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Seven Days in Budapest

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ebuehrens Oct 18, 2009 09:30 AM

My wife and I just returned from a week in Budapest

Thursday, October 8, 2009: Just arrived in Budapest and without the energy for a major expedition, we walked a few hundred yards down Lanchíd Utça from our hotel to Arany Szarvas, The Golden Stag, in the Tabán district in between Gellert Hill and the Castle. Chew.hu reported that it was quite good, up from “revolting” a few years ago, and it was indeed surprisingly good. We ate outside on a warm and pleasant evening, service was pleasant and attentive, we had a wonderful meal: me, a pumpkin soup followed by pork medallions on a bed of incredible noodles made of some sort of vegetable base; she had a nice goose liver pate with spiced beets, followed by a duck entrée that she really enjoyed. Nice bottle of Hungarian red to accompany, and for dessert, their signature somlói galuska, Hungarian sponge cake which some have said is the best is town. Certainly was good to us! Everything excellent – highly recommend the place. Just under $100 for everything.

Friday, October 9, 2009: Gundel. You don’t go for the food alone, but for the total experience: Beautiful building, beautiful bar (had an aperitif of sparkling Hungarian wine), beautiful dining room, small orchestra playing on the side (although the strolling musician cruising for tips later was a detraction, I’d say), and a wonderful meal with great wines, and very pleasant, English-fluent and very attentive service – nothing stuffy or pretentious, very welcoming. Great people-watching scene as well. We each had one of the 4 or 5 course tasting prix fixe meals, and while a lot of food, the portions were appropriate. Some dishes were outstanding: my roe deer Carpaccio, my squash cream soup with sweetbreads, my scallops with grilled pear and morel ragout; her porcini mushroom soup with green apple, and fogash from Lake Balaton – were truly outstanding; the only disappointment of the evening for each of us was the last main course, the “mini entrée”; duck breast with quince for me, which was overcooked and pretty tasteless, the rack of venison with poppy-seed soufflé for her which she thought pretty bland. Expensive ($432 not including the aperitif) and while perhaps not “best in the world” nor even, I’m told, “best in Budapest”, a great experience of Budapest as it used to be. Very glad we went.

Saturday, October 10, 2009: We booked dinner at the Columbus Jazz Club and Restaurant, on a barge moored along the Duna Korzo, to take in the nightly jazz performance. Culinary expectations were low; musical expectations slightly higher, but it could easily be the other way around.

Turns out I was right: music featured a passable female vocalist who worked hard at her craft and stayed in the jazz tradition; one of her sidemen (husband?) was a very good guitarist. Food was bar food, service lousy. We had a nice time anyway.

Sunday, October 11, 2009: A great day filled with many great activities:

• Walking tour of Vizivaros, down Csalogany utça and into the Castle District via the Vienna Gate.
• Discovered the delightful Koller Gallery on Táncsics Mihály utça, the oldest private gallery in Hungary, featuring the sculptures of Lazlo Taubert and other Hungarian artists
• Just passable lunch and outstanding Hungarian draft Dreher at the Fortuna Matyas Etterem, across the street from the very beautiful church.
• Toured the Matyas church
• Headed to the Museum of the City of Budapest, got waylaid by the Budapest Palinka and Sausage Festival. That was the end of the museum trip - what a scene! Few tourists, many locals, lots of pálinka. Highlight of the day to that point, both pálinka and sausage.
• Incredible performance at the Thalia Theater by the Amadinda Percussion Group, playing new Hungarian composers (all in attendance), plus a Steven Reich piece commissioned for them. Part of the Budapest Autumn Festival. Unbelievable music and performance in a great venue – just an incredible privilege to hear these guys. Followed by dinner at Balettcipő, a very nice little coffeeshop / restaurant in the theater district, just down the street from the Opera House. Intimate, funky atmosphere, the best lentil soup I’ve ever had, and respectable pork livers on olive ciabatta with spinach. We really liked this place.

Monday, October 12, 2009: Dinner at Café Kõr – a huge disappointment. I would not recommend it. Food was mediocre; service was terrible and very impersonal. Those who write that this place has gone downhill seem to know what they are talking about.

We had reservations at 8, arrived on time, were asked to take a table right in front of the door while ours was being prepared (reasonable), but then were asked three times inside of 8 minutes if we had decided what we wanted to eat – either a very aggressive let’s-turn-the-tables approach or an effort to get us to take this very substandard table, or both. We refused and were seated at a decent table before too long. We each ordered a goose liver appetizer (the Café Kör specialty, and the goose liver paté with cognac) a main course and a fine bottle of Hungarian red wine (the Gál Tibor Egri Bikavér 2005/2006 Eger), but when the appetizers arrived, they were enormous – each clearly designed to be shared by two or more. We were never warned but immediately summoned the waiter and asked to reduce our main courses to a smaller portion (indicated on the menu), to which he agreed. It would not have killed him to suggest that we were ordering an awful lot of food, but he didn’t, and didn’t seem bothered by it. The appetizers were fine, but nothing remarkable – we had better goose liver at Arany Szarvas in Buda the first night we were here. We never saw our original waiter until it was time to summon him for the bill. Main courses were subpar: the duck breast steak with tangerine sauce and fragrant rice had a sauce that had tangerine sections floating in it but was otherwise innocent of that fruit, and the rice was plain old white rice, sans fragrance. My beef strips strogonoff style, a special, was tasty enough but heavy and nothing subtle. Beef was poor quality. Came with dumplings and no vegetable. If the portion sizes were reduced, we couldn’t tell. We skipped dessert for obvious reasons, had coffee and walked to the Gresham Palace Four Seasons for the evening pálinka.

This is a restaurant that will have to work hard to regain its past glory. Besides the obvious faux pas, the staff lacked the service ethic that one looks forward to in a good European restaurant. Dinner the night before at the much more modest Balettcipő was far more rewarding – funky and unpretentious, but the food “underpromises and overperforms.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009: Quick dinner at Café Pierrot on Fortuna Utça, prior to taking in the Miklos Lukacs cimbalom concert at the Millenaris Teatrum. Wonderful location, beautiful room, very pleasant ambiance, service was attentive and helpful; food was…just so-so, not inventive, not particularly flavorful. Hmmm. We’re still waiting for that killer meal. So far, good old Gundel is #1, followed by the hip neighborhood bar at Balettcipő. Doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009: We ate at Café Bouchon this evening. It’s also over in the theater district, an area we really enjoyed exploring. It’s hard to improve upon the comments of “Farago” elsewhere on Chowhound (who sounds like a local):

"Cafe Bouchon, on the other hand, to my tastes continues to nail what Cafe Kor once captured: a central European bistro with distinctively Hungarian accent and comforting, somewhat parental, service...kind of like Rick's Place in the film Casablanca. The owner's presence and authority suffuses the place, and the food is far more consistently satisfying. One never feels rushed and one seldom feels unattended to. While I have long since lost my objectivity about the place and am treated more or less as a regular, we rent apartments out to tourists and recommend Bouchon regularly, and many of our guests wind up giving it a try. I debrief them to see whether it's losing its edge, and thus far at least the returns have been almost 100% positive (one guest had a disappointing meal during a week when I have to admit I did as well)."

That’s exactly right: wonderful ambience, attractive room, and the owner, Tisza Lajos, is everywhere in the room, particularly for English-speaking guests. He has tremendous enthusiasm for the cuisine of his country and wants you to share it with him. He made it clear that they could do pretty much anything we wanted: reduce portions, make substitutions, craft our own tasting menu. Before the first course arrived we felt welcomed and well-cared-for, and the food did not disappoint. She had the goose liver paté from the regular menu and the fogash (pike-perch from Lake Balaton) from the daily offer; both were great. I had the Russian red caviar from the menu, and sliced goose liver on spiced pear from the daily offer. The caviar was – well, it was red caviar, superbly presented with all the accoutrements, including a glass of champagne in place of the usual shot of vodka. The goose liver was, as expected, a heavy meal, offset delightfully by the spiced pear. I let Lajos pour for us by the glass, and he paired local Hungarian wines wonderfully with the various courses for both of us. We left very sated and very happy.

So, bottom line: we ate in some very different places. Gundel is in a class by itself: if your budget permits, it’s a Budapest experience not to be missed, but not for everyone and not a place you would go for a quick bite after theater. Arany Szarvas and Balettcipő surprised us by how good they were for what they were; it’s always a pleasure to get a surprisingly good meal in an unpretentious setting. Café Pierrot is a great room on perhaps Budapest’s most beautiful street in its most historic neighborhood, and very pleasant even if the food does not excite. Café Kõr was just a disappointment and irritating. Café Bouchon is the kind of place I’d visit every week if I could. There are plenty of good restaurants that we did not get the chance to visit (Csalogany 26 and Tigris, to name a couple). The Hungarian website Chew.hu keeps current a list of the “33 Best Restaurants in Budapest” and I found their list and related reviews to be reasonably accurate and full of local gossip you’re unlikely to get from the international guides. Of course, don’t miss the chance to waste a few hours at the famous coffeehouse Café Gerbeaud, another local institution, like Gundel, that gives a sense of what gracious living in fin de siècle Budapest might have been like. Bon appétit!