foodie budie

 
 
 

While Budapest may be a hard town in which to scrounge a lightly-dressed salad or a classic buttercream, its chefs are pushing the envelope in much the way that the brash young restaurateurs in Sydney Australia were doing twenty years ago and there’s lots of hope for their rapidly evolving work. 


It’s a bit harder to know whether there is anything distinctively Hungarian in this new cuisine, or whether it is part of an essentially global foodie renaissance.  Those of us craving attentively cooked traditional dishes from pre-WW II Hungary may be less well served, far less well served, than those simply seeking a week of upmarket meals for the price of a single Paris evening of culinary debauchery.


But for those who fall into the latter category, Budapest is hard to beat.  Herewith, five serious meals in serious restaurants, designed by serious chefs, all awaiting your arrival:


Segal*

Lou-Lou

Oceán

Café Bouchon*

Pava/Gresham Kavehaz


* = breakfast offered as well as lunch and dinner; and you may want to add a breakfast at the Cafe Gerloczy


If you want to tack on a second week, consider interspersing:


Salaam Bombay (note that the English website appears to be in Hungarian; you may be better served the caboodle.hu listing: http://www.caboodle.hu/nc/directories/category/subcategory/single_page/salaam_bombay/)

Búsuló Juhász

Taiwan

Baraka

Mokka

Tom/George

Café Kor


And you can add a couple of Sunday brunches at these hotels:


Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal (best array of food)

Le Meridien (best pastry)

Gellert (best view)


To put some flesh on those bones:


http://web.axelero.hu/vsegal is the eponymous restaurant of Viktor Segal, a seriously talented chef who has managed and run and designed the menus for several major hotels around the world.  He was the original executive chef when Baraka opened on Magyar utca and became more or less legendary for its meticulous fusion food and carefully avant garde attention to decor.  Baraka moved on to the Andrassy Hotel, where it is still stunningly designed and plates very solid food at near astronomical prices for Budapest (with modestly disappointing serving sizes).  But without Segal, Baraka is a shadow of its youthful self.


Segal stayed on at the old digs and, with Baraka’s support, opened a new place named after himself.  Limited menu, limited number of seats, very, very close attention to every diner, and a world-class will to create the sort of fine dining restaurant one can find in Paris and New York ( and London and...).  He has since closed that venue and is has reopened Segal as part of a residential-hotel-cum-condo on O utca, close to the körut and close to Andrassy ut and its cultural offerings. 


The guy does more interesting things with cilantro than anyone else in town, and he prowls the markets for the unusual and the seasonal.  He cares passionately about ingredients and about his work.  The prices thus far have been somewhere between very decent and outright bargains for the quality of the meal and the setting, and the new restaurant -- larger, open three meals a day 365 days a year, somewhat more extensive menu, and serving an atrium garden court as well as room service for the condos in its building -- picks up precisely where the old one left off.  Segal himself is rapidly becoming the point man for the culinary commando raid on the remnants of socialist cuisine.


This is where I would eat if I had just one evening in Budapest and wanted to do it up fancy.


On the other hand, Cafe Bouchon is where I would eat if I had just one night in town and fancy weren’t the goal.  Bouchon is more cozy than fancy; to be more comfy, you'd have to be able to take off your pants and fight over who gets to hold the tv remote.  One feels nurtured there, perhaps at times slightly abrasively so as a result of some of the waitstaff’s less-than-perfect English skills (which can segue from a suggestion to a command if they lack the words to explain in detail why they are right and you are wrong).  The thing is, when that has happened, they have always been right and I have always been wrong. 


Mostly this happens when they warn me that the portion is too large for the meal I have ordered and they think I should order the half-sized version (you can do that in many places in Budapest, and can consistently do so at Bouchon, where more courses of smaller-sized dishes is usually good news, the only problem being that the half-orders are usually quite hefty in their own right).  I mean, how is it possible to have too large a portion of soup?  It is.  Even though the soup was so good I would happily have had just that as my entire meal.  If I didn't have to give up any of the other tastes.


The Bouchon cold appetizer plate is so good that it would be an essential order, if it weren’t for the fact that the libamaj paté included on the plate was so good that you feel compelled to order it on its own and not just as a smallish part of a large assortment.  Except that then you don’t get the goose cracklings which come on the assorted platter, and the cracklings are comprise one of Hungary’s four major food groups (the other three being libamaj, lecso, and palacsinta).


In general, Bouchon does wonders with fresh local ingredients (even though those ingredients themselves are not necessarily as wonderful to start with as they might be, say, in France), and the best single plate of fresh asparagus I have ever eaten anywhere in the world was at Bouchon.  Budapest takes asparagus seriously, a statement not merely about food but about spring and about spirit.  Ditto wild forest mushrooms.


And then there’s the way the kitchen at Bouchon sneaks a touch of Hungary into non-Hungarian dishes (a hint of paprika in the cream sauce, say, or a bit of fresh yellow pepper snuck into the bordelaise).  Or the way they sneak other influences into the wonderful Hungarian dishes. 


And the Lajos Tisza's (pictured above) descriptions of the dishes, delivered in mellifluous English, make the detailed and enticing menu descriptions seem as abbreviated as a telephone  directory compared to a loving biography written by a dear friend. 


Should you express even a hint of a wish for something not on the menu they immediately to make it for you and explore variants that might make it even more appealing.


The wine list, like the one at Segal, is also filled with a range of Hungarian choices at reasonable prices, many available by the glass.  Both places can tell you not merely the character of the wine, but the quirks and foibles of the guy who grows the grapes. 


Bouchon tries to merge the hearts of a Hungarian café and a French bistro and it succeeds as no place else does.


Lou-Lou, on the other hand, is over the top, at times laughably so.  Our waiter would put on a pair of white cotton gloves before he would touch anything on our table, then remove the gloves as soon as he was done.  He adjusted the silverware to render it perfectly straight and perfectly aligned each time we set it down between bites (and donned his gloves to do so each time); this must have been dozens of times in the course of a complete meal, several times during any one course. 


And all of this would be a joke if it weren’t for the fact that that attention had its pluses as well as its obsessivenesses: flowers one guest brought for another were immediately spirited into a vase and set beside the table, then wrapped for transport home at the end of the meal.  Water and wine never emptied, all the questions about the menu were answered in full in excellent English (not sure how his Hungarian was).  Our waiter (and I really mean our waiter; he had no other table to cover the entire time we were there) hovered near our table, though far enough away not to be intrusive (other than by providing data for our wagers on when he would next put on his gloves), and awaited our every wish all through the meal. 


The room is womblike, and artful, much larger than the original incarnation of the restaurant, all in all a pleasant, if quite formal, place to sit.


And the food?  Well there aren’t but a handful of truly memorable dishes in my experience over the 50 or so years that I've been paying attention to what goes into my belly, and one of them is the foie gras ice cream starter at Lou-Lou.  Everything was consistently good, much was excellent, and a good deal of it was creative (and some of that creativity perhaps a bit too strained).  They’ve either found better ingredient sources than anyone else in Budapest or they are better at squeezing blood from a stone than most, but the food could have passed very serious muster in NY, say a 24-25 on a Zagat scale.


Expensive by Budapest standards, but decent value and not more costly than less good and (possibly blessedly) less attentively served meals in a handful of other places.


The quirks? well, they’re no more affected than any number of restaurants in Paris or New York or London (though in Budfapest they stand out more and seem more risible), and there’s someone at Lou-Lou trying to do something more lonely and less well remunerated than in any of those cities.


If you’re doing foodie Budie, you have to give the place a try. And if you’re just plowing your way from one end of Budapest’s trough to the other, don’t skip this one just because they make you feel that you should buy a new suit before sitting down.


A few years ago, Budapest was abuzz with news of the first very serious Italian restaurant in town -- Toscana.  I’ve eaten there several times and the only decent meal (very decent) was the first one, just after it opened, when the bread was great, the pasta just about perfect, and the pizza really good.  Since then I’ve had poor service and leathery lamb chops, vastly overcooked and oversalted.  The place seems self-absorbed, and the kitchen not what it was that first time.


Which may be because its chef moved on rather swiftly, eventually opening his own, very different, place, Ocean -- a new, serious seafood restaurant and probably the only serious fish restaurant in Budapest.  It’s hard to run a good seafood restaurant in a city like New York, which sits on a major harbor, much less in the heart of a landlocked country whose claim to fishy fame is the fogas or pike-perch that populates Lake Balaton and where the conversation about cooking fish is largely exhausted after one finishes describing how to skin a carp.


But Ocean is the real thing.  The dishes are recursively inspired.  I had a cucumber panna cotta that was seriously memorable, the kind of thing that makes you slap your forehead and say, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that, it’s so obvious...’  The cucumber makes it so cooling and light, the jellied cream makes the cucumber rich and complex.  I didn’t think it was possible to do salmon in an especially new or interesting way; Ocean’s Salmon three ways had two that were new and exceedingly good and one that was familiar and exceedingly well done.  Their shrimp were not overcooked or underflavored.


Like Toscana, they have a retail shop next door, in large part because, like Toscana, they have to fly in most of their ingredients (in Ocean’s case this means the seafood itself), and perhaps they hope to sell in enough volume to be able to amortize the cost of the flight.  I can’t say that the retail outlet was as good as the restaurant.  The place had a strong fish odor, and the fish seemed listless and less than fresh, perhaps because the sunlight streamed in the display window in the afternoons (the last time I walked past they had moved the display out of the window, a step in the right direction).  But the freshness of the fish on the plates in the restaurant, including the tartare and other raw and near-raw fish, couldn’t be faulted.


Pava (left) and the Gresham Kavehaz (right) are a kind of special case.  While by and large staffed by Hungarians, they are really an incursion by the Four Seasons Hotel chain, which manages to invade with such grace and elegance that one can’t really resent anything at all about them, even the prices (which are edging up to parity with Four Seasons restaurants in more established capital cities).  The entire building is a classic that was restored with such care and attention that you have to visit it just for a glimpse of the iron work and the leaded glass.  And the tilework.


Pava is a first-rate hotel dining room, a world-class one.  Service is largely indistinguishable from that in 5-star hotel dining rooms around the world.  The food is up to very high standards, interesting more than creative.  Though not a Hungarian restaurant really, more Italian than anything else, they serve several fancied-up versions of Hungarian classics, and despite their gentrified look and feel, they’re pretty wonderful in their own right.  The wiener schnitzel is as good as it gets in Budapest, the chicken paprikas lovely if not the hunker-down glutton-loving version I crave, and the libamaj is basically flawless however they do it.


Personally, though, I think the real gem is the Kavehaz.  Less formally dressed tables, the pastry case as a centerpiece, the view of the Danube pretty hard to beat, the food is more determinedly Hungarian (though the dishes that overlap with Pava are produced in the same kitchen to identical standards), and it is a bit difficult to imagine a better way to spend an afternoon than watching the sun set over Buda, with an array of three versions of Gresham libamaj and a glass of Tokaji wine in front of you.


The waitstaff generally strike the perfect balance of accessible and invisible, the water glasses are always full (even when it’s just tap water you request), and the blackberry lemonade is pretty spiffy.  If I have any reservations, they’re a bit of recoil at the pricing and some discomfort about the scarcity of Hungarians in the room.  And there are occasionally lapses in the service, when you feel as though you might be an imposition rather than a guest.



turning swiftly to the others on the list:


The Gerloczy is Tamas Nagy’s homage to gallic street cafés, just as Bouchon is Lajos Tisza’s tribute to bistros.  The kitchen is neither as wide or as deep as Bouchon, but it’s not trying to be; it’s a café after all.  It opens early (7:00am I think) for breakfast, and has among the best (if not necessarily largest or most beautiful) croissants in town, as well as excellent coffee and teas.  A location for several scenes in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich, it has a marvelous Old World  look, and I’ve never found anything even slightly off about the menu or among the specials.  The desserts are excellent as well, and you can more or less pick at random for your starter or your main course.  The traditional dishes are well made, the less traditional ones uniformly lovely, the fresh lemonade an antidote to a long walk on a hot summer's day, but it’s the milieu that makes the place sing.


Nagy’s real obsessions are French cheese (he has a shop around the corner on Gerloczy street), and French breads; he serves a variety of each at the restaurant and sells them at the cheese shop.  He’s opened a salami shop across the way in the same little square as the café.


Turning to the East (figuratively, the north more literally), I’ve never been to India, and my palate is built on New York and London Indian and Pakistani kitchens, but Salaam Bombay (English website version appears to be in Hungarian...) is the best Indian Restaurant I’ve eaten in.  The fact that it’s in Budapest is peripheral, almost an anomaly.  It’s just a really great Indian restaurant, on Merleg utca, around the corner from the Gresham.  Not cheap but not expensive, excellent value, and as good a range of vegetarian dishes as you’ll find anywhere in town.


The Taiwan is incongruously situated off the beaten path, near the Nagyvarad Metro station on the Blue Metro, but tucked back in a kind of second-rate tourist hotel that also houses the local corporate headquarters for McDonalds (though no restaurant). Taiwan is big and sprawling and often filled with Asian customers.  It’s been renovated relatively recently to Chinatown Gloss.  Chinese food is adaptive and is a little different in every country one eats in.  At Taiwan there are more paprikas in the hot and spicy dishes than you’d find elsewhere, and there are other subtle spins, but the food is a notch up from the ubiquitous Kine Bufés around town, and the menu is vast.


Baraka, Mokka, and Tom/George are all demonstrations of the fact that there is probably only one fusion restaurant in the world, and all its outposts are essentially franchises.  Each is good; each is stunningly decorated; each is trying so hard to be creative that it is prosaic.  And each is pricey, and each is consistently very good across a wide swath of incongruously-paired dishes.  Vudapest moguls, celebrities, and mafiosi can be seen at each, varying with the climate.  You are unlikely to strike a discordant note in a meal at any of them, though if you go to more than one you may have trouble recalling which was which.


 
 

[Mokka, Baraka, and Tom George, above]


Búsuló Juhász is a tourist magnet in Buda with a lovely hillside perch and a vast number of seats and tables that should make it impossible for them to crank out better than decent food (and no particular demand for higher than average quality from its busloads full of marauding tourists).  But it does well all around.  The views are pleasant, the gypsy violin seriously skilled, and the traditional Hungarian dishes approach my mother’s standards.  If you’re looking for one excellent traditional Hungarian meal, it’s a good choice; not a bargain, but not exorbitant by tourist standards, and you can actually get into the kitsch.


And that leaves the Café Kör.  Which would be the best game in town in a variety of ways if some of its staff hadn’t split off and opened Café Bouchon and gotten it just a tad more right on every note (more comfy, better food, fewer tourists, less hustle and bustle, more detail, warmer welcome...).  But the Café Kör is more central, and consistently tasty.  Like Bouchon you can lean traditional and expect something a little biut innovative subtly entwined around its edges; or you can pick something more continental, and find a hint of Magyar in the mix.  And never be disappointed no matter which dish you pick.


The brunches?  Opulent, beautifully set in major hotel dining spaces or, in the case of the Gellert (left), perched above the Danube.  The food more or less tumbles over itself trying to seem endless and varied.  The Corinthia (right) has a more Asian tinge to many of its recipes, the Gellert the best traditional Hungarian specialties.  The Meridien has the best bakery of the lot.  Each does something to order, all provide a cursory champagne. On a beautiful day I’d pick the Gellert for the view, or the Corinthia if I could get a table in the atrium.  But at either place I’d miss the Meridien’s desserts.




 

...dann kommt die Morale ...


Just because I think of myself as a fresser, it doesn’t mean I don’t know a well-made, fancy meal when a waiter drops it on my lap.