Le Salzgries: French Cuisine Courante
Le Salzgries on Marc-Aurel-Straße is a small piece of Southern France that found its way to Vienna with the help of Denis König
To utter the words "French cuisine" in the Austrian capital is risky. You may even go so far as to say that an authentic French restaurant is to Vienna what an Austrian Würstlstand is to Singapore: a rare commodity of unlikely provenance.
For one thing, the Viennese are blindly fond of their native cooking habits, inherited hundreds of years ago from their adored rulers who managed vast territories and thereby spawned a justifiable amount of pride. On the other hand, the Empire’s comprised regional influences from Bavaria, Pannonia, Venice and the Balkans have since found their way into the Austrian consciousness and have given birth to an easily recognizable culinary style. Here, it’s all about robust, consistent meals of meats, soups and casseroles are far more pragmatic than they are aesthetic.
Where does this, then, leave the fine art of French cuisine? For the French, nothing is simple. These are the people who use four whole letters "eaux" to express the single sound "o" and are notorious for a certain queen who once suggested her starving people ate brioche in the absence of bread, are perhaps too high-profile for the robustness of Austrian culinary traditions. Although said queen was actually Austrian, so maybe she just took the pomp and circumstance with her and lost it with her head!
Even so, the existence of this collision in concept and custom has not deterred France from extending its influence all the way to the City on the Danube, and the restaurant industry has played right along.
Le Salzgries on Marc-Aurel-Straße is one of the finest examples.
Located just a few steps away from Schwedenplatz, among a the city’s local hot-spots, this replica of a French Brasserie is as genuine as they come. As one of the few places of its kind in town, you would think that getting a table here is a challenge. However, between urban socialites and the occasional American tourist crowds, the restaurant is usually not too crowded. Which was why I was able to waltz right in on a Saturday night, with no reservation, and take my place at a table of my choice.
This might have something to do with the fact that the prices range from a solid "I earn enough to be able to spoil my beloved wife every now and then" to "Daddy’s trust fund will cover it," none of which specifically apply to me. But being intransigent as I am, I did not allow such a trivial detail to get in the way of experiencing the closest taste of France I would get in months. This would be my evening of what I would soon come to call French cuisine courante.
But first things first. As any other respectable eating saloon for cosmopolitans, Le Salzgries comes with a story: the transformation of the former Café Salzgries, a Viennese favorite venue of journalists, artists and freaks of profound engagement into the sophisticated Paris-inspired lieu it is today. Hence the name, which is as far a cry from la patrie as it can possibly be and could even pass for an effort towards a merger between cultures. All that remains from the original setting are the curved wooden chairs and the light fixtures, with everything else, including and especially the kitchen, completely renovated.
The idea belongs to Denis König, a Nice-based professional engineer of half-Austrian descent, who, having made the drastic decision to embrace his passion for cooking, followed his dream from Southern France to the other side of the Alps and started a business. In 2005, he thought it would be appropriate to bring the sea further into the continent, and finally gave the francophone community here the original "Bistro" it was striving for. Loyalists of le Midi would finally have a home, away from home.
The interior of the place manifestly builds on this prerogative. It’s like wining and dining in the privacy of your own living room – with the exception that there are probably fewer bottles of wine at your house and no one waiting on your every whim even before you knew you had it.
"Would you fancy a glass of our light white wine," the smiling waiter asked.
"Why, yes," I smiled back, "I was going to say just that."
The charm of the décor lies not in its pretentiousness, but rather in the ease with which you slide right into it, unaware that there is still a world out there that isn’t bewildered by half-open bottles of champagne lying around the room.
"I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight," whispered a voice from somewhere behind me – or was my mind playing a little trick?
The purist Provencal ambience – with mirrors placed along the walls above the wainscoting to brighten and broaden the space and spot-like luminosity to sharpen it – frees you from the usual reserve that comes with overpaying for a meal. Light-brown panels flow into the high white ceiling above, behind a circle of black-and-white photographs as a transition to the top.
As loud voices and vulgar laughter filled the room, the atmosphere became increasingly degage, releasing everyone from any constraints they might have, up to a point where they could easily let their guard down and debate Carla Bruni’s latest album. Coziness seemed to be the order of the day, as unclothed tables shone their natural wooden darkness and a picturesque line of carded boards with "Today’s specials" decorated the walls. From "Original Bouillabaisse with Sauce Rouille" (€32) to grey prawns (50 grams for €7), the tablets were a basic outline for the culinary treat we were in for.
Wholesomely cooked food calls for an unhasty temper, and in this case, for a meticulous chef. But of course, as all ingredients still bear the aromas of having been freshly cut, patience is a worthwhile asset. As we wait for our small servings of the baby scallops (Jakobsmuscheln) à la provençale sautéed with leaf salad (€14) and the Green and White Asparagus with sauce Mousseline, garlic and Bayonne smoked ham (€14.5), both recommended by our French-speaking waiter, we’re surprised by a hardly generous, yet nonetheless savory tuna paste entrée, compliments of the house.
The main courses co not keep us waiting long, and we begin sampling our choices, hesitantly. With a stingingly subtle flavor of herbs and pepper, basil, or perhaps something entirely different, the taste of the salad takes hold of my mouth and has an almost paralyzing effect on all my senses.
This is a meal I don’t know whether to look at, smell, or taste. The sauce of the asparagus is mellow, elaborate, and I wish I could eat even more slowly, but I’m sure that’s not possible. I close my eyes and, with a bit of imagination, I find myself within the reach of the breaking waves of the Cote d’Azur. This is refined food at its best.
With such small portions, one can at least take time and enjoy each bite with relish. After all, quality, not quantity, is the motto that guides connoisseurs around the world. But the journey that came with these dishes soon ended, like a concert of ample magnitude, courante, in walking time. The deserts that follow – a lemon sorbet with vodka and the traditional crème brûlée, are inartificial and elementary, yet somewhat disappointing after the intricate affair with our mains. Surely, this is a place for more extensive savors, not sweets.
As we ask for the bill, I have trouble regaining the sense of reality. In the end, this tiny piece of France did cost a small fortune. Not pompous, but ambitious is what I immediately think.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely, taken that you’re not too hungry and you’re ready to regale yourself with another, rarer kind of joy – a joie de vivre, that is a true French specialty.
1., Marc-Aurel-Straße 6
01 533 40 30