Vienna for vegetarians: The Austrian capital is embracing plant-centric cuisine, one mushroom schnitzel at a time

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Once famed for their schnitzels and sausages, Viennese chefs are embracing vegan and vegetarian cuisine, with harvests coming straight from the city farms.

Karl Wrenkh, chef and co-owner of Wrenkh, Vienna’s veg-centric restaurant, takes a freshly baked celery root out of the oven and slices the round, pale blob into small chunks. A few drops of olive oil and a drizzle of fermented lemon followed by a pinch of salt, and his signature salad is ready. While I nibble at the crunchy, juicy morsels, Wrenkh whips out my main course—the oyster mushroom schnitzel. “Try our vegetarian version of this traditional dish,” he says. “I think you’ll like it.” I’m loving his celery salad, but I’m less sure about his remake of the iconic Austrian meal. Is it possible to outclass the classic?

Wiener Küche, or Viennese cuisine—the only cookery in the world named after a city—is famous for its meat-based specialties. The schnitzel—a slice of meat pounded to the utmost thinness and fried in golden batter to a perfect crisp—is one. Würstels, the sausages sold at würstelstands, little kiosks nestling at squares and street corners, are another. Tafelspitz, boiled beef soup simmered for hours to make the meat melt in your mouth, was a favorite of emperor Franz Joseph, dating back to the 1800s. It’s no wonder that the world tends to think of Viennese menus as meat-heavy. But that’s not quite the case anymore. 

Some root vegetables like radishes sprout just fine in the chilly early spring. Right now, it’s mid-spring, so some radishes have been harvested and leafy greens are young and succulent—I spot a familiar elegant oval one I’ve eaten at Tian. “Yes, winter purslane is a great winter vegetable because it’s fairly cold tolerant,” Palme tells me. “And yes, we supply it to Tian.” 

Just like Wrenkh explained, I began to see my plate’s dietary hierarchy differently. The meat doesn’t have to take center stage at least not always. I can swap it for colorful beets and tomatoes or a heap of juicy greens and dried berries. Sometimes, I ditch it entirely, replacing it with beans and nuts. I still haven’t found winter purslane in my New York City groceries, but I’e started cooking more with other hardy greens, kale included. I’m yet to try my luck forging my own oyster mushroom schnitzel, but one day I will.

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