Seeking Budapest Restaurants (By tomorrow)
The columnist I work with is leaving for Budapest tomorrow evening. I've printed out the older posts I found(1999,) but wanted to know if any hounds have more recent info. on where to eat in Budapest and surrounding areas. She would love any hints you may have. Thanks.
Lynn, I don't have anything more recent but I did write fairly extensive notes in my travel diary during my visit to Budapest in October 1997. Several of the places I tried are historic spots and probably haven't changed that much. I was privileged to have a local chowhoundy friend direct me to the best of the best --- wish I had taken his advice to avoid Gundel. As he said, Hungarian cooking is the food of cowboys, it must be rustic and made with garlic and lard to be true to its roots. If your friend has time, I recommend a visit to the village of Szentendre mentioned below for the langos and ice cream.
October 1, 1997 - First Day of Exploration
My first morning in Budapest, I strolled along the nearby streets to get familiar with the immediate neighborhood. I followed the aromas of fresh-baked bread to discover a boulangerie and supermarket. Surveying grocery stores and markets can build an immediate grasp of the local standard of living and the typical food stuffs. Hungarians have the good fortune of an abundant basket of food to choose from. I bought armloads of various types of Hungarian paprika and salamis for Christmas stocking stuffers.
My wanderings put me in front of a daunting set of scaffolding with a sign proclaiming that the New York Cafe is open for business. Dare I step inside for fear that the walls will come crashing down? I did, and its well worth the risk and the 250 F (about US$1.50) cover charge refundable with purchase. Built in 1894 in eclectic style, the interior of this restaurant and cafe holds a new delight for the eyes at every turn. The opulence spoke of the grandeur and cultural life that was typical of Budapest before WWII. I wandered up and down every square meter, tripping over a few waiters and Japanese tourists, with neck craned upward to take it all in. I chose veal gulyas, dessert of palacsinta with nuts (crepes), a mineral water and medium roast coffee for lunch. The tab of 1,110 F (about US$6.00) included service, tip and 10% discount for Budapest Card holders.
The subways and the street cars became my chariot. The bakery counters in the underground were my regular breakfast stop for the Turkish-style borek stuffed with mushrooms or cheese.
Next stop was the National Museum to see the crown jewels and learn more about the history of the country. A quick stroll and look around the central pedestrian area than I move onto the Franz Liszt Museum where I noticed bottles of Liszt Ferenc labelled wines for sale in the gift shop. I really appreciated the convenience of the 3-day transportation pass and museum admission feature of the Budapest Card over a purseful of heavy coins.
I made an appointment to meet up with Gabor, a native of Buda, the next day. Gabor, a director with Magyar TV and former owner of a vineyard in the Lake Balaton area, became my trusty guide to the food and wine of Hungary. He had been taken under the wing of a kind family in a scenario rivaling Down and Out in Beverly Hills on his first visit to the States. Since then one of his missions in life has been to return the favor to visiting Americans.
I was the lucky beneficiary.
For dinner I headed to Kiskakukk (Little Cuckoo) near the Margrit Bridge. At nightfall the vista of the banks of the Danube strung with a pretty necklace of shorelights drew me to the river walk and I stumbled upon a neighborhood wine shop that I made a mental note to revisit. Kiskakukk is known for its wild game dinners and moderate prices. The Gypsy music draw locals and tourists alike. But tonight I would be the only diner but for a friend of the staff who was nursing a beer. My waiter spoke excellent English and made some good recommendations for typical foods. The cream of asparagus soup with croutons was freshly prepared and flavorful but too floury. The wild boar braised in red wine was a very typical preparation for this season. Accompanied by spaetzle and a wild berry and sour cherry compote, the goulash was piquant from fresh green paprika. Robust and savory, the wild boar was firm yet tender as a good textural contrast to the chewy egg dumplings. A dessert of apple strudel was tasty but the pastry was tough. All in all, the meal was satisfying for 4,500F (about $25 including service and wine). But I cant say the same about the wine (which was more than 25% of the bill).
1996 Boranal KFT Kískoros Marybelle Cabernet Franc, 50 cl, 11% alcohol - Clear red koolaid in color, smells faintly of strawberry and red wine vinegar, little tannin or alcohol apparent in quite soft structure, simple strawberry on the palate, like bad Pinot Noir, moderate light finish.
After that wine experience, I thought that I might be in for a red wine drought. Back in my room I pulled out the bottle given me by the Lufthansa steward.
93 Labouré-Roi Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru - Open for 36 hours. Has held up well with dark ruby color, tree bark, minerals and sweet black fruit nose with hint of oxidation, soft and round on the palate with warm alcohol and acid showing through, growing more floral and sweeter with time in the glass, plenty of fruit on the palate but harsh lean finish. Not bad for an agitated bottle.
October 2 Baths and Wine Tasting
My morning adventure was a visit to the Gellert Hotel and the famous Turkish baths. The bath and massage experience turned out to be a big let-down. However, the chance to see the architecture here would be well-worth a visit, just buy an admission ticket and skip the spa services.
A quick stop at the Opera House will-call to pick up the free ticket Gabor had arranged for me, then back to my room where I find a recent message that he would be wrapping up from a nearby location. Good! An opportunity for lunch and some wine-tasting - we arrange to meet in the hotel lobby.
First I got the nickel tour of the Jewish quarter (Central Synagogue is
the largest in Europe) in Pest, then we went for lunch in Watertown in old
Buda. Gabor picked a neighborhood restaurant with a fishermans grotto
decor, after checking that the traditional dish he had a yen for was on the
menu. He pointed out the checked table cloths, a sign of homestyle cooking
rather than touristic, meaning that lard, sour cream, lots of garlic and
other traditional preparations would be used. Turned out that what Gabor
wanted was fried brains - thin slabs battered and deep-fried in lard
accompanied with tartar sauce and lemon. He insisted that I try some. It
was delicious and I proved myself as a food adventurer in his eyes, I
think. I had the carp goulash soup redolent with garlic, sour cream, bay
leaf, lemon and hot peppers. As we talked more about our wine interests,
Gabor mentioned that my dish was the traditional remedy for hangovers.
For postprandial exercise we scaled the flights of stairs and turrets of Fishermans Bastion on Castle Hill for the perfect panorama from Maytas Church of the Parliament Building and Pest across the river. We wandered about the tourist sights on the Hill, then stepped into the Magyar Borok Haza (House of Hungarian Wines) across the street from the Hilton Hotel.
The House of Hungarian Wines is located at Szentharomsag Ter 6, 1014 Budapest, tel. (36 1) 156-5367 or -0122, and fax (36 1) 155-7122. Opened just a month, there are 400 wines in stock representing all 20 Hungarian wine regions. For a nominal entry fee, visitors are provided with a tastevin and cheese crackers and may sample the 60+ wines opened daily. As I worked my way through each regions wines, I could study the photos, maps and posters (in 4 languages) to learn the regions wine culture and it was invaluable to have Gabors perspective as a grower.
When the friendly staff (who speak little English) learned that I was from Calif., I got as many questions about our wine culture as I was asking about their own wines. As I started to mention that a mad Hungarian count was credited with the start of commercial winemaking, they nodded and said, Haraszathy Agoston! Maybe I shouldnt have been surprised at this awareness. . .
. . Just enough time to get back to the room for a quick change, then on the State Opera House for La Boheme. The combination of jet lag and an afternoon of wine tasting is a sure formula for nodding off during a performance. I could hardly wait for intermission and the snack bar for a shot of espresso and some tasty open face sandwiches - smoked salmon with cucumber, hard-boiled egg and caper sauce and caviar with sour cream, lemon and chopped egg. I noticed the many trays of pre-poured glasses of 3 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu enjoyed by the patrons much like a sherry aperitif.
The late night menu from room service offered up a Hortobagy pancake which was a meat-filled crepe with a creamy vegetable sauce and a stale piece of Dobos torte. My faith in the hotel kitchen was partially restored.
October 3 - Wine Shopping and More Sightseeing
Today I decided it was time to get serious about buying some wine. My first stop was Exclusive Wines, Pest V, Régiposta u. 7-9, tel: 118 7972 just off the walking district. This was quite a tiny shop with a choice of older Tokaji Aszu from the state producer and the traditional winemakers from other regions but not much from the emerging boutique wineries. The bottles were displayed out of reach and the prices were not marked which impeded casual browsing. The prices that I did ask of the grumpy clerk were a bit lower than the House of Hungarian Wines in Buda but I chose to move on.
Next I crossed the river by subway to the Moskva Ter station - from there its a three-block walk uphill to Budapest Wine Society (Bortársaság). Just a quick stop to get a sense of the place, pick up a price list and make a note to come back.
I returned to Castle Hill via the Castle mini-bus to visit the Museum of Catering. Worth a stop if you like recipes, old menus from royal banquets, culinary history and table settings --- a small gem of a museum.
Just a few doors away, I stopped by the House of Hungarian Wines once more to drop off the bottle of 94 Joseph Swan Stellwagen Zinfandel Id promised my new friend in wine, Balacz, whod helped me the day before. Bought a few bottles Id not seen elsewhere and two books.
From the deli around the block I grabbed a ham sandwich for a snack and two
bottles of Tokaji Furmint in beautiful handblown bottles with glass grape
clusters suspended inside. Packing about as much as I could carry, I
dashed over to the Sikló funicular - great viewpoint of the Danube from
this steep drop. Gabor had finished shooting his live Parliament show and
was waiting for me at the bottom. He was pleased to see me doing my part
for the local economy.
We took a short drive following the river to the village of Szentendre. A suburb of metro Budapest, this village was founded by Serbian immigrants and is considered the Montmartre of the Danube. Idyllic and very charming with hidden gardens, riverfront walks, interesting residences, artist studios, and the highest number of churches per capita. There is a Bor Múzeum (wine museum) with offerings from every Hungarian region, but I didnt check it out. Today were here to snack on the local specialties - lángos and ice cream.
From the main square, we climbed a meandering set of steep steps up a narrow alleyway to the best lángos stand in the world. Lángos is a deep-fried batter of wheat and potato flour, served hot topped with sour cream and grated cheese in its most traditional presentation and eaten out of hand. I added the raw garlic juice condiment for a more authentic flavor. Gabor shared a funny story about his fathers surprise in Salt Lake City when his Navajo hosts served him the perfect lángos --- Indian fry bread! I can verify that they are nearly identical. Lángos seemed chewier and more flavorful, perhaps from the addition of potato starch over the Navajo recipe.
A little shopping --- bought pear brandy, then we endulged in the best ice cream from the confectionery store near the river bank. The strawberry ice cream was a wonder of fruit essence and the caramel ice cream was rich and deep with buttery goodness. Gabor said I was fortunate to visit just before the seasonal closing.
I caught the HÉV suburban train back to the center (about 45 mins.) and chose the route back to my hotel that passed by the small wine shop Id spotted a couple nights ago. Vig-Vino Borkimérés, 1137 Budapest, Pozsonyi út 5, tel. 340-49-15, on the Pest bank of the river, just north of the Margit Island bridge and a few steps from the streetcar stop.
The proprietors, Vig János and his wife, were warm and very friendly and we were able to communicate in rudimentary German. This is a small storefront operation with a well-selected inventory of the hot boutique producers as well as everyday wines, all prices were marked, and there were no qualms about letting the customers handle the bottles to study the labels. Shelf-talkers identified wines that had won medals in competition. Barrels of bulk wine for sale to customers who bring in their own containers added a nice vinous aroma to the atmosphere. They offered me a taste of the Ezerjo which had more character than I would have expected. One of their English-speaking customers told me that he comes here from another part of the city because they do such a good job of finding the best bulk lots from inexpensive quality growers.
Pricing was the lowest of the 4 stores I visited. Cash only, and they were flexible in accepting the combination of florints and German marks I had at hand. I bought four bottles here, including Somlói Juhfarkh. János was so touched by my interest in this disappearing traditional varietal, he gifted me with a bottle of Muscat Ottonel and encouraged me to write from home to let him know how I like it.
96 Bulk Ezerjo from Vig-Vino wine store, 120F (about 65¢ US)/litre - Tapped from barrel. Medium straw in hue, earthy element to nose with young acidic aromas, heavier on the palate and not as tart as yesterdays examples of the varietal, quite palatable for something to pick up for dinner tonight.
Dumped my days loot back at the hotel, a quick stop at the cash machine, and dashed back to Budapest Wine Society (Bortársaság) at 1015 Budapest, Batthyány utca 59. tel: 212 0262 and fax: 212 2569. Open M-F, 10-8 and Saturday, 10-6. The circular says there are two affiliated stores in other towns: Soma Pince Vinotéka, 8226 Alsóörs, Füredi út 22, tel. (06-87) 447-024 and Bor-sajt-kávé és Pékárú Skaküzlet, 6720 Szeged, Széchenyi tér 16, tel. (06) 62 311-797.
Operated by brothers Tálos Gábor and Attila, the store originally began as a wine appreciation club geared toward English-speaking expats. Attila who helped me this time speaks excellent English and the newsletter is bilingual Magyar/English. Club members receive mixed cases at regular intervals --- I was amused to see the ABC Carton, meaning Anything but Chardonnay/Cabernet. This shop had the largest selection of high-end Hungarian wines Id seen. Most wines can be mixed at a 12 for the price of 11 discount. Credit cards are accepted and for purchases over US$125 export documents for refund of 16% tax are available. My wines were packed for shipping and delivered to my hotel gratis. If I had time to only visit one wine shop in Budapest, this is the one I would choose.
I put myself in Attilas capable hands, asking for a representative sampling of the 12 best Tokaji wines. To his credit, he did not steer me to the high-priced trophy bottles covered by the international press. In fact, he recommended against some of the famous names that I had chosen from the shelf in favor of better value and more distinction from tiny producers not yet well-known outside Hungary. They offer older Tokaji aszú wines but unfortunately these are stored elsewhere and require 1 business days notice for delivery.
Attila offered me a taste of a new release.
96 Tokaji Harslevelu Late Harvest Gros Degenfeld, 11% alc., 1090 F (about
US$5.75) - Forwardly fruity in nose and mouth with fat mid-palate and touch
of sweetness, crisp acidity lifts short finish, full-blown with lots of
fruit but lacking balanced composition. Good
Grabbed a late snack of veal goulash soup at a simple neighborhood restaurant, then soaked up some café society atmosphere at Café Muvesz (across the street from the opera house) over an espresso and a piece of Dobos torte.
October 4 - Last Day in Budapest
My morning outing was a visit to the Central Market Hall which is worth a stop just for the building alone --- turn of the century ironwork recently restored to its former glory. Hogs heads galore, row after row of fresh paprika peppers, many kinds of fowl and game birds, and impressive displays of local cheeses, but the most interesting to me was spotting some enormous white mushrooms as big as a mans head which filled the air with a sweet musky scent.
Wandered through St. Stephens Basilica, and was sorry to be turned away when I asked to see Stephens mummified right hand. All the signs say its on view daily.
I decided to splurge for lunch and headed over to the famed Gundels now under the management of George Lang of NYs Four Seasons. The dining room was spectacular. But everything else was downhill from therethe wine steward is a fop, service is haughty and incompetent, menu is limited and misleading, food is so-so and expensive.
For an aperitif, I chose the dry style of Szamorodni, the poor mans Tokaji aszu made from mixed clusters of healthy and raisined grapes. After sharing my comments on the wine with the sommelier, he said that most Americans dont like it much, and I felt like asking him why its on the wine list or why he would recommend it to me!
93 Ch. Megyer Tokaji Szamorodni Szároz, 550F/glass - Golden straw hue,
sherry-like nutty nose, light-bodied and dry, yellow sultanas, minerals and
honeycomb on the palate, not much length with bone-dry finish. Good
With a first course of paper-thin slices of duck breast fanned over a chiffonade of butter lettuce with orange slices in an orange/hazelnut oil vinaigrette, the absolutely wrong choice of wine. I had asked for a light-textured and fruity red (which is the norm in Hungary), and the wine steward suggested this one. I enjoyed the wine, but it was much too bold and not refined enough for the food.
94 Gundel Egri Bikaver, 400F/glass - Blackish purple in hue, hearty and
rough-hewn nose of spice, crabapples, sour cherries, plum skin, ink and
earth with a touch of vanilla, medium body with plenty of acidity and
supporting tannin, round fleshy red fruit wraps around acidic structure,
good length, tart finish. Very Good
Next was Uncle Lauders smoked goose liver with potato cake and french-fried onion shreds which was a poor grade of foie gras, dry and overcooked, and served with ill-conceived accompaniments. The accompanying wine was a reasonable choice.
91 Lauder-Láng Gundel Tokaji Aszu 6 puttonyos Bomboly Dülö, 1,200F/glass -
Brilliant amber gold, nose of honey, butter toffee, raisins, mushroom and
pineapple candy, medium-heavy body, richly flavored with good acidic cut to
carry sweetness but not enough for extended aging, rounded finish but not
very long with slightly bitter aftertaste. Good
The service was so offensive, I skipped dessert or coffee. I just wanted out of there! My surly waiter made it easy to economize on the tip. I took a long walk back to my hotel to work off the rage.
My wine packages had arrived in good order. I saw Gabor for the last time and gave him the 94 Cline Cellars Big Break Zinfandel and 94 Joseph Swan Vineyards Zeigler Zinfandel to express my gratitude for his hospitality, completing my mission to bring Calif. Zinfandel to Count Haraszathys homeland.
Dinner tonight was Café Kör, V, Sas Utca 17, which had been recommended by Attila and was a reasonable walk from my hotel. Good call --- Euro/Cal bistro feeling packed with a talkative, lively crowd and 24 wines by the glass of Attilas selections. I got the last seat which was up a spiral staircase (shades of NYC in the 70s ) to a loft with a lone table sharing space with an office desk and an employee break area. I didnt mind being up away from the cigarette smoke and enjoyed my perch for people-watching.
Starter was Tartar beefsteak - I figured I was at the source, although after visiting the meat markets today, I was surprised that I could stomach raw meat. An enormous portion, spicy hot with paprika and onions, this was absolutely delicious washed down with gulps of cold cleansing Furmint. A simply prepared entree of garlic-infused grilled filet of perch with parsley potatoes and green salad was also enhanced by the wine. Furmint seems to be as food-friendly as Sauvignon Blanc and reminded me of old vine French Columbard.
96 Árvay János Tokaji Furmint, 330F/glass - Medium straw in hue, clean and
reserved nose of green pears with some dried hay, clean and dry in the
mouth with ripe yellow fruit, rounded satisfying finish of moderate
length.. A winemaker to watch. Good
For dessert, was I thrilled to see this one on the list!
72 Oremus Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos, 2,600F (about US$14)/1 dl glass - Matured for 20 years in oak barrels, best vintage of the 20th century.
Reddish amber in hue, hint of nuttiness in the nose dominated by tart/sweet
aromas of candied pear, dried figs, mango, citron, apricot preserves,
kumquat and honey carry through to palate, medium body and very sweet with
bright acidity, finely balanced and quite lively with minimal oxidation,
thick legs trickle down the glass but doesnt feel as thick in the mouth
due to the fresh acidity, not a raisin anywhere instead fresh and clean
impression with flavors that dance in the mouth, full palate presence and
consistent through finish with aftertaste of honey. Outstanding
Unfortunately I didnt have a chance to buy this one, but I will keep any eye out.