“ 429 Upper Richmond Road, London, SW14 7PJ, United Kingdom. Tel:+44 20 8487 9800 „
Austria is land famed for its excellent coffee, possibly even more so than Italy.
Not content with "Kapuziner" (Cappuccino), they go on to grade the varying shades of brown-ness likening them to the habits of other monastic orders, hence we also find coffee in a "Franziskaner" style too.
Putting "curious brown habits" to one side for a moment, I'm sure if pushed to name some other delicacy from Austria, many people would come up with Apfel Strudel, that delight of apple, sultanas, cinnamon and flaky pastry.
It will therefore come as no surprise that an Austrian restaurant we've now been to twice in south-west London calls itself "Café Strudel".
It's one of a growing number of schizophrenic establishments that are cafés during the day and restaurants at night.
It's also one of a number of eateries that sees the sense of offering half-price food to diners during these straitened times.
Where can you find out this stuff? Well, we use a web site called www.toptable.co.uk, both for gleaning this intelligence and for the actual bookings. You even earn points for bookings, and any subsequent reviews written, which add up to free main courses eventually.
Café Strudel is a gem, lying as it does on a pretty normal stretch of the Upper Richmond Road (No.429 SW14 7PJ) in Sheen, which I keep wanting to call Sheen High Street, as it's opposite Waitrose, and many others will just call the "Bloody South Circular" or worse! Parking on a Saturday evening is however pretty easy, with marked bays out front, which by the time most diners are getting the "munchies" are free.
It's also about 800 yards from Mortlake BR station out of Waterloo and number 33 and 337 buses pass the door.
Once through the door, you are immediately welcomed, and on our second visit, like lost friends. It's obviously pretty popular with a wealth of loyal clients, one of whom we spotted as a well-known journalist and one-time participant in Celebrity Fat Club. If she's eaten her way through some of the pastries and desserts here, that explains the latter!
THE MENU - Starters
To be honest, I didn't really have too many preconceived ideas about Austrian food - sure I'd heard of Wiener Schnitzel, the famous bread-crumbed veal escalopes, but very little else sprang to mind. As for wine, well apart from the "is it wine or is it anti-freeze" scandal years back, I knew nothing, except maybe to expect it to be a bit, well, Germanic.
As you'll see if you look at the menu at www.cafestrudel.co.uk it's not exactly alien, unlike The Two Ronnies' famous Slobodian restaurant sketch, but the use of largely local fresh produce put together in an unusual way is very refreshing.
For example, the starter of "Chilled Cucumber & Vodka Soup with Bloody Mary Sorbet", is possibly one of the most interesting things I've heard done with a cucumber since.....well never mind.
As a starter, I actually had the "Smoked Duck Salad with Fennel, Beetroot, Hazelnuts & Lemon Vinaigrette" which was delicious when my wife wasn't nicking bits of it. Normal price, £5.95, but half price at the moment - remember.
She had the "King Scallops Marinated With Lime and Passion Flower Served with Viennese Cucumber Salad and Baby Spinach". Did I get a scallop? No, the "let's try a bit of eachother's" routine was seemingly only operating in a One Way Street. Likewise, this is normally £6.90, but also 50% off.
THE MENU - Mains Courses
There were one or two items where my fairly good knowledge of German vocabulary was stumped by uniquely Austrian words. Yes, I knew that "Wiener Schnitzel" isn't just a thin slice of something but of veal specifically but I didn't have the foggiest idea what an "Eierschwammerl" was, although "Eier" suggested a connection with eggs. It was, on later perusal of my trusty Oxford-Duden dictionary what we'd call a Chanterelle Mushroom, "Schwammerl" being the Austrian term for mushroom. It take it they're egg-shaped?
Strangely enough, some of the menu gets a translation, some doesn't. For example, "Zwiebelrostbraten" is explained as "Pan-Fried Rib-Eye Steak with Paprika Onions", whereas the accompanying "Himmel Und Erde Rosti" doesn't get a mention. Now, "Rosti" I know, but "Heaven and Earth?" - as in "Good Heavens, these spuds taste really earthy"?
Of course it's always fun to ask!
On our first visit, and having not had it for decades, I opted for the Wiener Schnitzel (I really must be careful how I spell that - my first attempt missed out the N!), which turned out to be enormous, with two escalopes covering my entire dinner plate.
On our second visit, I decided to branch out a bit - well the Schnitzel is nice but it is what it is, bread-crumbed veal, so I opted for "Lamb Cutlets with Aubergine Purée, Rosemary New Potatoes, and Soft Herb Sauce.
Yet again, large portions, with a combination of flavours that worked well together. The soft herb sauce looked like someone had gone mad around the periphery of the chops with the mint for a Sunday roast, and indeed, it did taste alternately of mint, but with all those subtle hints of everything else "green" that was in it - more like pesto without the pine nuts.
Vegetarians are catered for with "Bell Pepper Stuffed with Feta, Tomatoes, Spinach, Capers and Pine Nuts, served with Salad".
Having now been there twice we're running out of new things to try, although there are fish dishes too that we've not sampled but remember that this is their Spring Menu, so I'd expect to see some new faces on the menu by the next time we go there. At least they're not trying to be all things to all people all the time.
"All at £5.95" heralds the menu, and all sounding interesting, heralds yours truly.
I can't say I'm a big fan of overtly sweet or gooey puds, so I was relieved to see Zitronentarte (Lemon Tart) and a selection of home made ice creams and sorbets listed.
If I've had a rich dinner, I prefer my desserts to be more palate-cleansing that continuing a trend.
I did however, on our first visit, order "Topfenknödel mit Kisel", explained as being "Sweet cheese dumplings and berry compote" - will I got the "with" bit right at least!
This, I was warned takes 20 minutes to prepare. "No problem" says I, although at 35 minutes I was getting a bit anxious, and this is my one and only gripe.
By the way, feel free to ask if any of the lunchtime session's pastries are still "on" too. I asked for the eponymous Strudel and got it, complete with vanilla ice-cream - delicious!
Before I get stuck in, let's talk about .................
The wine list varies, as you'd expect from reasonably-priced to the "push the boat out, we just won the lottery" end of the range. We decided on both occasions to try a genuine Austrian wine called Grüner Veltliner (Grüner Veltliner Weinbau Altenriederer Qualitatswein 2006 Traisental Austria £15.95 to be exact), a white which we're told comes from an exclusively Austrian grape variety. This was actually the second cheapest on the list of whites, although you can also buy some by the glass, and was a refreshing departure from what I was expecting. For one thing, it comes in a 'Bordeaux-shaped' bottle, rather than the 'pointy' Riesling shape I'd half-anticipated, and more significantly, it trod a careful tightrope between a refreshing Loire valley white and a more "Rhineish Riesling-y sultana-ish" kind of taste.
I freely admit that of red white (apart from "Southern Hemisphere"), I know very little except to say I've had some real "cheek-suckers" and "furry teeth" jobs in my time and prefer to let my wife get on with the choosing. I once made the mistake (not here I might add) of ordering a German house red wine, described as "Rot Und Gut" - well they got the first and third bits right, but to be honest I'd have substituted the "Und" for a hyphen!
Staff members are extremely affable and eager to please. However, the wait between courses does seem to be overly extended. For example, notwithstanding the interim arrival of a starter, I do expect to be eating my main course within say one hour of entering the place. Any longer seems to be pushing the envelope of what could be termed "a leisurely meal".
However, I did notice they were advertising an urgent need for waiting staff, rather than waiting customers, so maybe this is part of their problem.
I certainly wouldn't let it put me off going again though, but you do have to wonder whether the 50%-off food deal hasn't possibly swamped the kitchen a little.
A typical meal for two, including all three courses, and coffee and service cost us £51. I went to add service to that, until the lady said "well you CAN pay me more if you like, but I've already added service!".
In the tradition of a Viennese Café, we offer an environment where one can indulge in coffee and cakes at any time of the day but have a proper meal at lunchtime or a full dinner in the evening if so desired. Or indeed all of the above, as we ourselves have been known to do on all too frequent visits to the famous cafés in Vienna.