"...if I was to return to Budapest I would put Menza at the top of the list, and there can be no higher recommendation than that..."
As promised (see previous post), the Gastrolad guide to Budapest has arrived. Hopefully you will have seen my article in The Arbuturian and noted that I didn't really touch on the culinary delights awaiting the visitor. There's lots to tell though, so the blog seemed a good vehicle with which to share some of the more exciting places to go and things to eat in Budapest.
I certainly had some preconceptions as to the kind of grub I was going to find in Hungary; these consisted in the main of goulash and goose liver washed down with bull's blood (a type of red wine) and glasses of sweet Tokaji Azsu. Now these expectations weren't completely shot to pieces by what I found in Budapest, but I will say that I didn't have a bad meal there and not every evening ended with me rolling out onto the street, stomach bulging, reaching for the Pepto Bismol.
Where to start then? Well I thought I'd take you through a day in the culinary life of Budapest, starting off with a mid morning trip to the Central Market, followed by lunch/afternoon tea, aperitifs, dinner and finally somewhere suitable for a night cap.
The Central Market
A perfect place for a mid morning stroll, especially if it is very cold, as it's all inside, Budapest's Central Market has plenty to recommend it. Stalls selling cured meats, sausages, dried peppers for that favourite Hungarian condiment, paprika, and lots and lots of fruit and vegetables. You can also pick up Hungarian foie gras fairly cheaply too (unless the ethical objections are too much for you!). Upstairs there are stalls selling all sorts of tourist tat, much of which looked as though it was made in China, but who knows, you might pick up a bargain!
Lunch and Afternoon Tea
You can eat at the Central Market and in addition to a small cafe, there are stalls there selling take-away food. But if they don't tickle your fancy, where to? Well Budapest has lots of decent places and one of the charms of being away is exploring the city and finding somewhere new. But what there is a proliferation of is traditional Hungarian coffee houses, and some of these are the perfect places to while away the afternoon, with some cake, a coffee or perhaps a glass of Tokaji.
Probably the most famous of these is Gerbeaud on Vorosmarty Ter in Pest. It is undeniable that this is something of a tourist trap, located close to the big hotels and right in the middle of town. But the cakes and pastries they serve are very good indeed, so if you can manage, it is certainly worth a visit. Elsewhere, there are two other venerable Budapest institutions which are also worth a visit: Cafe Muvesz on Andrassy Ut and Central Kavehaz, on Karolyi Mihalyi Utca. Both of these cafes have pretty long histories and are part of the fabric of the city. Again you might not find that you're the only foreigner at either place, but they are no worse for that.
Winebar Innio has to rank as probably one of the finds of the trip. Hungary has an extremely long wine making history and unlike in other Central European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, wine and not beer rules the roost. Smartly decorated, with a real buzz about it, if Innio were in London I would be a regular. It has a great selection of Hungarian and international wines by the glass, all at essentially knock down prices. I had a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc for about two quid. I'd wager you'd be unable to find it at this price at almost anywhere in Europe, if not the World!
So we come to the main event. Five nights, five restaurants, three of which I think are worthy of your consideration. First on the list is Cafe Kor. This was probably the most traditional of the places we ate and did indeed serve up enormous portions of goulash, porkolt (goulash is actually a soup, what we think of as goulash, the stew, is actually called porkolt in Hungary), goose liver and duck. This was all washed down with a bottle of kadarka, an amenable, earthy and robust red wine from north of Budapest.
Next up is Menza. Now I really liked this place, menza means canteen in Hungarian and its been loosely styled as a Soviet era workers' eatery, complete with 70s wallpaper and those old school plastic boards advertising the specials (you know, the ones with the holes, which you stick the letters into). They serve updated versions of the Hungarian classics (cliched perhaps, but true) and I was impressed; especially with the bone marrow for starters, which is a rare treat, and the chicken paprikash with sheep's cheese and spaetzle. Not only was the food good, this was another place with a real buzz: if I was to return to Budapest I would put Menza at the top of the list, and there can be no higher recommendation than that.
My final choice is Restaurant 21, which unlike all other place I have mentioned, is across the Danube, high up in the castle district of Buda. A bit of a caveat here, because 21 is obviously a place with slightly higher aspirations than the rest; it is more expensive, the staff have been trained in the noble art of up-selling, and in general the service reminded me of those type of restaurants which have Michelin stars in their eyes (hence it already has a bib gourmand). So why mention it then? Well the standard of cooking was pretty good, in isolation probably the best we experienced, and for a romantic after-dinner stroll you can't beat the view from Buda, over the Danube to the rest of Pest.
After dinner drinks
If it's a cocktail you're after then I'd look no further than Boutiq'bar, which has styled itself as Budapest's first speakeasy style bar. I wasn't necessarily reminded of prohibition era America, although the barman had a great moustache, but they know their onions when it comes to liquor. My Old Fashioned, which is one of the benchmarks of the barman's skill, was impeccably made, and our other drinks were similarly well done. To top it off if you ask for a cocktail and they don't know the ingredients, apparently it is on the house.
And if you're still standing after all that, you've a bigger appetite than I!
Obviously this is just a taster of what is on offer in Budapest, if you want the final word on food and drink, not only in Budapest, but Hungary as whole, look no further than Carolyn Banfalvi's Food Wine Budapest. Comprehensive and immensely readable, if you're going and take your food and drink relatively seriously, I'd try to get hold a copy. Although if you stay at Brody House like we did, they have a couple of copies hanging around which you can purloin for the duration of your trip...
I loved Budapest, by and large it was friendly, there was lots going on, lots to see and to do, and while the Hungarian economy is unfortunately struggling, one of Europe's cheaper destinations. All the places I mentioned can be googled for further information on location etc, and most have their own website. So get booking!