Budapest has not aged well. Crumbly and outdated, many of the structures in the Hungarian capitol tell a story of hardship — first as the result of a brutal Nazi occupation during World War II, followed by decades of Soviet oppression including a failed revolution in 1956 that left many of the country’s thought leaders jailed or sent packing. It’s a sad struggle narrative that finally saw upshot in 1989 with the fall of the USSR.
Hungary has been a country on the ropes, but to spend some time eating and drinking on either side of the Danube (split into regions called Buda and Pest), it is soon obvious that there’s an undeniably strong culinary scene peeking its head above the haze. Here are five places to keep in mind when traveling to this underrated gem in Central Europe.
Pesti Diszno Gasztrobar
A visit to Hungary is also a visit to one of the world’s greatly underappreciated wine regions. Sure, many are familiar with the dessert wines of Tokaji. Istvan Szepsy is a living legend! But for fans of complex white wines (read: interesting, colorful, sometimes hard to nail), vintages produced in places like Lake Balaton, Etyek and Eger are not to be missed. A great place to start is at this self-described “Hungarian tapas” restaurant located in the center of Budapest’s main nightlife stretch called the Oktogon. The setting is dramatic — two stories of walls lined with bottles flaunting obscure Hungarian varietals. You probably don’t know your Ezerjó from your Cserszegi Fűszeres (ha!), so ask one of the well-trained servers to pick a glass or bottle. Pro-tip: Furmint is a great place to start. Once you are set with vino, order dishes like a stew made with Hungarian black pig, Mangalitsa, sided with tender spaetzle. You might we seated next to annoying American college students talking Snapchat hookups (the city is known to host the types on semester exchanges). This is likely because the restaurant serves a killer burger, served with drippy yogurt Gorgonzola sauce, too. 1065 Budapest Nagymezo utca 19; pestidiszno.hu
Located in Pest’s tidy Castle Hill district, Pierrot has long been a favorite for out-of-town celebrities like Antonio Banderas, former New York governor George Pataki and the members of Depeche Mode. How do we know? Their photos line a wall near a piano player tinkling out classic Broadway standards (he’s been there since the restaurant opened in 1982). The cooking aims to restore the country’s post-war past, when famous Hungarian restaurateur Károly Gundel was drawing influence from Escoffier. This means dishes like Hungarian pike served with a beautifully trimmed confit of vegetables, and a duck liver blitz. In a landlocked country, duck is Hungary’s official protein and sought out by many countries in Europe. Note: The group operating Pierrot also runs nearby 21 and Pest-Buda, where lack of name creativity is made up for with standout, and slightly more casual, modern Hungarian cooking. 1024 Budapest, Fortuna Utca 14 pierrot.hu/en
Between 1941 and 1945 nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust, nearly erasing the country’s rich Jewish identity completely. Thankfully, restaurants like Macesz Huszar — located near Hungary’s Great Synagogue in the Old Jewish Quarter — seek to pay tribute to the foods of a lost generation. On the top of the must-order list is cholent, a traditional bean dish served with chunks of mildly smoked brisket and a crispy goose thigh topped with hard-boiled egg. Goose? Yes, goose. It’s a much-overlooked, though wonderfully flavorful, meat featured throughout the menu here: gizzard, liver, sausage and a stuffed goose neck served on a bed of cabbage noodles is all available. And if you’re not into an adventure, there are plenty of fresh salads and pastas available too, including an Israeli shakshouka. And make sure to close your meal with an order of flodni— a layered walnut/poppy seed/apple pastry. 1072 Budapest, Dob Street 26 maceszhuszar.hu/
Borkonyha Wine Kitchen
Another wine bar serving some of the country’s undiscovered vintages, Borkonyha is one of Budapest’s more modern-feeling bistros with elegant plating and wine-geekery apparently a staff requirement. The menu from chef Ákos Sárközi reflects the city’s four distinct seasons: hazelnut crusted cod with spring salad and yellow carrots, pan fried duck breast with polenta and peach toward summer and fall. For vegetarians, or those searching for a lighter dish after a days of pork and more pork, an entrée of pearl barley with mushrooms, chervil and tomato water will do you right. 1051 Budapest Sas Street 3 borkonyha.hu
Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Viera is chiefly responsible for winning a Michelin star for Hungary, the country’s first with the influential European dining guide. His menu reflects the sophistication that excite the inspectors (though, certainly not using all local products). One of those dishes is a crayfish royale with a jellified consommé and marinated lobster tails. Locavores should not fret. Viera does stay true to Hungary’s long history of game hunting with a red deer sourced from the Mecsek Mountains. And of course there is duck, which Viera calls the “world’s best”— he serves his as a trio of breast, crispy leg and pan-roasted liver with plums and radishes. 1092 Budapest, Ráday Utca 4 costes.hu
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