Sometimes A Schnitzel Is More Than Just A Schnitzel: Essen Restaurant And The Schnitzilla Challenge


There are many people who say there’s a time and place for fried food. And there’s the rest of us who exclaim “anytime and anyplace!”. For those in the latter category, a trip to Essen, a restaurant specialising in northern European cuisine, is a must. It’s located on Broadway close to Sydney’s CBD.

My love of this kind of food started in the early 1970s with regular visits to Una’s in Kings Cross. Una’s has always been dependable; great breakfasts and especially great schnitzels including the jaeger schnitzel (with mushroom sauce). When original owner Maggie sold out (and later opened a namesake operation just across from the El Alamein Fountain), the new owners branched out with a couple of satellite Una’s. One was on Broadway, sandwiched between the University of Sydney and UTS. That was seven years ago; a couple of years later, the partnership that took over Una’s split and this branch became Essen.

It’s been as dependable as the original Una’s; great jaeger schnitzel (in a choice of pork, veal or chicken) and superb slow-roasted pork knuckle with bread dumpling and sauerkraut. Essen is also notable for its excellent beers and ciders including a malty dark Dreher Bak beer from Budapest (a brewery better known for its export Pilsner Urquell). Essen on Broadway is especially good for those of us for whom Kings Cross has lost its charm.

The Contenders Await The Challenge

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Essen’s schnitzels are comparable to my all-time favourite, the legendary Figlmüller in Vienna, Austria. It’s here that the humble wiener schnitzel has been elevated to an art form. Figlmüller opened on Wollzeile, a short walk from St Stephen’s Cathedral, in 1905. I’d often reflect on the famous (and infamous) personalities who may have found their fried version of heaven within these walls – Freud (who undoubtedly would have suggested that a schnitzel is sometimes just a schnitzel); an unsuccessful painter of watercolours who just missed out on being named Schicklgruber; and Orson Welles, legendary lover of food in prodigious amounts who filmed The Third Man in the streets nearby

Figlmüller’s claim to eternal fame lies in a single piece of pork tenderloin, pounded into wafer-thin submission, crumbed and fried. At around 30cm in diameter, it smothers the plate on which it is served. It was always the first place I’d eat whenever I arrived in Vienna and the memories stay with me today.

When it comes to food, as with so many things, I claim observance to Dirty Harry’s creed that “a man’s just gotta know his limitations” and so it was at a recent media launch for Essen’s Schnitzilla challenge. I was on hand to watch a bunch of overly-ambitious journalists and media types attempt something no-one else had been able to achieve – defeating a man-made mountain of schnitzel.

Disbelief Sets In

The Schnitzilla is Essen’s newest menu item. Inspired by the Man v. Food television program, it encompasses a 3.5kg platter of chicken schnitzel, side dishes such as roesti and cabbage salad, and jaeger sauce. The idea is that if the dish is consumed within 45 minutes, the diner gets a limited-edition “I Got Schnit-Faced At Essen” T-shirt (presumably Size XXXL).

In the first month of the Schnitzilla, 70 diners tried but none reached the goal; the best performance was leaving 1.2kg. They get to take the leftovers home, where they will undoubtedly be recreating their challenge for the next few days.

There were more than enough contenders at the media launch. They took their places, their optimism as bright and eager as little bunny rabbits. But the Schnitzilla was the headlights on the highway. All were flattened by the juggernaut of fried meat. The best performing diner left 1.39kg.

Craig Donarski At Battle Stations

Human nature is such that we always believe we can conquer the impossible, tackling Everest or visiting Ikea on weekends being the most notable examples. So the Schnitzilla will continue to seduce thrill-seekers but it appears unlikely any will ever succeed.

On the other hand, the Schnitzilla –  at $49 – can be seen as outstanding value. It roughly equates to about four or five servings so do your best but don’t overdo it; the leftovers will feed a large family or 27 Russian supermodels.

Essen

133-135 Broadway

Ultimo, NSW, Australia

Tel: 612 9211 3805

The Schnitzel Will Always Win

Words and photos © David Latta

Adventures In Bread Pudding: An Easter-Themed Hot Cross Bun Bread Pudding


If you have a sweet tooth, like I do, Easter is heaven. While Christmas is traditionally savoury, with its emphasis on a wide variety of roast animals, Easter is all about chocolate and hot cross buns (spiritual considerations aside, of course).

Well known in Australia and the United Kingdom, hot cross buns might not be as traditional a fare in the United States so I’ll fall back on Wikipedia and describe them as sweet buns spiced with cinnamon and containing raisins, currants or mixed fruit. I have them toasted with marmalade jam which only points out just how recklessly I red-line my sweet zone. The traditional buns have been supplemented in recent years by such variations as chocolate chip, white chocolate and cranberry and even non-fruit (presumably washed down with a weak decaf non-dairy lattè with Equal).

This Easter, I was a little more careful than usual (maintaining my 20 kilogram weight loss from last year) but couldn’t entirely neglect my chocolate and hot cross bun habit. But once the Easter festival drags on and you’ve served them fresh, toasted, over easy, on horseback and every other which way, what else is there to do?

Try them in a bread pudding, of course. This recipe uses the traditional New Orleans-style Bread Pudding found in the Silver Palate Cookbook (Doubleday, 1981). The original recipe calls for one loaf of stale French bread or baguette but works equally well with ordinary stale sliced white bread or even brioche. Just about any bread or bakery item is fair game although maybe Cinnabon is going a bit far. There’s also a whisky sauce that comes with the original recipe but it’s your call as to whether it would be too much with the compounded richness of the hot cross buns. I say – you’ve gone this far, why not!

Oh, and before I forget, like all desserts, a scoop or two of ice cream is the perfect accompaniment.

Ingredients:

8 Hot Cross Buns

3 ½ cups milk

160 grams butter, softened

7 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 cup icing sugar

4 tablespoons whiskey

For the PUDDING, in a large mixing bowl, tear buns into small pieces. Pour milk over and let stand for one hour.

Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Grease a baking dish (ceramic or Pyrex is fine – dimensions of about 30cm x 18cm x 7cm).

In another bowl, beat 6 eggs, sugar and vanilla extract. Stir this into bread mixture.

Pour into baking dish, place on the middle rack of the oven and bake until browned and set. It should take about 70 minutes. It’s better if it’s moist in the middle. Cool to room temperature.

For the WHISKEY SAUCE, blend the softened butter with the icing sugar in the top of a double boiler over simmering water until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot. Remove from heat. Beat remaining egg well and whisk it into sugar mixture. Remove pan from base and continue beating until sauce has cooled to room temperature. Add whisky to taste.

To serve, preheat griller. Cut pudding into squares and transfer to a heatproof serving dish. Spoon whiskey sauce over the pudding and place under the griller until bubbling.

Words and photo © David Latta

You Like Me, You Really Like Me!!!!!!


Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.

As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.

My list comprises:

1/ Alice Writ Large

2/ Cliff Bott’s Blog

3/ Espacio de Manon

4/ Get Up And Go

5/ The Licentiate

6/ Aaron Leaman

7/ The Thought Experiment

8/ Classic Las Vegas

9/ Fossil Cars

10/ Dear Old Hollywood

11/ Black Dahlia Reader

12/ The Daily Mirror

13/ Old Hollywood Glamour

14/ The Oz Hitztory Blog

15/ Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog

I must also open up and list seven things readers may not know about me:

1/ I prefers cats to dogs and just about any other animals with the exception of monkeys.

2/ I wasn’t a child prodigy and I’ve been paying the price ever since.

3/ I’m a blue guy rather than a brown guy.

4/ Disco died for me sometime around 1981.

5/ Bacon is my favourite food group.

6/ If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese (Hunan preferably but Cantonese runs a close second).

7/ If it’s your shout, I’ll have a Ketel One martini, very cold, very dry, with a twist. Oh, and a bag of pork rinds, thanks.

Sorry for gushing (although with the Oscars approaching, my Sally Field moment is perhaps excusable) but thanks again to Ashley Paige and to all my readers.

Words and photos © David Latta

Nuts and Cream: Bircher Muesli and Nineteenth Century Dietary Radicalism


For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.

This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.

In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner With A Few Of His Favourite Things

With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.

Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.

John Harvey Kellogg Says Nuts To Healthy Living

Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.

And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.

So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?

DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)

250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)

125 mL apple juice

175 mL tub of yoghurt

1 tablespoon honey

½ medium apple, peeled and grated

Method

1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.

Words  © David Latta

A Sweet-Toothed Opiate: New Orleans’ White Chocolate Bread Pudding


New Orleans can be highly addictive and no more so than with its distinctive cuisine. For someone who considers that all the major food groups are best encompassed on the dessert menu, it’s as close to heaven as it’s possible to get.

Bread pudding is something I’ll always associate with New Orleans. It’s a staple on most Creole restaurant menus and variations abound. The traditional bread pudding is usually accompanied with a piquant bourbon sauce and is made from stale French bread although, in truth, any kind of bread will do, even common or garden variety sliced white. For something a little different, try croissants.

The chefs of New Orleans are nothing if not adventurous. I first visited the wonderful Palace Café on Canal Street soon after it opened in 1991. It is co-owned by Dickie Brennan, whose family lives and breathes great restaurants. He trained in the kitchen of the family’s landmark Commander’s Palace in the Garden District under Chef Paul Prudhomme; Dickie’s other great restaurants are Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse and the Bourbon House Seafood and Oyster Bar.

But whenever I’m in New Orleans, I always end up at the Palace Café, even just to pull up a stool at the bar late in the evening and pay my respects to a staggeringly luscious variation on the bread pudding – the White Chocolate Bread Pudding.

White Chocolate Bread Pudding

6 cups heavy whipping cream

2 cups milk

1 cup sugar

20 ounces (570 grams) white chocolate, broken into small pieces

4 eggs

15 egg yolks

1 (24-inch – 60cm) loaf stale French bread or fresh French bread that has been sliced and dried in a 275-degree Fahrenheit (135 degrees Celsius) oven

White Chocolate Ganache

½ cup heavy whipping cream

8 ounces (225 grams) white chocolate, broken into small pieces

Serves 12

For the PUDDING, combine the whipping cream, milk and sugar in a large heavy saucepan and mix well. Bring to a boil then remove from the heat. Add the white chocolate pieces and let stand for several minutes or until the chocolate melts; stir till smooth

Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture in a slow steady stream; scrape the saucepan with a rubber spatula to remove all the chocolate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Cut the French bread into thin slices and place in a 9 x 12-inch (23cm x 30cm) baking pan. Pour half the chocolate mixture over the bread and let stand for 5 minutes. Press the bread into the chocolate mixture with a rubber spatula or fingers to saturate well. Pour the remaining chocolate mixture over the bread and stir to mix well.

Cover the pan with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for 30 minutes longer or until golden brown. Cool to room temperature and chill, covered, in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or until set.

For the GANACHE, bring the whipping cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and add the white chocolate pieces. Let stand until the chocolate melts and stir until smooth.

Loosen the pudding from the sides of the pan with a knife and invert onto a work surface. Cut into squares, then cut the squares diagonally into triangles. Place the triangles on a baking sheet and reheat at 275 degrees Fahrenheit (135 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes or until warm.

To serve, place the pudding triangles on serving plates and top with the ganache. Garnish with dark chocolate shavings.

The Palace Café can be found at 605 Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. For reservations, phone (504) 523 1661.

Many thanks to the Palace Café for this recipe and photo.

Mojitos and Mobsters


Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until last year, when I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about the country outside its popular mythology but I knew exactly where I wanted to stay.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was popularized in the movie Godfather II as the venue for what came to be called the Havana Conference. Held in December 1946, it brought together America’s top crime bosses including “Lucky” Luciano, then in exile in Italy, and Meyer Lanksy, who was to head Cuba’s numerous casinos from the mid-1950s under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.

The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirsted for. The hotel itself opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder, Stamford White, had his own literary pedigree. His 1906 murder forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Havana was everything I was expecting and far, far more. While the people may be poor, they are overwhelmingly hospitable with a ready sense of humour. It seems as if every second Cuban is a musician; linger for more than a few minutes in a bar or café and a group will wander in unannounced and strike up a tune that would have the Buena Vista Social Club tapping their toes in appreciation.

The Nacional, however, was a mixed bag. The public areas, in dark local mahogany and imported Spanish tiles, are an intoxicating melange of Moorish and Art Deco, the design equivalent of Othello dancing a tango with Nora Charles. The guestrooms tend to the smallish and could most kindly be described as Period Shabby Chic but many have histories that almost make up for their lack of comfort.

The breakfast buffet was a constant feast of surprises. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what appeared to be a huge slab of pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and had then been boiled in one piece. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.

The staff, with the exception of the housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is dispatched with a sigh of detached reservation and a polite refusal. I was determined to get a tour of the hotel and eventually found a concierge who defrosted slightly under a relentless barrage of flattery and a folded $US20 note.

It opened up a seemingly endless exploration of the second floor, where all the celebrities of the last 80 years stayed. The so-called Mafia Room is a double suite, numbers 211-13. It doesn’t appear like a hangout for a mob of wiseguys and their henchmen, where the hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was planned or the corporatisation of the drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place where your grandparents would stay for their golden wedding anniversary.

Celebrity guests of a more benign nature included Frank Sinatra (Room 214), Nat King Cole (218), Ava Gardner (225), Fred Astaire (228) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller (232).

Errol Flynn stayed in Room 235, two doors down from mine. If our rooms were identically sized, I figured he must have been extremely dexterous to accommodate his growing reputation. Flynn was also said to have been a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway although it must be noted that, if you had a pulse and were in Cuba anytime between the 1920s and 1960s, there’s a pretty fair chance you’d end up drinking with Hemingway.

The Celebrity Hall of Fame in the Bay-View Bar shows that celebrities have been a little light on in the past decade, the best-known being Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone and The Backstreet Boys

The rear gardens amble down to a cliff-face overlooking the harbor. Pancho, the Nacional’s pet peacock, lives in a small shed in front of La Barraca, an outdoor restaurant promising Cuban cuisine. A living and breathing contradiction in terms (locals will readily admit that the best Cuban food is in Miami), I overheard a group of Australian tourists refer to it as La Berocca.

The centre of the hotel’s social scene is the colonnaded verandah just off the lobby. At any time of the day or night, hotel guests gather to consume fat cigars and over-priced, shamefully bad mojitos and watch the exuberant security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as the Cubans might say (if they spoke Spanish as badly as me), offers up buenos tiempos but it’s all a matter of interpretation.

Words and photos © David Latta

From Temple to Tiramisu


OK, so I’m old-fashioned but I’ve never been able to call it Ho Chi Minh City. It’ll always be Saigon for me. On my first visit some years back, a friend promised something special. The streets are crammed with bicycles, he told me, ridden by straight-backed young ladies wearing ao dai, coasting through the traffic so serene and beautiful.

It turned out it’d been some time since his last visit. The bicycles have long-since been replaced by motorcycles that often accommodate entire families, the ao dai swept away by knock-off Calvin Klein jeans and spangly T-shirts.

Saigon now resembles just about every other emerging Asian city; it has an in-your-face precocity and it’s far from being beautiful. The kindest thing that can be said about Saigon is it has energy and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Once visitors have had their fill of temples and Vietnam War (or the American War, as the locals call it) attractions, there are some surprises to be had. And, once the palate has red-lined on Vietnamese food, a journey back into the country’s recent past can be entirely satisfying.

The Augustin Restaurant is as close as you’ll get to a traditional Parisian bistro in this part of the world. For nearly two decades, a local chef has been serving up classic French dishes at ridiculously low prices. Located in a short laneway known as Nguyen Thiep, linking the major streets of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, it is a short walk from the flamboyant French-inspired architecture of the Saigon Opera House and such hotels as the Rex, Caravelle and Continental.

A heavenly duck confit (costing just 170,000 dong, about $AU10.00), partnered with an indulgent little Bordeaux (75,000 dong per glass), made me realize that while the Vietnamese fought long and hard to rid themselves of their French colonial oppressors, they haven’t entirely turned their backs on things Gallic.

This is even more apparent just across Nguyen Thiep. The Brodard Bakery has been operating since 1948 and offers up an outstanding pain au chocolat. Other notable treats are tiramisu and coconut ice cream.

Next door to Brodard is My Way Deco. This upmarket interior design shop spins a wickedly Art Deco influence to such items as tea caddies, humidors, jewellery boxes and photo frames. Designed by a French expat, My Way also produces an Agousti-inspired collection with imitation exotic skins such as stingray.

An aspect of negotiating Saigon that may be confronting for first-time visitors is the fearsome traffic. The walls of wheels can be unsettling, amplified a thousand-fold by the metal mosquito drone of a thousand tinny engines. There rarely seems to be a break in the traffic. To cross the street requires a steely determination and the calm of a Buddhist priest. Step from the curb and take your time. Move slowly and steadily and the traffic flows like magic around you. It’s an acquired skill but an essential one.

That way, you’ll not only be comfortable exploring the city but may also find a few local delights along the way.

Words and photos © David Latta