My decade-old culinary memories from my first trip to Budapest et environs are twofold.
First, the lukewarm “capuccino” two parts whipped cream to one part coffee sipped endlessly on chilly November days on the southern shore of Lake Balaton. We were bunking at Club Aliga – a then just-post-socialist elite retreat that is now, I hear, a retro-socialist elite retreat. I had a red rotary phone in my room which rang mysteriously one night – a guard called to tell me that one of the 28 vehicles in our Engine Roadshow fleet had been left unlocked. How nice of them to check!
And second, a death-invoking lunch of langos and Unicum on the top floor of the red brick market hall at the end of the pedestrian zone of Pest. Langos: best described at fried dough, smothered with grated cheese and sour cream. It sits like a lead ball in your stomach until you drink some shots of the herbal digestif Unicum, which cures the stomach but brings pounding to the head. Lesser of two evils!
Gone are the days when eating out with the team in Budapest meant a dinner at Fatal, where half ducks, whole pig knuckles, and giant hunks of other meats are served on large wooden boards with bacci ball sized dumplings and heaps of cabbage. In the past years, some fabulous restaurants have opened up around the Basilica in Pest and in the student area of Liszt Ferenz Ter. I didn’t get to Mensa last week, a place I’ve liked for both its 70s decor and short but discriminate menu in the past, but between the chicken paprikas, schnitzels, and neverending supply of brownies (I was force-fed them by my colleague Zsofi), I had several delicious dishes.
At Cafe Kor, an expat favorite on Sas Ut, just past the Basilica, I started with a deliciously simple chilled blackberry soup. It was neither too heavy nor too creamy. The sourness of yoghurt balanced the exploding sweetness of the blackberries, several of which were floating whole in the bowl. I followed this with a salad of arugla and thin shavings of home-smoked duck breat and slices of orange. In the 36 Celsius heat, both dishes were light, crisp, refreshing. Cash only!
A more savory starter was found at Remiz, a restaurant just at the end of Budakeszi Ut that is favored for its pleasant outdoor garden seating and lava-stone grilled meats. There I sampled a wonderful grilled ewe’s cheese the size of a potato latke, served with a berry coulis and salad. Why don’t we find this in Berlin? Main courses come with a choice of side dishes, but the most wonderful option are the croquettes, hand-formed and thus not uniform, puffy and light, with a hint of nutmeg inside them.
The most wonderful nouvelle dish was to be had at Dio, also on Sas ut: housemade nettle noodles with triangles of pumpkin, wild blueberries, some nuts (I don’t remember which ones!!) and these wispy thin shavings of green apples. The colors delighted and the flavors and textures melded together harmoniously in the mouth. The dish was an absolute highlight. Christian and I wanted to go back for it again on our last night, but our team made all decisions democratically and this time the schnitzel-eaters won against us 3 to 2 for a dinner at Mo. I like to think that this dish is a nouvelle interpretation of the classic Hungarian egg noodles with cottage cheese, sour cream and pork cracklings that I tried (minus the cracklings) at the end of my stay at a wonderful restaurant on the bank of the Danube in Szentendere.
In Szentendere we all ate halaszle, a wonderful fish stew served in mini-cauldrons tableside. The broth made of carp is rich with the essence of tomato, onion and sweet paprika and has chunks of catfish in it. Chilies, salt and pepper are found in small containers on the table, allowing everyone to “season” and “spice” to taste.
The best dessert was also the best breakfast food. At a small cafe in Esztergom, I sampled makos-meggyes retes, a strudel of poppyseed and plums. Now my grandmother was an excellent baker of both poppyseed cake and plum cake, but never combined the two in one. The plums are abursting with flavor right now in Hungary (as are the apricots, the watermelons, the peaches) and they show their best here in the paper thin struedel dough. Everyone should go to Esztergom to see the Danube bend, enjoy the view from the Basilica and poke around in the bakeries for some special treats!
I am not surprised by the bounty of delicacies the week offered. On the way from Esztergom to Szentendere, we stopped at the newly reconstucted Royal Palace of King Matthias – a magnificent museum with historical and ethnographical displays, an orchard and herbal garden. King Matthias was a foodie of his time; his recipes 0f 1460 generally ended with the instruction to “add a good quantity of ginger, pepper, and saffron.” My favorites, too for the delicate nuances they bring to any dish.
Now if you’ve come to Budapest in search of Argentinian beef and New Zealand lamb, the place to go is the Haraszthy Vallejo Winery in Etyek, a 45 minute drive to the west of the city. We spent the week there eating the buffet group menu (nothing at all to scoff at) but the true menu in the restaurant Cinnamon has some delightful offerings dreamt up by the multi-national kitchen chefs which I plan to try the next time I am there: white tomato soup with pesto; shrimp salad with apple, mango and fennel; lemongrass sorbet with fresh passionfruit. The clientele is mostly British and South American; the pool is very inviting; and the staff will remember your favorite drink and attend to your every need (including getting a 17 meter long 20 tonnes yellow vehicle transporter in as close as possible, should you like to travel with one as I sometimes do). And of course, try the wines!