Tasting ‘Modern Hungarian’ in Budapest

Posted on May 16, 2013 | Comments Off on Tasting ‘Modern Hungarian’ in Budapest

Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Kata Talas, chef at Mak Bistro in Budapest.

Published: May 10, 2013

Budapest is a city of coat-takers. Walk into any restaurant, no matter how humble, and you will barely be through the door before someone is graciously easing you out of your wrap. That warm hospitality, coupled with menus filled with creamy soups and meaty stews, can make dining in this city feel like stepping back in time. But all is not so sepia-tinged. A movement that began several years ago toward lighter and brighter food, served in more modern environs, has been gathering steam.

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Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Tamas Szell and Szabina Szullo, chefs at Onyx.

One of the first examples came in 2004, after the renowned Hungarian winemaker Jozsef Bock joined forces with a local chef, Lajos Biro, to open Bock Bisztro, a clubby wine bar with an ambitious menu that mixed updated favorites from the Hungarian repertory with imported flavors (wasabi) and ingredients (calamari). That effort proved so successful that the men opened a second Bock across the Danube River — and more recently one in Copenhagen as well.

Others caught on to the concept, and somewhere along the way, the idea of “modern Hungarian” was born. More mood than movement, it has none of the technological innovations of modern Spanish (though one easy way to figure out that a Budapest restaurant sees itself as modern is to look for “Sous Vide” on the menu) or the foraging aesthetic of New Nordic. But as a trend, modern Hungarian is prominent enough now to extend up and down the dining hierarchy, from Michelin-starred rooms to neighborhood cafes — all while keeping that most old-fashioned of values: hospitality.


A riot of etched wallpaper, marble statues and gilded Louis XIV chairs: no one will mistake Onyx for a casual bistro. One of Hungary’s two Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s the kind of place where the elegantly dressed waiters virtually glide across the room, and every communication is hushed.

The cuisine of the chefs Szabina Szullo and Tamas Szell likewise doesn’t skimp on luxury: a lunchtime special of ravioli in a delicate saffron broth bursts with fat chunks of lobster. But the best way to sample all that richness is in the “Hungarian Evolution” tasting menu. Here, some of the most exquisite ingredients in the Hungarian larder are transformed through techniques that suggest that the chefs are paying attention to their colleagues to the west. The black pearls of local sturgeon caviar, for example, are a perfect visual match for the dehydrated “soil” — charred breadcrumbs — that comes underneath a lovely heap of just-cooked vegetables. A silky marinated goose liver gets paired with “textures” of tart plum. And a smoky loin of chargrilled Mangalitsa pork comes with a side of the meat, this time confited until it practically melts, and topped with a lentil foam. Even the classic Somloi spongecake gets deconstructed into a glass of rum-soaked pudding, but it is the tiny, perfect canelé with its creamy interior and shatteringly crisp shell at meal’s end that reminds you why Hungary has the reputation for pastry that it does.

Oynx Restaurant, Vorosmarty ter 7-8; onyxrestaurant.hu. Dinner for two, tasting menu, not including wine or tip, about 43,700 forints, or $200 at 220 forints to the dollar.

Mak Bistro

With her tiny frame and cheerleader’s blond ponytail, 25-year-old Kata Talas knows she doesn’t fit the image of a chef — least of all that of her colleagues in Budapest. “They don’t like me,” Ms. Talas said bluntly. “They’re always saying, ‘You’re too young, you’re too small, you’re a girl.’ ” But it takes only one bite of her grilled scallops with Jerusalem artichoke purée to recognize that the girl can cook — and that her restaurant is one of the most exciting places in town. Ms. Talas, who worked for a year at Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head pub in Bray, England, revs up the Hungarian repertory with new, vibrant flavors. The standard velouté found on most menus in the city, for example, gets a bit of heat and sharpness when it’s made from black radish. Soy and ginger infuses her gamy squab. A lunch special of panko-crusted shrimp in a thick tomato emulsion hits all the receptors: crunch and sweetness from the crustaceans; creamy acidity from the sauce.

Located across the street from Central European University, the bright, industrial space fills daily with the polyglot voices of visiting lecturers and local intellectuals. Many diners complement the buttery pogacsa — somewhere between a biscuit and a scone — in the bread basket with a puckery house-made fruit soda. Should you show some interest in Hungarian wines, the knowledgeable servers may open a few bottles for you to sample.

Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Roasted chicken breast with citrus mozzarella and grilled tomato at Pesti Diszno.

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Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Matzo ball soup at Macesz Huszar.

Mak Bistro, Vigyazo Ferenc utca 4; makbisztro.hu. Dinner for two, not including wine or tip, 16,390 forints.

Pesti Diszno

The name translates as “The Pest Pig,” and that pretty much sums up the offerings at this buzzy gastro pub on the Pest side of the city. The restaurant’s founding chef Tamas Bereznay did a stint as the Hungarian president’s personal chef, and before that he oversaw the kitchen at Karpatia, one of those fine dining establishments in Budapest that comes with gilded ceilings and Gypsy serenades. But with Pesti Diszno, he made a bet on livelier cooking and a livelier environment, characteristics continued by his successor, Gyula Molnar. Pesti Diszno is sort of a Hungarian Momofuku: loud and trendy, and serving surprisingly good food, heavy on the pork.

Just over a year old, it has already established itself as one of the best places in the city for sampling Mangalitsa, the indigenous, longhaired pig that nearly went extinct in the factory farms of the Communist regime but has lately experienced something of a foodie revival. Well marbled and intensely flavorful, it turns up here in guises both traditional (a peppery goulash) and not (a juicy, towering burger, dripping with yogurt Gorgonzola sauce). Slices of grilled loin, whose slightly charred edges impart a bitterness to offset the impossibly rich meat, are an excellent introduction to mangalitsa’s glories (the hunk of crisp potato cake, layered with sheep’s milk cheese, doesn’t hurt either).

The restaurant bills itself as “Budapest’s first tapas bar,” and the menu includes a series of small plates that, in the evening, draw stylish young diners around high tables. While there’s nary a fresh vegetable in sight, the menu does contain a handful of nonpig offerings — an earthy pheasant consommé, for example, or a smooth goose liver pâté with the fiery local fruit brandy, palinka.

Pesti Diszno, Nagymezo utca 19; pestidiszno.hu. Dinner for two, not including wine or tip, 7,650 forints.

Macesz Huszar

With Central Europe’s largest Jewish population, Budapest has no shortage of places to get a decent bowl of matzo ball soup. But at Macesz Huszar, the owner David Popovits is aiming to appeal to younger generations, including those who — like so many people in their 20s and 30s here — are just learning of their Jewish ancestry. “There are a lot of Jews here who don’t practice the religion or know the traditions,” said Mr. Popovits, referring to those who grew up under Hungary’s Communist regime. “But they still want to feel Jewish. And dinner is a very easy way to feel Jewish.”

He must be right: though it only opened in December, Macesz Huszar is almost always fully booked. Located near the Dohany Street Synagogue and decorated with floral wallpaper and plastic lace tablecloths, it has a menu with many recipes that Mr. Popovits retrieved from old cookbooks. That includes a matzo ball made not from meal, but from actual crushed matzo — irregular-size pieces still visible — and a plate of goose skin cracklings (called gribenes in Yiddish) that are as much fat as crackle. This is no one’s idea of refined eating, but there are some innovations on the menu that show a modern hand: a flavorful vegetarian version of cholent, the traditional slow-cooked bean stew; a schnitzel with almonds in the breading; a carrot soufflé pushed into decadence by a dark chocolate sauce. Best of all is the burger made from that most Jewish of meats, goose. It combines fresh meat with smoked (and more than a bit of goose fat) to produce a burger unlike any other: rich and slightly gamy.

Macesz Huszar, Dob utca 26; maceszhuszar.hu. Dinner for two, not including wine or tip, 8,740 forints.


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