This unique country in the heart of Europe is undergoing something of a gastronomic renaissance, we discover, as we eat our way through Budapest and beyond.
I’d heard of Hungary being described as a linguistic island, in the middle of Europe, with its own language distinctly different from its neighbours. What I wasn’t expecting was to find a culinary island as well – a smörgåsboard of quintessentially Hungarian gastronomic offerings and experiences, quite different from what you would find in neighbouring countries, like Austria, for example.
There is a palpable sense of energy in Hungary, a spirit of change that has developed in the last few years, leading to a gastronomic renaissance of sorts that the country seems to be undergoing at the moment. People are keen to try new and different things, while honouring and celebrating its rich (in more ways than one!) culinary heritage. Yes, you’ll find a startling amount of paprika in everything, goulash in various avatars and more goose liver than you can shake a finger at, but you will also find trendy new gastropubs that are pushing the boundaries with their menus, contemporary takes on Hungarian flavours, and artisanal winemakers trying new-age techniques. Here’s our pick of a few can’t-miss experiences for a foodie in Hungary.With a chequered history, the country has been ruled by different empires over the centuries, leading to several influences helping shape its culture. Hungary was conquered by the Mongols in the 1200s, the Turks in the 16th century, and the Hapsburgs thereafter, which then led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1867. All this before German occupation in World War II followed by communist dictatorship between 1947 and 1990, which is when democracy returned to the country. Hungary became a member of the European Union as recently as 2004, which is probably why it appears to now finally be shaking off its strife-torn baggage and coming into its own.
Twin towns Buda and Pest, neatly sliced through the middle by the Danube river (with eight bridges spanning the river, allowing for easy back and forth travel), make up the Hungarian capital city. Buda is more of a residential district, with a slightly more laid back vibe to match, while Pest is the buzz-ier commercial capital. It is here then, on a lane off the bustling Vörösmarty square, that Onyx (www.onyxrestaurant.hu), one of the city’s two Michelin star restaurants is rightly located. The lavish décor, complete with velvet drapes, crystal chandeliers, marble back-lit bar counters and intricate, baroque-style wallpapers, all add up to a Dubai-worthy amount of bling, but still doesn’t get on the wrong side of ostentatiousness. Husband-wife duo Tamás Széll and Szabina Szulló run the kitchen, and have earned the restaurant its coveted star with their creative and artfully presented interpretations of Hungarian cuisine – such as a deconstructed goulash, where the flavours of the hearty soup are kept intact in a light, consommé consistency; and a delicate breaded egg yolk and egg confit spaghetti concoction that is as intriguing as it is tasty. Even the traditional goose liver is given a modern makeover when served in a torte form, with almond biscuit and edible flowers.
Across the river on Castle Hill, built along the original 13th century castle walls and within walking distance of the Fisherman’s Bastion – a popular lookout that offers incomparable panoramic views of the city – is Pierrot (www.pierrot.hu), a family-managed restaurant located in a former bakery that offers lighter versions of authentic Austro-Hungarian dishes using seasonal ingredients sourced from around the region. One of the rare restaurants that opened during the Communist era, Pierot’s walls, decorated with black and white photos ooze history, with the sophisticated yet relaxed environment proving to be a preferred setting for many a Hollywood celebrity. The menu, which has earned the restaurant Gault Millau hats and a place in the Michelin Red guide, is dedicated to bringing back the glory of the cuisine of the monarchy, in a contemporary way – think roasted Barbari duck breast with tarragon pear, chickpea and brussel sprouts; and lemon grass quince pie with bay leaf ice cream.
Also in Buda, but offering a distinctly different vibe is Bock Bisztró (www.bockbisztrobuda.hu) – a modern, glass-walled venue opened in 2004 in a leafy, residential suburb by Lajos Biró, one of Hungary’s best known chefs, in conjunction with winemaker Jozsef Bock. Part wine bar, part gourmet restaurant, Bock highlights nose-to-tail dining focusing on less common cuts of meat, and experimental takes on old-world Hungarian food such as herb-infused lard spread, local pike perch with risotto, and ox cheek with dumplings. Come here if you have an adventurous palate!
If you find yourself craving something different, look no further than the Arany Kaviár restaurant (www.aranykaviar.hu), a proud relic of Russian presence in Hungary. While the rest of the country seems eager to shake off any associations with the Communist era, within the walls of this restaurant, you feel like you have entered a time warp – although it only opened in 1990. A series of interconnecting rooms decorated with opulent drapes, miniature lamps on the tables and brocade sofas make for a cosy, old-world atmosphere, where you can indulge in all things caviar. No jokes, from caviar with potato ice cream to start with, to corn soup with sturgeon caviar, varieties of fish adorned with blini and caviars to match, and even dessert with caviar in it (mango sorbet with white chocolate and Royal black caviar, anyone?) – the menu is a celebration of all things fish egg, with the chefs skilfully elevating it to true haute cuisine.
It isn’t just fine dining restaurants that offer fine food in Budapest, a slew of trendy new restaurants are leading the charge when it comes to reimagining Hungarian flavours for today’s palate. Zona (www.zonabudapest.com), a restaurant/wine bar located right next to the famous Chain Bridge on the Buda side, is one of them. Achingly hip, with Scandinavian-style minimalist interiors – it is designed by two young Hungarian designers – it has oodles of personality, whether it’s the giant light bulbs, recycled hospital drip bottles being used to serve water, or the very name. Zona is a play on the Communist-era concept of small plates of food being served at a lower cost to people who couldn’t afford an entire meal, and as such, offers inventive Basque- and Japanese-influenced food in tapas-style portions. Expect dishes such as Hungarian vegetable ragout with smoked quail’s egg, spicy chocolate cake, and barbell fish with yellow pea espuma and mangalica pork tail (mangalica is a rare specialty ham, made from a unique curly haired pig found only in a specific mountainous region of Hungary; once near extinct, this marbled, delicious pork, not dissimilar to Spanish Iberico ham, is rightfully regaining its former glory in Hungarian gastronomy).
Another venue that is trying to bring a fresh approach to dining is És bistro, located in the Kempinski hotel. A light, airy, relaxed brasserie, Es (www.esbisztro.hu) – which means ‘And’ in Hungarian – also encourages communal dining with its rustic-style wooden tables, chalkboard menus, and various meats on display. The menu is focused on meat on the one hand, and Austro-Hungarian cuisine given a modern twist, on the other. Don’t miss their delicious Hungarian spreads plate – a variety of dips, many infused with the delicious flavours of the ubiquitous paprika, with breads – charcuterie platters, selection of steaks and burgers – cooked in state-of-the-art equipment to pack in flavours – and Tafelspitz, a three-course beef-fest.
Hungarian cuisine redefined doesn’t get much better than the food at Atakam (www.atakam.hu), a centrally located restaurant (it is steps away from the castle) that marries French techniques with flavours of the Hungarian bourgeoisie, highlighting seasonal ingredients. Washed down with high quality local wines, whether you’re tucking into a calf’s foot with warm leek bean salad, or the baby chicken with cep stew and cottage cheese noodles, this is truly some of the most fresh, fuss-free and tasty food you will find in the city.
For a more traditional taste of the local cuisine however, you can simply head to Bagolyvar restaurant, housed in a Transylvanian manor adjacent to the slightly more upscale and better known Gundel restaurant near the Budapest zoo, where you can tuck into home-style food including a filling goulash, with large, tender chunks of meat swimming in a rich, red broth, and the classic Hungarian dessert, the Somló sponge cake – a layered trifle of a soft sponge, whipped cream, rum, walnuts and chocolate sauce.
Like many European nations, Hungary also has a cherished tradition of cakes and pastries, and there are few places as perfect as Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu) to enjoy these authentic treats. A confectionery that dates back to 1858, Gerbeaud Café oozes tasteful, old-school elegance with its dark wood paneling, intricately decorated rococo ceilings with glittering chandeliers, and marble tabletops. Over the centuries, everyone from royalty and state heads to Hollywood stars have enjoyed the traditional delicacies such as Dobos torte (chocolate sponge cake topped with caramel), Esterházy torte (walnut sponge with brandy vanilla cream), and my personal favourite, krémes (vanilla cream and phyllo pastry layered cake) handcrafted fresh from the finest ingredients. Gerbeaud also offers more modern pastry creations and savoury bakes such as pogasca (a cheese-stuffed bread).
Those with a sweet tooth would also do well to seek out the confections of young independent Hungarian chocolatier Katalin Csiszar, a former graphic designer who turned her love for chocolate into a profession with her boutique brand Rözsavolgyi Csokoládé (www.rozsavolgyi.com). Available at specialty stores across Budapest as well as other parts of Europe, Katalin’s award-winning chocolates use natural ingredients sourced directly from cocoa farmers in central America, and feature innovative flavour combinations such as Dolce Banana (banana chocolate truffles), green tea-infused chocolate bars, and chocolate with sesame seeds, to name just a few. With its quirky, retro-style packaging (she was a graphic designer after all!), a Rozsavolgyi chcocolate will be as good as a souvenir gift, as a keepsake for yourself.
Only a couple of hours’ drive from Budapest will take you to Tokaj (pronounced T-oh-ka-ee), Hungary’s best known wine producing region and a UNESCO world heritage cultural landscape listed site. The volcanic soil in Tokaj with two rivers running through it, combined with a continental micro-climate, provide the ideal environment for wine growers, particularly of the white variety. Specialty wineries focusing on quality, above all else, have been on the rise since the 90s, bringing Hungarian wines back to their former glory (Tokaj used to be one of the foremost wine producing regions of the world, but the general sentiment is that its celebrated heritage had been destroyed during the 50 odd years of Communism). One such passionate winemaker is Demeter Zoltán, who, in his eponymous family-run winery in the tiny village of Mad, produces only 15,000 bottles per year, supplying to high-end restaurants; cellar visits are available only on special request, www.demeterzoltan.hu.
Another such award-winning boutique winery is Kikelet, run by Stephanie Berecz, a French viticulture expert along with her husband. Their limited-yield, oak-matured wines, made of carefully selected grapes, include both drier white varieties as well as few of the famed Tokaj dessert wine – a sweet, smooth nectarine drink that may convert even staunchest of dessert wine haters! The Kikelet cellar door is open for tastings on request, www.tokajkikelet.hu.
Most Tokaj wineries produce the famed Aszú dessert wine, but are increasingly veering towards more dry varieties, such as the Furmint, with great success. And while Tokaj may be best known for oenology, its gastronomy is no less impressive. Pace your winery tours with a lunch stop at Gusteau, a charming, farmhouse-style restaurant that is part of the Szent Tamas winery. Not only can you book in for wine tours here and other fun activities such as a wine tasting picnics, but you can also simply enjoy an à la carte lunch at the formal white linen dining room. The menu, designed to complement local wines, features contemporary European dishes, underpinned by traditional, seasonal ingredients, often sourced as locally as its own backyard (they have their own goat farm and vegetable garden) – think green pea soup with duck liver and pulled roast goat meat with spinach risotto, roasted goose breast, game such as wild boar and venison, and ricotta, poppy seed cake. You can also pick up locally made food products here, including deer meat pâté, and paprika chutney.
A little ways up the road, you will find an abandoned amphitheatre – walk up the two dozen steps or so to find an unexpected vista of the picturesque village and the valleys beyond. Bells tolling, a dog barking in the distance, smoke spiralling out of the chimneys of the red-roofed cottages, steepled houses and church spires poking the clouds… it is a picture of idyllic tranquility that, for me, kind of summed up Hungary as it is today. Finally at peace, but with lots bubbling away on the stove, just waiting for the world to come and taste.
To market, to market
When in Budapest, a visit to the Great Market Hall is a must. A bustling, colourful, three-level mélange of all things food, this centrally located indoor market was opened in 1897, and, several restorations later, is still going strong. The architecturally unique market hall sells everything from fruit and vegetables, to homemade jams, spice bouqets, and the ubiquitous sausages and goose meats. This is where locals come looking for quality local produce, and tourists come to bag bargains – the top level is home to rows of souvenir shops. The market also houses a restaurant which offers cooking classes, so is a great starting point for a foodie tour of the city. Come here to stock up on your Körözött (a cottage cheese with paprika spread you will find at most restaurants), Kolabasz (sausages), Hungarian honey, and of course, the many varieties of paprika. There are two other similar, smaller markets in the city.
Swiss International Air Lines offers convenient flights to Budapest via Zurich with convenient connections (around an hour each way) with Zurich airport offering plenty to keep you entertained. On a business class flight, you can experience Swiss hospitality in the form of flat-bed seats, varied entertainment and food that will be the highlight of your flight – whether it’s a breakfast that is handed out in a hotel room menu style, where you tick exactly what you’d like (Swiss muesli and fresh orange juice anyone?), or the gourmet chef creations that are served for main meals as part of Swiss’ Taste of Switzerland campaign, in which leading Swiss chefs from different cantons (regions) create specialty menus for premium passengers. The current menu is from Canton Valais in Zermatt. Ticket prices start from Dhs3,095 for economy, Dhs12,575 for business. www.swiss.com.
The Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge hotel, located in the heart of the city right by the historic bridge in Pest, combines modern design and French flair with luxurious accommodation. The hotel is also home to the Paris Budapest restaurant, a luxe spa, and rooms with unbeatable views of the bridge and castle across the river. Room rates start from about €150 (around Dhs760) per night, www.sofitel.com.