phillipe, he was talking to a couple at the bar. ‘Have you been to Paris? I know a great little bar. I’ll give you the address. You’d like it.’

And so the conversation went.

So dark was the inside that it took several seconds for the shadows to become people. It was late in the day and most of the light now came from the inside lighting. Every surface was stained a muted yellow, as heavy as the smoke that saturated the air. Like its legendary owners, the café had the appearance of timelessness. It has survived two world wars and a mission to the Russian front. This was one of the great kaffeehauses of Vienna, Café Hawelka.

I was seated like everyone else at the first available table. There was no menu, so I just asked for kaffee. ‘Melange’, the waiter asked accusingly. I nodded. Cake? ‘There’s no cake left. It’s finished for the day. Best to come earlier.’

It was busy. The sound of dishes could be heard from the back of the café. Waiters dressed in the traditional tuxedo moved between the tables, taking orders. More people arrived and were seated wherever there was room. She was one of them and she would have easily blended into the busy Sunday afternoon crowd except for her tangible anxiousness.

She had the look of an Egon Schiele painting. In her appearance, she was haunted and drained like the parched wood of the café, her face as yellowed as the cigarette stains and smoke. She was a fugitive from herself. Her eyes darted nervously around the room. Her restlessness was unforgiving, as she looked from table to table, from one person to the next, and then to the door. She was on a table with two other women, who chatted to one another. To them, she was invisible. To me, she was all movement. Sometimes she listened to their conversation as if she knew them but her eyes never stopped moving.

I was seated with an American couple, expats. She was a musician and worked at the university. She had been coming to Hawelka for the last thirty years. ‘I used to write my assignments here. It used to be full of artists; now it’s mainly tourists’, she told me. ‘I still come here – maybe it’s nostalgia or something else. Make sure you order the cake’. She looked at her partner. His profession, unlike hers, went unstated. They were there with an architect and his Italian girlfriend. The conversation shifted from English to Italian and then to German. ‘He is talking tomorrow, if you want to come’, he said nodding towards the architect and handing me a pamphlet.

I sat and drifted in and out of their conversation, sometimes joining in. I knew that kaffeehauses were the great meeting places of Wien, where classes would mix outside normal strictures, but I was unsure of the etiquette.

From time to time, I looked at the woman.

Her kaffee had arrived. Like everyone else’s, it was served on the traditional silver tray with a glass of water and sugar cubes. She stared at the teaspoon, took one sugar cube placed it on her spoon and watched it dissolve into her coffee. The other one quickly followed. She sat stirring it and this was the only time that she stopped looking and appeared at rest.

Bored with the Italian, the American asked me about Australian authors and told me about a book he had been reading about existential angst in the wilderness.

I turned back to the woman and she was gone.

Cafe Hawelka, Dorotheergasse 6
Some bemoan that it's full of tourists but Cafe Hawelka is the real thing when it comes to kaffeehauses. If you come after 9.30 in the morning, you'll get to eat cake. A light sponge with either apple or plum. Heavenly.

Café Landtmann Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 4
It is as institutional as a psychiatrist couch, so it's little wonder that it was Freud's local. The menu of nineteen kaffees is legendary as is the beef goulash with dumplings.

Kleines Cafe, Philharmonikerstrasse 4
They aren't exaggerating when they say that this is the smallest kaffeehaus in Wien. For an intimate Sunday coffee, this would be my place of choice. Grab yourself a newspaper as you hang your coat and watch the comings and goings of this local neighbourhood from your seat.

The Loos Bar, Kärntner Durchgang 10
There are bars and then there is the Loos Bar. Designed by Adolf Loos, this bar is the bastion of cool in a city that takes tourist kitsch to new heights.

Plachutta, Wollzeile 38
Dining here in an education, literally. Your waiter will guide you through a menu featuring seventeen cuts of beef. Order the boiled beef - Huferscherzel. You will be served a traditional beef broth. From the same pot comes your beef that will be served with root vegetables, toasted black bread, apple and horseradish.

Restaurant Zum Kuckuck, Himmedlpfortgasse 15
Don't be put off by the name or the kitch decor. We found this place when we were asked for directions. We stumbled upon it first and stole their table. Moral of the story - always make a reservation. The seasonal menu is stand out. We arrived during mushroom season. Picked locally and served with a small medallion of beef, they were fabulous.

Trzesniewski, Dorotheergasse
It's easy to find Trzensniewski, just look for the lunchtime crowd. Simple food - rye sandwiches ordered with either a pfiffer (0.8 beer) or vodka. The pfefferoni scharf goes perfectly with the beer.

Demel, Kohlmarkt 14
The mecca of confectionary in a city that would satisfy any chocolate lover. It's the size of a department store and the selection of goodies unlimited. It is worth buying something just to get the packaging.

Hotel Sacher, PhilharmonikerstraBe, 4
Home to the original sacher torte, this hotel is all elegance. Its claim to originality is no presence, a legal courtcase deemed that there may be many sacher tortes but this is the original, the result of a culinary mishap or so the story goes.

A must-do for any foodie. Wander through the market and sample breads, oils and imported goods from Turkey. While you are there, check out the fabulous Wagner apartments.

And finally a big thank-you to WKB for our trip and for KG for sparing him.