Big Apple Beisl

At the intersection of West 11th street and Leopoldsgasse

When a New Yorker starts to feel nostalgic for home, a Viennese host can start scratching her head for just the right place for dinner…

Ah! The Old Jewish Quarter in the 2nd District! Now called the Karmeliterviertel, this lively neighbourhood is home in about equal portion to Austrians and émigrés – Jews, Turks, Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, you name it – as well as the usual reprobates (artists, writers, musicians) that splash around in the urban stew pot. Altogether a promising option: just the right cultural mix and madness New Yorkers go for.

The contemorary ceiling at Skopik & Lohn | Photo: L. Zitko

That was my theory, anyway. And as luck would have it, we’ve discovered just the right place – a pleasing re-launch called Skopik & Lohn at Leopoldsgasse 17. Formerly a popular neighbourhood Beisl called Platzwirt, new owner Horst Scheuer has given the place a new name and a lively facelift since taking it over in 2006.

Having returned to Vienna after spending a number of years in New York, he wanted to bring the cosmopolitan flare of the Big Apple back with him – the energy of traditions, cultures, and imagination rubbing up against each other.  The result was Skopik & Lohn, where you can find the Leopoldstadt and Lower Manhattan happily cozying up at the bar.

We – that is “Dorothy Parker,” a writer from New York, and my paradoxical Viennese self – were politely ushered to our table and immediately attended to by (surprise!) an ex- New Yorker with Austrian roots, with whom we fell into a comfortable chat about the (anti-) immigration policies of George W. Bush, whom he “affectionately” called “Georgie boy.”  In the background, “Frankie Boy,” Sinatra’s inimitable timbre lulled us into our evening of culinary pleasures. And we started to look around.

Horst Scheuer has given the interior a good brush and its dark wood-panelled façade a fresh complexion of coffee-beige. Raised in a family of Austrian restaurateurs – his parents used to run a Gasthaus in the country – he had always wanted to run a city restaurant; if possible in New York. Failing that, the spirit of New York in Vienna.

With Skopik & Lohn, Scheuer has combined the traditional and the new. While the bent-wood chairs and benches at the scattered tables are some ninety years old – antique, more or less – the white painted ceiling is distinctly modern: a tangled, edgy pattern of black circles and ribbons by Austrian painter Otto Zitko, whom Scheuer himself spotted in a gallery in New York.

“Wild and disquieting,” whispered the literary expert en face, with her head slightly tilted and the menu in her hands. One might also say refreshing and lively… This is, of course, a matter of taste. To me, it gave a modern twist to a traditional space, although I wondered if daylight would teach me a different lesson.

But this is a restaurant of the evening, and the broad-stroke, quirky gestures over-head seem to fit perfectly with the controversial harmony of the whole – also mirrored in the extravagant merging of unusual and familiar savours found on the menu. We decided to go for Viennese Paprika-chicken – originally Hungarian, in fact – wonderfully united with “Topfenspätzle” (gnocchi-shaped curd cheese pasta) with chives sauce and Martini-Gansl – Martinum goose, traditionally enjoyed with red cabbage at this time of the year.
It was hard to pass up other exquisite invitations de gout, though, like the American-inspired soup of sweet potatoes spiced with caraway seeds or the French-rooted delicatessen “goose-liver in celery-toninambur (a vegetable of the potato family) crème seasoned with marjoram,” but also classics like the famous Italian “Burrata,” enriched in taste by a peperonata (a delicious paprika-pepperoni mix) crowned with basilico-cress and  pistachio; all in all, the menu offered a well-balanced portfolio of gourmet pleasures.

Bliss was ours as the dishes arrived artfully arranged on white plates, perfectly setting off my Paprika-chicken. “Dotty” found the goose a little dry, but geese are difficult to keep juicy, the little dears, and well, perhaps the chef had been away just a little too long…
Speaking of juice, the wine list brought us the agony of choice, which I was most welcome to leave entirely to my fellow gustateuse. Among the various vineyard offerings were Sauvignon Blanc Hintermayer 2006, Riesling Smaragd Hirtzberger 2006, or Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Loibenberg Knoll 2007- the latter two coming from the deservedly famous wine region of Wachau in lower Austria; among the reds, the generous list ranged from Pinot Noir Reserve Schloss Hardegg to Blaufränkisch Reserve Krutzler.

“Dotty’s” pick of the evening, the Chardonney Langereserve Fritz 2006 – served in a carafe nestled in a sleek, double oval-shaped ice bucket –  let us float on a fruity cloud of enhanced gustatory sensation. With the wine slowly throwing its arm around my tired shoulders, I felt the knots dissolve and I slipped into a relaxed mode, soaking in the cosy atmosphere – the animated chatter, the glimmer of burning candles in their crinkly-white paper bag covers on elegantly draped white linen.

“See those fellows?” I whispered, indicating two floppy haired, whiskered men sitting just across through the glass partition. Very Bohemian. “I think they’re artists.” Within seconds, the fearless Miss “P” jumped to her feet and, in moments, was cheerfully conversing with the said gentlemen as if they were old friends.  As it turned out, I was not so far off – one was a textile designer – “very creative” he had assured her, beaming with pleasure – and the other a construction engineer.  We laughed.

At the bar, over coffee, we made another acquaintance, a wild-styled lady in her fifties in a black and white Dalmatian fur dress (“selected to match the ceiling,” she teased) setting off her stylish silver coif, enjoying a cigarette between courses. A striking resemblance to Cruella deVille… It turned out that she was a doctor of internal medicine having dinner with friends – an aging artist with an equally exotic hairstyle, his wife, and the widow of a friend.

All in all, this Bohemian tapestry was a weave of ordinary couples, families, a couple of English-speaking business types in their thirties having a cosy after-office chat, and the usual acoustic mix of European Goulash – Polish, Hungarian, the melody of Italian, some French two tables away; taken as whole, they were scenes you might easily have seen and heard in New York or even the Boulevard St. Germain.

And, in fact, our evening was rounded off with a French firework of luscious chocolat soufflé followed by red berry sorbet and a croquant Kaiserschmarren de luxe with honey ice-cream and sour cherries, a sublime example of l’art de cuisine.

This was Skopik & Lohn – a trans-Atlantic discovery somewhere near the intersection of Leopoldsgasse and West 11th street. Here, a charismatic ex-New Yorker of Viennese descent serves up his twin cultures, with a nod to his in-laws from Tuscany and Provence, and we’re delighted to be a part of the feast.

Skopik & Lohn
2., Leopoldsgasse 17
(01) 219 89 77
Open Daily: 18:00 – 1:00
www.skopikundlohn.at

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