Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Sisi Story and More Royalty

Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaThere are many familiar historical figures enshrined in monuments, buildings and other places in and around Vienna. In it's heydays, Vienna nurtured many leading lights of Western classical music such as Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, and Brahms. This city also brings back memories of both the World Wars: remember WW1 was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo? He was an Austrian prince and is buried just outside the city in his private palace. As for WW2, Hitler was born in Austria, and lived for a while in Vienna. I heard stories yesterday of how they still discover vintage bombs during road construction.

Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaSilver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaThere was one story that touched me, the story of a princess I hadn't heard of before. She was named Elisabeth, but more commonly known as Sisi. A Bavarian princess, Sisi was married off to the Austrian prince when she was very young. Right from the beginning she disdained the pomp and formality of the Royal Habsbergs. Her unusual attitude and her beauty made her a darling of the people. She rebeled and constantly travelled to stay away from Court life. Towards the end, she suffered from bouts of depression and obsession with diet and beauty regimes. She was tragically assassinated by an anarchist during one of her trips. This story seemed so much similar to Princess Diana's!

Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaSilver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaI bought tickets to the exhibition of the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg Palace. I also checked out the royal Silver Collection that includes kitchen utensils, tableware and table linen from the House of the Habsburg. It is interesting to note how rudimentary even royal kitchens were during that period. This is true of the Imperial Apartments too. While there was a lot of gold, silver, velvet and other expensive material, I am sure the Royal Family would have been awed by the 'luxuries' even a common man can afford today such a cookers, toasters, running hot water, etc., which they clearly lacked. Note: Most pictures in this post are those I took during this tour.

Imperial Apartments Hofburg Palace ViennaImperial Apartments Hofburg Palace ViennaWhat I loved the most was the elaborate dining table with it's glittering table settings. The intricately hand-painted porcelain was stunning too. During most dinners, apparently they even allowed people to hang-around and watch the family eat. Hmm, did they made people pay for this privilege? I bet Walt Disney would have approved if they had!

Silver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaSilver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaSilver Collection at Hofburg Palace ViennaAfter that long walk around the Hofburg Palace, I was hungry. I sat down at a road-side cafe for some coffee with a pastry. This place, Demel, is very well known as for its ice-creams, but even the dessert, Mohr im Hemd, a chocolate souffle with whipped cream and chocolate sauce was wickedly delicious! As for coffee, every cafe has dozens to choose from. Here they had the Melange (espresso with milk and foam), Brauner (espresso with cream), Verlangerter (espresso infused with hot water), Einspanner (espresso with whipped cream), Anna Demel (house coffee with orange liquer and whipped cream), Irish Coffee (coffee with whiskey and cream) and Cafe Bailey's (coffee with Bailey's Irish Cream).

Demel's Desserts in ViennaToday I walked back through shops selling seasonal vegetables, mushrooms and fruits. Austrians (like Indians) prefer buying their greens and fruits from small vendors rather than large supermarkets. The green expanse of Stadtpark - an oasis of greenery, jogging tracks and water bodies right outside my hotel - and the trams on the streets add to the city's charm. This is a city made for people who love walking.

Haddock and Porcini at S'parks ViennaAt dinner I ordered an entree of Porcini and Haddock, fried haddock over a bed of potatoes and porcini carpaccio, sauteed with red baby leaf beet and lemon chervil sauce. Porcini is a seasonal mushroom which tastes fantastic!

Kaiserschmarr'n Dessert in ViennaDessert was another local favorite: Kaiserschmarr'n, a softly browed pancake served with home-made plum stew. Mildly sweet, unlike most other Viennese desserts, this one was freshly made to order. As you can figure out, I love this city!

Related/similar posts:


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Imperial Vienna

Imperial Palace ViennaIt was still dark when my Austrian Airlines flight landed in Vienna. At five in the morning, the airport was almost empty, and it only took 15 minutes to cross immigration and get my bags. A car was waiting for me, and after a short ride I was at my hotel.

Austrian Airlines was not too bad. While they lack the frills of, say, Singapore Air (no amenity kits and priority luggage scan for business class, etc.), the food and service overall was good. Most importantly, they had the shortest route to Vienna from Mumbai!

Streets of ViennaStreets of ViennaStreets of ViennaThe Hilton at Stadtpark is a nice hotel with an excellent location, a fairly good restaurant, and well-appointed rooms. After a hearty breakfast, I strolled out into the streets of the First District. Like London, much of Vienna’s history is written in its buildings. Old churches, palaces, mansions, and even office buildings convey a great deal about its rich history. Vienna’s long history has been primarily influenced by the Hapsburg dynasty which ruled from here for over six hundred years.

Streets of ViennaStreets of ViennaStreets of ViennaI walked the narrow cobblestoned streets, clearly built during the medieval times, stopping to admire the frescos and elaborate facades on the old Baroque buildings that lined these roads. As the morning progressed, other tourist began pouring in too – mostly European, but also some American and Middle Eastern. From what I could see, hair in shocking pink, orange or red seems to be very much in vogue among European girls!

St. Stephens ViennaI emerged into Stephansplatz where the majestic St. Stephen’s Cathedral rose into the sky. This is probably Vienna’s most recognizable landmark and among the chief Gothic buildings in Europe. Horse-drawn carriages and costumed ticket-sellers gave this place an old-world charm. The cathedral looks black and charred; it has indeed been in perpetual re-construction as it survived invasions and fire through the years.

St Stephens ViennaI continued walking and found myself in front of the Hofburg Imperial Palace. This massive palace complex was the chief residence of the royal family for many years until the monarchy ended with World War I. Incidentally, after the union of Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938, Hitler addressed a large gathering from a balcony of this Palace. He knew this city well, having spent some of his formative years here.

Imperial Palace ViennaImperial Palace ViennaImperial Palace ViennaIt was a cloudy day and there was a cold wind blowing, but the crowds were out in large numbers. A band played at the Heroes Square in the middle of the Palace grounds and the atmosphere was festive. Cafes lined the streets. I had already heard about Vienna’s evolved coffee culture, and was particularly delighted to note they love their sweets too. A variety of cakes, pastries and ice-creams were on display – and they tasted as good as they looked! Vienna is not a good place for those watching their calories. :)

Imperial Palace in ViennaImperial Palace in ViennaIt was very evident that Vienna is the Mecca of western classical music. Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Brahms: they hailed from Austria and composed their music in this city. Even Beethoven, wanting to study with Mozart, moved to Vienna and lived there until his death. There are numerous monuments and operas that bring to life their genius once again.

Baroque costumes in ViennaStreet Performer in ViennaBy now I was tired; this had been a rather long walk. On my way back to the hotel, I ran into a person who wanted directions. He claimed to be a Slovak. Even before I could reply, another guy comes up claiming to be a cop and asks for identification. The Slovak showed him an ID and walked away. I didn’t have my passport with me, and so he wanted to check out my credit cards. When he asked me for the PIN, I began to suspect there was something wrong. Thankfully, when I refused to part with the PIN, he quickly walked away!

Viennese Veal GoulashViennese Apple StrudelFor dinner, I ordered a traditional Viennese Veal Goulash with small buttered dumplings and green salad on the side. I also tried the famous Wiener Apple Strudel served with a dollop of whipped cream and a scoop of ice-cream. Absolutely delicious stuff!


Monday, August 18, 2008

Chicken 65 and Afgani Delights

I was in Bangalore for an industry conclave in the midst of the greenest stretch in the garden city. There was a nip in the air when I reached the Grand Ashok late in the evening. The drive from the airport took exactly 50 mintues, which wasn't bad at all. On an impulse, I decided to take a auto to Brigade Road. I was trying to see if I could locate a restaurant I used to enjoy a long, long time ago. I was delighted when I finally found it!

RR's Andhra Restaurant BangaloreRR's is a restaurant that serves Andhra cuisine on banana leaves - not very upscale, always crowded - exactly the way I remembered it down to the dog-eared menu (that appears to have lasted a generation). The mutton biryani didn't taste as good as I remembered, but then I am spoilt now. The Chicken 65 was pretty awesome as was the Andra thali. I think I had smoke coming out of my ears by the time I was done with all those dishes that were liberally sprinkled with the most fiery green and red chillies. It was fun to be in this place after all these years!

RR's RestaurantThese short business trips have become so frequent, I now begin packing only in the hour before the car comes to pick me. Which is probably why I forgot to take my camera this time; the pictures here are from the camera on my Blackberry Curve.

On the second day, a friend took me out to Samarkand, a restaurant that specializes in Frontier food. The restaurant was crowded even on a Monday evening. The interiors seemed right out of Afghanistan - flaming torches, brass and copper utensils and waiters in Pathan dresses. Very impressive and authentic, until the time the waiter yelled to another one -- in Kannada!

Samarkand BangaloreSamarkand BangaloreSamarkand BangaloreThe Gilawati Kababs were very, very good. The Tandoori Chaamp, marinated ribs of lamb, were cooked just right too. The Dum Biryani was fragrant and tasty. What made the experience a good one were the small touches, like the menu printed to look like an old newspaper, the drinks menu printed on the side of a bottle, etc.

Samarkand BangaloreSamarkand BangaloreSamarkand BangaloreIf you are in Bangalore and craving for kababs and biryani, I will definitely recommend this place. BTW, North Indians will love the excellent meetha paan for a perfect Nawabi end to a hearty meal. Samarkand is located in Gem Plaza on Infantry Road. Ph: 41113364

The conclave turned out useful and well-attended. The Grand Ashok has a great location, but otherwise the hotel doesn't have much to write about. This being Bangalore, idlis almost entirely monopolized my breakfast - no one in Pune can make them the way they do in Bangalore.

The Independence Day long weekend was a welcome break from all this travel. It felt good spending three days with the family, watching Phelps make history, and playing Zelda on the Wii with my daughter.

I am off to Vienna during the coming weekend. This will be my first time in the land of the wiener schnitzel and apple strudel. Stay tuned!


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Alexander's Steak House

Alexander's CupertinoOne of my foodie colleagues keeps talking about his favorite steakhouse: Alexander's in Cupertino. On his last birthday, his kids treated him to a special $500 steak here. I wonder what that tasted like... When I realized this steak-house is only a couple of miles from my hotel, I decided to stroll down and give it a try. I wasn't disappointed - not in the least!

The weather was great, the brisk walk did me some good, and Alexander's turned out to be a pretty classy steak-house. You enter through a glass-fronted dry-ageing room with a display case of high-quality steaks from ranches in the United States and Japan. Flyers are available for the newcomer to brush up on the basics of putting a good steak onto your plate.

The Walk to Alexander'sThe interiors are quite traditional, with leather, dark wood and dim lighting. Seating is distributed over more than one area. The waitstaff were formal and efficient. As I ordered my drink and perused the menu, I noticed they have some pretty interesting starters, sides and seafood too - a recent trend in the USA to attract more women into these male-dominated restaurants.

Salad in Alexander'sI started with a Baby Lettuce Salad with red raddish, ten kasu and yuzu vinaigrette. One of the owners of this restaurants is Japanese, so you can see some Asian touches here in the starters and sides. I am not a salad-lover, but this one I did enjoy.

The T-Bone in Alexander'sFor my entree, I ordered the 24 oz. dry-aged T-Bone, medium-rare like always. The steak came covered with three different kinds of peppers and looked really huge on the plate, but I am proud to say I finished it with nary a break! The side of baked potato with crispy bacon and cream was uitably huge too. Actually, that was probably the largest potato I have seen in my life - or so it seemed! :)

Pudding at Alexander'sOrange Souffle at Alexander'sI wasn't planning for a dessert, but the waiter tempted me with their 'special' orange souffle which is apparently made fresh for every customer. And you should have seen it! The souffle rose way above the cup in which it was served. The waiter then made a hole on the top to let out the hot steam and poured a chocolate sauce into it. The souffle was light as froth and pretty interesting on the palate I must say. And while I was waiting for the souffle, they even surprised me with a chocolate pudding!

Alexander's CupertinoIf you are in Silicon Valley and love your meat, give Alexander's a try. Especially so if you want to sample Kobe beef. I particularly enjoyed the refreshing walk to dinner and back - something one rarely does in the USA.

More Red Meat for you in these (past) posts:


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Roti Telur & Baby Back Ribs

Banana Leaf MilpitasI could probably have come up with a better title for this post, but it is 2 AM as I type this in the the lounge at Singapore Airport and my creative juices have run dry. Silicon Valley can be quite a foodie's delight with it's wide variety of eat-outs that include food from every corner of the world. On one day, a friend took me to Banana Leaf in Milpitas which specializes in Malaysian food. On another day I decided to try barbecued Ribs at Armadillo Willy's right next to my hotel in Cupertino.

I had arrived to a packed week, full of meetings. However, I was in better shape this time wrt jet-lag; I had arrived late Saturday and the extra day, before the week began, helped. Monday morning was dull and rainy, but as the day progressed, it got brighter and warmer. In fact, throughout the rest of the week it remained pleasant; it didn't get chilly even in the evenings.

Roti Telur at Banana LeafMalaysian restaurants are a rarity in the USA. However, I have often seen Malaysian food in Singapore restaurants (such as Straits). Singapore food, like it's people, is a mishmash of Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and Western. Banana Leaf was pretty crowded when we arrived. Since they do not accept reservations for parties smaller than five, we had to wait for 15 mintues to get a table. The restaurant has seating areas outdoors, indoors, and in the bar. The eating area is built around the bar and a large open kitchen; tables are close to one another and the noise level can be quite high.

From what I could see, Malaysian food is influenced by elements of Indian and Thai cuisine. Many dishes use tamarind, lemon-grass and/or mango.

Gado Gado at Banana LeafWe bagan with Gado-Gado and Roti Telur. The Gado-Gado includes fried prawn cake, crispy tofu and thinly cut vegetables drizzled with lime juice and a spicy peanut sauce. The widely different taste from the ingredients, the cold and the hot mixed together, made for a very interesting starter.

The Roti Telur is a multi-layered bread, like a stuffed Indian Paratha, in this case stuffed with egg. However, the Roti comes with a dipping sauce which tasted really good - sort of like the egg curries of North India.

Sake MohitoSoon after, our entrees appeared too. Please note that here everything appears on the table in quick succession. They usually don't wait for you to finish the previous course. The Sake Mojito we had ordered instead of wine was very interesting too: a mojito made with Gekkaikan sake instead or white rum.

The Malay sizzling chicken was cooked in a black pepper sauce with mild Anaheim chillies, red bell peppers and sweet onions. I found this dish nice and spicy, and similar to Thai fare.

Malay Sizzling Chicken and Banana Leaf RiceThe Banana Leaf rice is a special Malay coconut rice and is served with Rendang chicken, boiled egg, sambal anchovies, onion, cucumber and peanuts all on a banana leaf. This seems to be one of the 'must have' dishes to try. Certainly looks good and tastes delicious too!

By now we were so full, I had to pass the desserts. A rarity!

I hadn't seen a BBQ chain before I came across Armadillo Willy's in Cupertino. I decided to pop into this place for lunch and try some baby back ribs, which can get a little messy! The hot sauce was spicy and pretty good; the ribs were ok. This place is configured like a fast-food restaurant where you first order, pay and wait for them to buzz you when your food is ready.

I need to find a more upscale BBQ place. Hmm, wonder if that is an oxymoron, like an upscale dhaba (in India)! Actually, I guess I am looking for a better BBQ place that not part of a chain. Well, well...whatdoyaknow? A quick Google search just now did yield some results: here's a Forbes list of high-end BBQ restaurants in the USA (full article here). Unfortunately, none in California, which I visit most often! I have to try to visit New Orleans some day.