Despite living in the United States for nearly 30 years, Volgger’s accent is still thick. At a recent lunch, his Austrian-inflected rant is aimed at the city of Salt Lake. Specifically, it drives him crazy that he gets no assistance from the city, despite the fact that he has weathered the Main Street storm of construction and neglect in the form of boarded up buildings for years now. Every day when he opens his restaurant, there’s a thick new layer of dust on every surface, thanks to seemingly never-ending construction. “They should be paying my rent!” Volgger exclaims.
And he has a case: You’d think that City Hall would be thankful and supportive of the fact that Volgger and his Vienna Bistro have endured, making downtown Salt Lake City seem at least slightly more appealing than central Baghdad. Because who needs another boarded up storefront on lower Main Street?
In case you haven’t sussed it out already, Volgger is a passionate and prideful man. It wounds him to have to put sandwiches ($6.50 w/fixings and potato salad) on his menu. But then, he’s has to compete with places like Gandolfo’s, Pier 49 Pizza and, until it closed recently, the ZCMI Food Court for the local lunch trade. So he reluctantly added sandwiches to the Vienna Bistro menu. But his will be the best smoked ham and Gruyere, and the best Austrian-style Reuben, and the best hot roast beef—you can bank on it.
Amazingly, full-entrée lunches are only slightly more expensive than those sandwiches. A very filling lunch of Vienna Bistro rahmschnitzel sells for a mere $9. That’s medallions of all-natural pork loin, pan seared and bathed in a creamy, rich wild mushroom sauce. Also on the plate are sides of red cabbage (blaukraut) and homemade spätzle. Volgger’s spätzle is otherworldly. Spätzle are small egg and flour dumplings, which Volgger makes from scratch with organic flour and organic eggs. My own homemade spätzle is pretty good; in fact, everybody loves it. But it doesn’t hold a candle to Volgger’s.
Then there’s that blaukraut. During my last two visits to Vienna Bistro, I’ve been with people who loathe sauerkraut. “Just try it,” I counsel. There is nothing sour about Volgger’s sweet, fragrant ’kraut. Spiked with caraway seeds, it could almost pass for dessert. At Vienna Bistro, both of my ’kraut-haters were converted into blaukraut lovers.
Volgger is obsessed with freshness. He makes pretty much everything at his restaurant from scratch, each day. He makes his cured meats—speck, bündnerfleisch, salami—along with items like his pâté terrine and sausages himself, by hand. They are so popular he’s planning to sell them by the pound soon. Even his glace de viande, which serves as the base for many of Vienna Bistro’s rich and delicious sauces, is made by Volgger. Most chefs buy theirs in prepackaged jell form. Volgger will have none of that.
And so, a tender, thick, flash-seared veal chop ($30) at Vienna Bistro doesn’t need a lot of hoopla. It’s served with a heavenly natural sauce made from the veal itself and that homemade glace de viande. The chop is downright spectacular with a bottle of Walter Glatzer Grüner Veltliner Kabinett ($32) to sip alongside. The latter, a very good recommendation by a stellar Vienna Bistro server named Karin. Along with servers like Karin, Volgger’s partner/second-in-command/pastry chef Cassie Little makes sure nothing goes amiss in the dining rooms or kitchen. Together, Volgger and Little make a formidable and dynamic restaurateur duo.
For the record, Volgger knows a little something about running restaurants. When he emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1980, he oversaw restaurants at The Lodge at Pebble Beach and Santa Barbara’s Harbor Restaurant with gargantuan staffs, budgets and headaches. Eventually, the corporate culture of a place like Pebble Beach got to Volgger, and when the chance came to move to Utah, he jumped at it. He’s an avid skier and biker, and Utah is just enough like Austria to keep him relatively sane. Volgger also helped create Grappa’s opening menu, launched Champion’s in Salt Lake City and was chef at 350 Main and The Grill at the Depot (now Zoom) in Park City before opening his Vienna Bistro in 2005.
Fresh Utah trout ($21.50) at Vienna Bistro is ever-so-lightly dusted with flour and pan-seared to delicate, flaky perfection. A ragout of chanterelles and oyster mushrooms during the Downtown Dine O’ Round was simply splendid. Frody’s sauerbraten ($17.50) is more Swabian-style than Rhineland, for those who care. The beef undergoes a lengthy marinade and then is braised in fresh—of course!—vegetable stock, and finally served with a zippy red wine reduction. Then, there is the Bavarian semmelknödel ($15.50), scrumptious homemade bread and herb dumplings that thrill me with reminders of my grandma’s cooking, topped with that silky Vienna Bistro mushroom-cream sauce. As for the wienerschnitzel ($9 at lunch), well it’s simply the best in the state. By the way, do not miss the apple strudel.
Eventually the new Main Street mall will be complete, and new restaurateurs will rush in for the riches. I hope then you’ll remember that Volgger was there first, when business sucked. He’s a survivor.
VIENNA BISTRO 132 S. Main, 322-0334, ViennaBistro.com