(February 10, 2016 / JNS) By Orit Arfa/JNS.org
Several Viennese Jews have made a lasting impact on the world. Sigmund Freud’s investigations changed the face of modern psychology. Composer Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations in atonal music changed the face of music. These days, even more Jews—in particular, Israeli Jews—are changing the face of Vienna’s culinary scene with innovations in…the art of the pita.
Freudians may find a psychoanalytic motive for the local appeal of the Israeli eateries popping up in the Austrian capital. Walk into Miznon in the First District, about 20 minutes from Freud’s former home (today the Sigmund Freud Museum), and the boisterous place seems to answer to an unconscious desire of stiff Austrians for looseness, informality, and sensuality—qualities that have been the mark of the cuisine of Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani, Miznon’s creator. Miznon is a far cry from traditional cafés serving wiener schnitzel and apple strudel on old porcelain plates by waiters in suits.
“Gidi!” and “Georg!” and “Michael!” are some of the names that fly over the counter from the friendly pita masters. No porcelain here. Food and menus are served on brown paper bags; menus on brown plastic wraps. It’s this culinary cacophony—this atonality of gourmet kebabs, steaks, and chicken stuffed in a pita—that have made the Viennese branch of the Israeli joint a darling of the Austrian media since it opened in October 2015.
“Miznon, the concept, is exactly what we need here,” said Georg Demmer, founder of CoSpace, a local co-working space and café, and a Miznon regular who first tasted its food during his travels to Tel Aviv. “Street food in general is developing very fast in Vienna, so places where you do not necessarily have to sit down but can have a fast health snack really fits this development.”
He calls Miznon’s chicken spachtel “genius.” Spachtel stands for spatula—since the ground chicken is hammered flat, with spices, onions, and eggs, into a kind of a pancake.
A new kid on the block, literally a few blocks down from Miznon and up the street from a shwarma place called Sababa (but don’t be fooled by what is commonly perceived as Hebrew slang—Sababa is Arab-owned), is The Hungry Guy. The eatery officially opened on Jan. 28, hoping to build the niche of transformative uses of pita.
“Our idea is to cook quality food and to sell it in a pita, so it’s a mix between east and West,” said co-owner and founder Eyal Guy, for whom the eatery is named. Born in Tel Aviv and married to an Austrian, Guy is not only a chef but also a psychotherapist, for he sees both food and therapy as “human relation” fields.
The eatery merges Israeli informality and European refinement through freshly baked, seep-free pitas (so the local businessmen don’t ruffle their cufflinks) stuffed with creative twists on latkes, fish and chips, and chili con carne, among other dishes. The contents of each pita are as colorful as Klimt paintings.
The Hungry Guy was built in what used to be a Jewish-owned garment business, located around the corner from the city’s main synagogue, The Stadttemple, and a few blocks away from the Vienna Jewish Museum, although none of these establishments cater specifically to Members of the Tribe. Decimated by the Holocaust, Vienna’s Jewish community is now estimated at 9,500, with most residing in Vienna. The Orthodox community is based across the Danube canal where a few traditional, and less imaginative, kosher bakeries and eateries operate near the Taborstrasse.
The first MOT clan, however, to really make a Tel Aviv mark on the Vienna scene is the Molho family, headed by the matriarch, Haya, who built a Tel Aviv-style bistro with her four sons when her husband retired as a world-traveling mime who had based himself in Vienna. Neni (the acronym of her sons’ first names) opened seven years ago in the 100-year-old Naschmarkt, the closest Vienna gets to a shuk. Packed at any given hour, the trendy, two-story local institution serves Israeli comfort foods with a gourmet twist.
“It starts with the service,” said Neni’s Nuriel Molho, the eldest son, who’s in charge of press and marketing for the restaurant. “We love Israeli service. Israelis are super friendly, they know the kitchen, they know what they’re selling. It was classic in Austria to be older, wear a uniform and be more robotic.”
Not long after Neni opened, the government of Israel approached them to create a Viennese homage to Tel Aviv, part of an effort to celebrate Tel Aviv’s 100-year anniversary across Europe. Tel Aviv Beach, a Viennese interpretation of the Tel Aviv promenade, replete with the Keter-brand plastic chairs, has been a huge hit, transforming a neglected and sketchy stretch of the Danube canal into a crowded hotspot. Tel Aviv Beach is now an institution, more evidence of the deep, unconscious love that some Austrians (at least the average citizen) may harbor for Israel, in spite—or to spite—Vienna’s dark Jewish history.
The Molhos are happy to bring out the love.
“Every time there is a political thing or something happens in Israel, and they ask us for political statements, we don’t offer political statements at all,” Nuriel said. “It’s about the vibe, the beauty of Tel Aviv. We want to share our home, in a positive light. We send a lot of people to Tel Aviv and they come back saying we never thought it was so modern, so cool.”