When my wife, Melissa, and I visit her Austrian relatives each summer, our first meal is always at Restaurant s’Herzl. It’s a routine that mimics one of Julia and Paul Child, who, upon arriving in France, always dined at the Nice airport, enjoying oysters, fillet of sole, Brie and a chilled bottle of Sancerre.
Our tradition is simple enough: soft pretzels with Senf (mustard), Weisswurst, gemischter Salat and a Stiegl, an excellent local beer.
s’Herzl might seem an odd choice, as it appears to be the consummate tourist destination: dark beams, low ceiling, chunky wooden furniture and waitresses in Dirndls, the busty aproned dresses that define classic Austrian women’s wear. But as long as you stick to the basics, the food is well beyond passable.
The gemischter Salat includes lettuce, cucumber salad and a uniquely Austrian potato salad, which is unfamiliar to most of us stateside. The potatoes are softer than we are used to, and the flavor is both sweet and subtle, without a hint of mayonnaise or an excess of vinegar.
It looks simple enough but, much like Wiener schnitzel, the recipe can give one false confidence. Achieving just the right texture and flavor is harder than it appears. This is a salad where the individual flavors need to stand alone. No small task.
To start, we used Yukon Gold potatoes (not the waxy potatoes called for in many recipes) because they offer good flavor and texture, neither fluffy nor dense. Most cooking methods were either too fussy or resulted in uneven cooking. For speed and ease, we peeled and sliced the potatoes into ¼-inch-thick pieces, then cooked them in chicken stock to boost flavor. This was fast and drew the most starch into the cooking liquid, a key component of the dressing.
The hot, drained potato slices are then sprinkled with a tablespoon each of cornichon brine and red wine vinegar.
The dressing itself is standard: Dijon, neutral oil (the Austrians rarely cook with olive oil), diced celery, two chopped hard-cooked eggs (optional) and ¼ cup of chopped fresh dill, the ubiquitous herb of Austria.
The trick here—and one that is common in Asian cookery—is to combine complementary flavors that retain their distinctiveness even when mixed: caraway, Dijon, onion, vinegar, slightly sweet cornichon and dill.
The only finicky step is knowing when the potatoes are cooked. They should begin to break apart at the edges but remain firm at the center. This produces just the right texture and enough starch to make the classic, slightly viscous dressing.