An Island Unto Itself

Snell Isle's Café Vienna is an island of Old World dining

click to enlarge CHOCOLATE NEAT NO FRUIT: Typical of Cafe - Vienna is the intimacy of the bar, which also happens - to serve a chocolate martini. - LISA MAURIELLO
LISA MAURIELLO
CHOCOLATE NEAT NO FRUIT: Typical of Cafe Vienna is the intimacy of the bar, which also happens to serve a chocolate martini.

Trivia Quiz: 1. Which neighborhood in St. Pete is enlivened by a group of well-to-do ladies who openly advertise themselves as "streetwalkers"?

2. What section of St. Pete boasts some of the city's most expensive homes?

3. Where is a historic, 1920s bridge built in the Old World style, with charming balustrades and a steel, double-leaf central bascule span?

If you answered "Snell Isle" to each question, you're right.

I took a jaunt there recently to dine at Café Vienna, a family-owned Austro-Hungarian restaurant so small, it is almost invisible in a small commercial district at the end of the island. But once I found it, I liked its teensy bar, the 10 quiet tables that made me feel at home, its very good, handmade continental fare and the staff's prompt, friendly service.

With its fresh white carnations and starched Battenburg lace curtains, Café Vienna seems to have adapted perfectly to the eccentricities of Snell Isle. Owners Beate and Tony Klobucar and their sons, Stephen and Andrej, also have recently opened a more casual, second location in downtown St. Pete.

Developed by C. Perry Snell, the island at the turn of the 20th century was just a sliver of land overgrown with mangroves. Its first housing lots were sold in 1925; the area today is a mix of old and modern, with towering European and Spanish-style architecture, carefully tended yards, flowering gardens and elegant vistas overlooking Tampa Bay. Among its residents are the Snell Isle Street Walkers, a group of wealthy ladies who exercise together on its peaceful boulevards. You'll also find the historic Snell Isle Boulevard Bridge, dating from 1928.

Still, you don't have to be rich or well traveled to make a pleasant outing to Café Vienna.

Though the food at the café was very good, I suffered preliminary disappointment at both meals because I was panting for the first item I saw on the menu — a chocolate martini. On two occasions, it was unavailable from the bar; ditto the other fancy drinks listed on the menu. I settled for a glass of white Zinfandel instead. One night, both the escargot appetizer and the chicken paprikash main dish were unavailable, so be forewarned: What you see on the menu or on the cafe's website does not necessarily mean that's what you'll be able to order. Still, I managed to negotiate a satisfying meal during each visit.

I started with a potato pancake appetizer ($4.90), mashed potatoes shaped into patties, fried and set just a minute on the grill, accompanied by applesauce and sour cream. My dad's family emigrated from Dusseldorf, Germany, and I remember as a child sitting at Grandmother Schwieder's spotless dining table with the same dish before me. Hers was better, as she made the patties thinner and fried them to a crunchy, crispy finish; Café Vienna's were too limp.

Though the menu seemed pricey at first, the food actually was quite reasonable, since each entrée arrived with soup, salad and a hot side dish such as sautéed vegetables or a starchy side dish like the woven strands of a dumpling dish called spaetzle. So you don't suffer many extras when the bill comes. My backdoor neighbor and I dined one night for less than $50, complete with one glass of wine each, dessert and coffee.

Start with glisteningly fresh and fragrant salad, romaine set artistically on the plate with a colorful complement of green and purple cabbage, shredded carrots, tomatoes,

red peppers, toasted sesame seeds, pinto beans and truly excellent pickled beets that tasted completely different from the sorry canned ones.

The soups were uneven. One night, onion soup whimpered instead of sang; but the next night, the restaurant outdid itself with a snappy tomato soup — hot, peppy with flavor, sienna in color, its texture so thick that it sat sturdily on the spoon without a drip. It was a good choice on a breezy cold, winter night.

On my first visit I chose schnitzel kopernick ($15.50), a portobello mushroom set atop pork loin, sprinkled with black olives and topped with fine Swiss cheese that melted into a golden pool. Beneath it sat Lyonnaise potatoes. It was hearty and tasty, good quality meat and imported cheese, cooked exactly right. And portions were generous. Regardless of what else might happen to you at Café Vienna, you won't go home hungry.

Although the schnitzel was exemplary, the following night I enjoyed even more Chef Stephen Kolbucar's chicken paprikash ($11.50), chicken thighs lounging in a tangy paprika sauce. It was worth the trip, as its tender meat and unusual sauce left a memorable impression. It also arrived with a bonus, a side dish of spaetzle that was pretty close to irresistible.

Cafe Vienna's trump card is its handmade fare and personal attention: You feel as if you're dining at the home of an aunt or cousin. If you want to sit an hour or two, you are not hurried or pressured to leave. One night, we stayed past closing time, and the staff sat jovially at the bar and yakked for 20 minutes rather than rushing us to finish.

We had lingered for two good reasons: Cream schnitte ($3.90) and apple strudel ($3.50), desserts hand-baked by owner Beate Kolbucar. The former was truly outstanding, ethereal as dawn, its thin sheets of pastry crisp and its mildly sweet filling smooth and luxuriously creamy. The apple strudel ($3.50) was almost as good, its perfect pastry stuffed with a fruit filling that carried only the slightest touch of sugar.

Sometimes, less is more.

Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.