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By Ralph Collier

Balls are what Vienna is all about year after year. And debutantes, too. There is an egalitarian approach to 'coming out' in Alt Wien our host explains with a historian's gravity and there are festive balls for every guild or profession under the sun. We have been invited to attend the Lawyer's Ball but there are the Zuckerbacker (for Master Bakers and their tribe) Ball, the Apotheken Ball for pharmacists, even a Mauerblumchen Ball for wall flowers and a Ball for the Homeless (dress optional). For others, it is white tie and tails for the gentlemen who also sport medals, sashes, gold braid and bristle like extras in a road company of an Italian operetta. The women dress in a broad range from drop dead elegant creations to what S.J. Perelman, the Bucks County wit once referred to as ladies in 'balloon smugglers' gowns. At our ball, they not only could have danced all night but did, waltzing all the way to breakfast the following morning.

Vienna is among other virtues the Mecca of Mocha and there are hundreds of coffeehouses in the city, but all you need is one. Just one coffee house to comfort and soothe, like an old friend who understands the trouble you have seen, on a dark and chilly day. There are loveable coffeehouses of all sizes, some with no-nonsense waiters, many quaint and cozy, some with gorgeous gardens in spring and summer and others reserved with Viennese Imperial Schlag for any time of the day or night.

Newspapers in a variety of languages are available to be read at length and the Apfel Strudel and other baked treasures are among the reasons so many German gourmands are swarming over their southern borders in pursuit of good Austrian food. If ever there was a surefire formula to attract international visitors, it is the culinary achievement of the Wiener kitchens.

Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, Bizet, and Strauss would be surprised at the devoted fans who flock to the city's opera houses to enjoy their music as Vienna approaches the millenium. Passing the doors of the Staats Oper (the State Opera), one hears the deep, majestic opening E flat of Das Rheingold in this celebrated hall where Mimi has died, Don Giovanni has gone to hell, Tristan has collapsed in Isolde's arms and Radames has returned triumphantly. Across town in the Kammer Oper (Chamber Opera) they are preforming the gem that is a result of combining a top class French farce with the talents of the composer of the best Viennese dance music, Johann Strauss. A sparkling Fledermaus can send the operetta fan home feeling as if he had imbibed in some of the champagne that swills about on stage in such huge quantities, a damp Fledermaus makes Parsifal seem a riot of fun.

Why do Austrian chefs run so many of the world’s leading restaurants? One of Vienna's best kept secrets is the excitement of its contemporary food scene; some may take exception, particularly those who have only tasted Austrian food on a skiing vacation. But there has been a gastronomic revival in Vienna and negative criticism of the food to be found here rates high in the annals of culinary asininity. An example is the Korso Restaurant at the Bristol Hotel under the guidance of what the locals call a star, Rheingold Gerer. At this spot, one eats very well indeed. Vienna had once been the fulcrum of a large empire and sitting down to a memorable lunch or dinner is what breaking bread with royalty must have been like. Patrons of Korso, who are 80% Austrian, ignore the splendidly executed menu and put themselves in the hands of the restaurant's Captains. It should be added, parenthetically, that this is not the crowd that displays any angst about maxing their credit cards.

We put ourselves in the competent hands of the Bristol's General Manager, an hotelier of some reputation in these parts and gaze upon the first course served in highly innovative fashion. Plates arrive covered with a heavy linen napkin upon which there is a clamshell resting on a small mountain of crushed ice that, in turn, reveals large chunks of lobster and salmon along with black caviar in a delicately marinated ginger soy sauce. Next comes a Roasted Black Pudding (don't ask about ingredients, dear) accompanied by cabbage on handsome porcelain plates, a brilliantly executed classic presentation, the hand of well-trained sous chefs apparent in every bite. Prosperity begets fine restaurants and this one is characteristic of the best of the lot that the city's Feinschmecker have sired during recent seasons. Our waiters return with a third course, a marinated Filet of Beef finished in a Perigore greens truffle sauce. Korso is a restaurant with a soul and sauces that exhibit richness that one is tempted to ask for greater portions of the sauce itself.

Clearly, Chef Gehrer comprehends that a sauce is neither a jus or a puree; it must have a certain viscosity that adds flavor to the dish. Sauces are among the glories of his talents... For those who concur that if there are to be excitements in a hotel, let them arrive at the lunch or dinner table, Korso delivers every single time. After a brief time out, there arrives a variety of monkfish, Filet of St. Pierre. Prepared in the Korso kitchens, it is finished table-side, roasted with a hint of garlic and herbs and served in a delicate butter sauce along with fried parsley flakes, a celery puree and spinach leaves. Dessert is a chocolate croquant surrounded by fresh raspberries and strawberries in an architectural disguise - a veritable jewel case of chocolate wrapped around an inspired ice cream flavor - a stunning interplay of textures and subtle flavors, exquisitely nuanced for those with a craving for a sweet conclusion to today's little five-course luncheon. The Bristol is a throw-back to Vienna's grand old days; the patina of varnished woods, polished beveled glass and mirrors along with original oil portraits create a formal but warm atmosphere along with tables that are broadly spaced to ensure complete privacy. All in all, the staging is a triumph for Vienna, a museum of a city that offers the ultimate in pleasure, where comforts of all kinds come first.

Ralph Collier is a member of the American Society of Travel Writers, and has guided thousands of vacationers and business travelers to rewarding adventures with his widely syndicated radio series and newspaper columns.

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