Dining at Urania
A Peerless Setting, Style Perched Out Over the Donau Canal
Elegance is part setting, part style, and part grace of manner and on a good night, the Urania Café Bar and Restaurant in Vienna’s First District has all three.
It certainly has the setting, perched out over the Danube Canal at one of its loveliest points, where the second Vienna Channel (Wien Fluss) branches off toward the Stadtpark. A 2003 contemporary extension of the handsome 1910 Urania Observatory, the Café Bar also has the style, filling a sort of winter garden in glass, wood and marble along the north side, spilling onto a sleek terrace that reaches like the prow of a ship out over the water.
And as to grace of manner, well, let’s just say, the intentions are good. But we’ll come to that later.
On this occasion, three of us arrived at 18:30 on a June evening, for dinner before a film in the theater downstairs, and were happy to find a good table on the terrace. While the weather had been unpredictable, it was still mild enough to sit outside, and it is hard to match the beauty of the flowing water sliding along past the city below or the red-orange sun setting over the Kahlenberg. We ordered a Venetian Prosecco, a Cantina Bartolomeo da Breganza, a light, refreshing summer alternative (€4.40); and a fine local Sauvignon Blanc 2007, (€3.90 for 1/8 liter) from Weingut Triebaumer in Rust on the Neusiedlersee in Burgenland, just south of Vienna, whose crisp polish set the evening off to an effortless start.
After perusing the menu, we ordered a large plate of anti pasti to share (€13.90) – which took several tries for the waiter to understand – followed by rucola salad entrees for my companions, with grilled tuna (€9.90) for one and Garnelen, or giant shrimp (€10.70), for the other. I ordered the Tafelspitz (€16.90), an Austrian classic of boiled beef that I never tire of and that is certainly the test of any restaurant where it is served. All requests straight forward and straight off the menu, although for some reason a puzzling challenge to the waiter. However, good humor prevailed on all sides and no harm done.
Moments later, a server arrived with a complementary starter included in the €2.20 cover, a delicate little cup of strawberry puree nicely sharpened with what seemed to be garlic and Tabasco, topped with a dollop of savory cream.
At the front of everyone’s mind these days is the European Soccer Championship that has taken Vienna over for the month of June. Signs are everywhere, from the masquerade of painted faces in the U-Bahn to the pairs of proud little national flags flapping from car door holders. But cars were more of a problem for many, as the Ringstrasse was closed off from the Parliament to the University to create a Fan Mile set up with mega screen TVs and refreshment stands; and while designed for a crowd of XX,000, people were turned away on several evenings when the police decided it was already packed enough.
"Hard to escape," laughed my friend "B", as a shout surged up from a crowd of fans at Hermann’s Strandbar below us on the promontory at the turn of the canal. The Swiss, co-hosts with Austria of this year’s EM, had taken the place over for the duration of the tournament to accommodate the hundreds who had made the trek from parts West. Red shirts covered the beach behind a huge projection screen and shouts blended in with the muffled sounds of a DJ’s play list – all of which might easily have disturbed the scene. But muted by breeze and distance, they folded in easily, instead lending a pleasing energy to the urban sense.
Anyway, we were just in the mood.
"People will cheer for anything!" concluded my other friend "S", an avid fan. The night X days earlier when Austria tied Poland 1:1 in a surprise upset, the city had been euphoric. "You’d think they’d walked away with the cup itself!"
The antipasti teller turned out to be a fine array of truffle salami, finely-sliced smoked ham, roasted grains, olives, giant capers and sun dried tomatoes, accompanied by a generous basket of very fresh baguette slices, both plain and sesame. And what was in the starter, we asked the waiter? A strawberry soup flavored with chilli and (yes) garlic, and with basil adding the tangy sweetness to the cream, he told us, looking surprised at the question. "But the server should have told you." An awkward moment.
As we nibbled, conversation turned to a recent art exhibit that two of us had attended, an installation of photographs recording an odd historical incident of tattoo in an mental institution. Was this art? Or was it social history? How do you tell the difference, and does it matter?
"It can’t simply be a question of who’s financing it," I teased, provoking a lively defense of conceptual art that carried us through the appetizer.
As the dishes were cleared away we moved inside, and with glasses refilled, our entrees arrived. Indeed, they were wonderful to behold: The two salads, in with their craggy leaves of forest green rucola sprinkled with roasted gold pine nuts, bedded with sun/dried tomatoes in a lustrous blood red, a mound of dark olives, setting off the roasted cubes of tuna on one, grilled giant shrimp on the other – I had a brief moment of diner’s remorse, wishing I had ordered one of those. Perhaps this too was art?
But then my Tafelspitz arrived, a steaming pot of the tender prime cut of beef stewed in a vegetable broth of leeks, onions, carrots and celery, and a main plate of a crisped mound of Kartoffelrösti (an upscale version of home fries) and the requisite sauces of horseradish in apple puree and a cream sauce with chives – altogether a feast for the eyes, and as I was soon to discover, the palate. The meat was perfectly tender and flavored to perfection.
In fine dining, presentation counts for a lot, but not everything, and reports on the salads were not as happy: The rucola, tasty in itself, was apparently over dressed, bordering on soggy, and the grilled tuna nearly raw in the middle ("After all, this isn’t supposed to be sushi!" my friend "S" commented.) The Garnelen shrimp were more successful. But all agreed that the pile of bland, run-of-the-mill pitted olives were out of place among much subtler tastes.
Still, overall, the magic of the setting won the day, and as twilight settled over the Danube Canal and the skyline of the Second District, we felt ourselves well treated and content, and even the bill – at about €35 a head without coffee or desert stiffer than we expect in Vienna – could not tarnish the glow of very pleasurable dining experience. We paid up and headed downstairs to the cinema for the 20:30 showing of Dialogue avec mon jardinier (Conversations With My Gardner), a gentle French film on rural life and the meaning of art, where we were delighted to find Daniel Auteuil and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, with eloquence and humility, picking up right where we had left off.