National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) – Viennese Afternoon Tea

A simple but somewhat muddled, lacklustre high tea to accompany a walk in the museum.

Our experience

For MoMo & Coco, we associate “Vienna” with a world of music — one is an image of baroque Vienna, of ladies in meringue gowns and gentlemen in velour tailcoats, waltzing the length of lavish Hapsburg-era ballrooms to the classical strains of Mozart, and the later romanticism of Strauss, Schubert and Mahler. The second image is 21st century “Sound of Music” Vienna, of accordions serenading the patrons of street cafes along cobbled laneways and of yoddling with the sheep among grassy hills flecked with daisies. With a focus on the fin-de-siecle years of Vienna, the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Vienna: Art and Design (exhibiting 18 June 2011 – 9 October 2011) bridges these two periods and presents Vienna as a world of art also. Like the Belle Epoque in Paris, this period saw artistic appreciation shift from the fussy and full-bodied to a conception of sleek lines, stark details, spare tonal colouring and daring symbolism. As portrayed in the works of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), the eyes were forthright, the posture provocatively poised and the hands, well, the hands held hidden intentions.

Mirroring the Exhibition’s bridging of two distinctive periods of Viennese history, the NGV attempted to bring a touch of Vienna to the more traditional English renditions of afternoon tea predominating Melbourne. Running for the duration of the Exhibition, the ground floor of the NGV was transformed into a Vienna Kaffehaus (Viennese coffee house). Theatrically positioned underneath the soaring stained glass ceilings and on a chess-board floor, one entered an avenue of leafy palms through a neon-lit archway.

The tea setting was forgettable, plain, white and unadorned. The tea cup plate was larger than the eating plates. Tea was limited in range (English breakfast only), though the serving of the tea was commendable, in individual pyramidial pots, with tea leaves rather than tea bags, with cute sugar cubes and with tea strainers (albeit no strainer holder). Napkins were paper. A pity that the service rendered was also forgettable — they “forgot” our reservation, and the result was that the high tea seemed to be hustled out and constructed from the remnants of a same-day function.

The afternoon tea was served with a three-tiered table stand. The top layer consisted of warm savouries, and half of the second tier held the cold savouries, and the third bottom layer comprised the sweet irresistibles.

Of the warm savouries, two were pies with heart warming fillings of Vienna frankfurter and beef goulash, served with a side dish of an unknown pickle-like condiment.

The cold savouries lacked serving symmetry for our three-person party. There was one each of a poppy seed bagel sandwiching an slice of smoked ocean trout; a tiny square of chicken and mayonnaise ribbon sandwich; and a mini ciabatta containing a furl of braesola and dots of grain mustard mayonnaise and roast capsicum.

As a substitute for English scones, a brioche roll with cream brie replacing cream and quince paste replacing jam reminded us more of the type of sweet breads found in Asian bakeries, than pastries in Viennese cafes.

To the bottom layer of the three-tiered stand, there were four types of irresistibles. Although these irresistibles were not mediocre nor awful, for the most part, no distinction could be drawn from standard dessert fare to the Viennese inspiration purportedly underlying the afternoon tea.

The first irresistible was a traditional Italian lemon meringue pie — a towering swirl of soft meringue engulfing a properly sour lemon curd base.

The second irresistible was the Apflestrudel, more a Viennese version of the French eclair, than a strudel per se. Although more robustly flavoured with pistachio than apple, the light creamyness of the phosphorescent green filling provided a lovely contrast to a well-formed tube of chocolate-laced choux pastry.

The third irresistible held a sugary icing creme filling in a fluttered thin chocolate tart cup, decorated with a triangular chocolate shard.

The fourth irresistible was the Sacher Torte (chocolate cake), decadently iced over and sporting a crystallised orange particle. This version however, lacked the apricot jam filling that is typical of an authentic Viennese Sacher Torte.

Our verdict

In accordance with our blog philosophy for sweeter appreciation, MoMo & Coco generally do not proffer our opinion on the food, preferring to photograph and describe. Hence, we say nothing more than that for future reference, we would head to the Sofitel for an art exhibition-inspired afternoon tea accomplished with greater flair and care, and/or Mamor for a faithfully Hungarian/Viennese-inspired high tea experience with the most gracious personalised hospitality. Otherwise, for a pre-NGV or post-NGV nibble within the confines of the NGV itself, we would recommend skipping the Vienna Kaffehaus Pop-up as well as the reliably unfussy (albeit nothing special) afternoon tea prepared by the Tea Room. Instead, head straight for a refined luncheon with spectacular sweet irresistibles at the hidden treasure of Persimmon. Tried and tested, and for the same depression sustained by your wallet, this latter option will make your day at the NGV far more memorable, leaving a deeper impression on your both culinary psyche and artistic imagination.

Dessert adventure checklist

  1. Dessert destination: NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Southbank, Vic 3004.
  2. Budget: $$$ ($35)
  3. Sweet irresistibles: High Tea.
  4. Must-eat: A themed afternoon tea, repeated annually in correlation with key museum exhibitions.
  5. The short and sweet story: Simple but somewhat muddled, lacklustre high teas to accompany a walk in the museum

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