Jewish Soul Food
NENI im Zweiten: A family restaurant with just enough metro flair to pass for chic
Without question, the Molcho family’s newest addition to Vienna’s dining scene is a welcome one. Across the canal from Schwedenplatz, Haya Molcho and sons’ NENI im Zweiten is not just a revival of Jewish cuisine in Vienna’s Mazzes Insel, but a taste of an international concept seen in New York and London – an all day restaurant, with Sunday Brunch and cocktail events once a week. It’s modern yet invitingly warm, immediately authentic and just posh enough for business.
Across the Schwedenbrücke and in from the cold where Praterstrasse and Taborstrasse begin, the impressive high-ceilinged modernity of the new Sofitel dominates the space. Around the corner, however, past chic furniture and gift shops, a haven of calming side-walk scene brings you to the new NENI im Zweiten.
In through the murmur of conversation in the foyer-Schanigarten, the indoor area is not classically beautiful. The interior is sleek, eclectic and not too fancy. Yet the warm yellow gold of the hanging lamps and wooden benches are softened by greens and browns with shiny metal walling and grey chairs. The place-mat menus and low-key atmosphere suggest a tinge of recent trends in New York City’s Greenwich Village – a sort of industrial warmth that goes hand in hand with the concept of the cosmopolitan everybody-restaurant.
Here business people, the TV and magazine crowd from the nearby NEWS Media Tower and ATV headquarters, families, pensioners, couples, friends and fans of the Molchos can all find refuge. This was Haya and her son’s intention: A family restaurant with international guests and staff where "you’re not just a guest," Haya assured, "you’re someone that belongs."
As I paused to analyse where I was on the scale of belonging, Haya Molcho retold their own Vienna story, starting off 10 years ago with a catering company (now NENI Catering); her eldest son Nuriel had studied Business Management in London, and was now back organizing events alongside the family establishments. The second eldest, Elior, studied Events Management in Germany and Ilan? Well he studied acting in London, but is now back and has joined the restaurant team. The fourth letter in NENI is Nadiv, the youngest, who is currently studying acting in New York City.
The Israeli roots of the family combine with their international habitats to create a rounded, simple but soulful menu. Without being entirely "Jewish" cuisine, it is heavily influenced from these traditions. Beside the lighter hummus plates, glazed eggplant and avocado/chic-pea salad, the steaks, vegetable combos, duck and lamb dishes are basic and well spiced. The menu also offers typically New York style Jewish deli dishes like a Ruben sandwich of pastrami (thankfully half a New York portion!), sauerkraut, and melted cheese on pumpernickel rye with "Russian" dressing. Along with a varied wine list, NENI boasts great home made lemonade with mint.
While the Molcho family feel very connected to the Jewish and Israeli tradition and culture, NENI is about being inclusive, her sons also stress, and international, taking ideas from New York, London and Tel Aviv and bringing them to Vienna in a way all their own.
As we continue talking, I begin a crispy portion of homemade pommes frites with chutney while a waiter passes our table with Moroccan lemon chicken with couscous and a French onion soup. In addition to the international dishes the restaurant strives to attract different age groups. "We are not only here for young people," Ilan says, "we want to include older people as well, multiple generations, different cultures, different colors that’s the concept we think is most inviting." So having two generations in management works is key. "The message is ‘Come in and feel at home’, and a home is always multiple generations."
Ilan, the newest addition to the Molcho restaurateurs, recalls why he decided to join in the creation of NENI in Zweiten. "I saw my family working together and this made me happy. You can see people come into NENI and realize that it belongs to a family, because there’s a lot of passion in it." He didn’t think twice and thrives in the role of patron with his brothers and mother.
Often times, family businesses run into a generation gap that can cause conflict. Haya, however, sees the family as a democracy. "Everyone has their specialty, their strength and we respect that in each other." Their mother is very modern and a "trend-setter." The Molcho sons say, particularly when it comes to food. She is also a communicator, on a first name basis with most of the regulars and during the popular Sunday Brunches (reservations advised), the matriarch bustles about, talking to guests and advising the wait staff without ever seeming rushed.
Before I go, I must try the cheesecake, the neighbor tells me, connoisseur that I am, I didn’t expect to be satisfied. However with fruit compote atop a cylindrical cake, it was a tangy, sweet ending to a somewhat eclectic culinary experience.
With all of their projects – Tel Aviv beach, NENI on the Naschmarkt and NENI im Zweiten – the family has tried to awaken what Haya calls "magic," in Vienna. They sought to create places where guests, friends and families can feel included and at home. Although to an outsider this family’s success may seem effortless and well-supported (Tel Aviv Beach was backed by the Israeli Embassy and Mayor Häupl), getting to this point was no walk in the park.
"The Viennese mentality is quite closed minded," the siblings agree, but the hurdles were worth it and the success of NENI suggests they have their finger on the pulse of the city as Vienna becomes more and more international.
"Since the UN came to Vienna and the borders opened across Europe, Vienna has opened as well," says Haya. They think that having the courage to do something different will help promote innovation. But the "Viennese people are used to their culture," Elior warns, "and until you offer them things like the new places on the canal and concepts like NENI they won’t know: This can also be Vienna."
So for Jewish soul food in new/old Vienna, make the trek across the bridge; it may just get you hooked. As we sat over coffee, some regulars asked me not to mention the Brunch, as they like that they can still get a table – and then promptly reserved for the coming Sunday.