Eating Out In Budaspest
Step aside beef goulash, Hungarian cuisine has gone light and bright and the thriving metropolis of Budapest is leading the culinary charge, writes Tatyana Leonov.
The seats in almost every restaurant in Budapest are big and comfortable. “We like to take our time when we eat,” laughs Andras Jókuti, Budapest’s most renowned foodie, writer, blogger and media personality. Only a decade ago eating out was a rarity for most Hungarians and cooking at home was the done thing.
Today, however, the gastronomy scene is flourishing thanks to enthusiastic chefs who are applying innovative cooking methods to not simply cook – but to create. And Budapest’s residents are keen to sample it all – new and old, casual and elegant, light and hearty – but always seated in a comfortable chair.
The world is taking notice too and Budapest now claims title to four Michelin-starred restaurants. Costes was the first restaurant in Budapest to be awarded a Michelin star in 2010 and five years on it’s still bringing in the crowds thanks to imaginative cuisine and an energetic team headed up by chef Miguel Rocha Vieira.
Onyx, a fine diner in sumptuous surroundings, was awarded the next star. Here chef couple Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll present diners with a gastronomic bonanza that celebrates Hungarian cuisine redefined. Traditional dishes are jazzed up with interesting approaches – duck might come with grated liver on the side, tender venison could be teamed with black pudding – the idea is to simultaneously surprise and impress patrons.
Borkonyha was awarded its first star in 2014 and chef Ákos Sárözy cites colours and shapes as key inspirations – something that was not associated with Hungarian food until only recently. Sárözy works closely with Hungarian farmers, growers and wine makers to source the freshest produce and highest-quality wines and designs dishes that dazzle in both taste and appearance.
Newcomer Tanti (the casually elegant restaurant only opened its doors in September 2014) was the fourth Budapest restaurant to join the Michelin star ranks this year – a great achievement given the new opening and its non-descript location inside a shopping mall. Chef István Pesti focuses on beautiful, often-intricate presentation and preparing food that diners want to eat.
“I talk to my guests and my cooking is a ref lection of what they want – presented artistically. There’s no point serving something that looks spectacular but doesn’t taste great. I strive to achieve that balance,” he explains. His culinary creations are frequently changing depending on what he sources, guests’ requests, and sometimes whatever unusual creation he feels like formulating.
“I’m not afraid of crazy ideas,” he laughs. “For example I just teamed lobster with sour cabbage and baby calamari with paprika potatoes. I guess you could call it Hungarian modernised.”
Unusual combinations have been gathering steam over the last few years and even restaurants that have been around for decades are taking note and revamping their approach to cater to visitors who are eager to experiment with different tastes. The renowned Zsidai family own three of the best restaurants in town, all located in the picturesque Castle District, and manager Zoltán Roy Zsidai explains that for them it’s about accomplishing that delicate balance between modern and traditional.
“We want our diners to try new foods, but we also want to showcase true Hungarian cuisine,” he explains. “Patrons can choose everything from traditional rustic fare to modern Hungarian fusions where our chefs have played around with flavours, textures and presentation,” he explains. “Of course, whatever the selection, a Hungarian meal should be teamed with a glass of local wine... or a few. In my opinion Hungarian wines are some of the best in the world.”
Zoltán is not the only one raving about Hungarian drops. Interestingly, most Hungarian wines are not exported because locals prefer to drink their own home-produced nectar. Hungary is home to 22 different wine regions and a plethora of experimentive winemakers who produce the gamut of wine styles thanks to the country’s diverse terrains and climates. There are full-bodied French-style wines in Hungary’s most southerly and hottest wine region, Villány (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two of the most popular wines from this region), full-bodied, often spicy, gutsy reds in Szekszárd, and Hungary is famed for its sweet dessert wines from the Tokaj region.
Eating and drinking is so ingrained in Hungarian culture that it’s rare to find people indulging in one without the other. Wine bars almost always have broad menus, many restaurants have wine lists as thick a Tolstoy novel, and nowadays the two are often fused together – groovy spaces where people come to eat scrumptious food, drink quality regional drops and chat deep into the night... always sitting on those comfortable chairs.
One of the first restaurants to get all the components right (food, wine and atmosphere) was Bock Bisztro, a wine bar-restaurant launched in 2004 by local chef Lajos Bíró and well-known Hungarian winemaker József Bock. Today there are numerous locations in town and the impressive menu of revitalised Hungarian favourites attracts swarms of diners.
“It’s the combination of top Hungarian wines, an atmosphere that keeps people coming back and good Hungarian food that’s a bit different,” explains chef Zoltán Dano. “But not so different that it no longer resonates with what it means to be Hungarian.”
At Bock Bisztro diners can order hearty selections, like pastry pockets bursting with silky cheese or decadent duck breast served with a big dollop of potato mash, or they can order something a little bit different, like goose foie gras sushi.
“It’s Hungarian cooking with a twist,” he says. “We want our diners to recognise that Hungarian cuisine today encompasses a lot more than just beef goulash and paprika chicken. We’re just creative about how we interpret then present the dishes to guests.”
The More Things Change
Of course for those seeking that quintessential dining experience Rosenstein is the Budapest eatery that top chefs go to for guileless food cooked with love. Opened in 1996, the Hungarian-Jewish restaurant is overseen by its charismatic founder and restaurateur Tibor Rosenstein, who manages the home-style restaurant with his son Robi. Tibor learnt to cook from his grandmother and the menu items on offer are still made exactly the same way.
“Change and development are good, but so is the preservation of traditional cuisine,” he explains. “Our customers love our food today as much as they did when we opened, so why change?”