As mentioned below, I am traveling in Central Europe for a bit of a holiday and am posting my findings on dining in Prague and Hungary. Here, in Part the Second, I report on Hungary outside of Budapest. We did not by any means cover a large part of the country, just Eger, Tokaj and the Danube Bend.
First of all, we lucked out big time with our hotel. Per the Michelin Guide's advice we booked at the Szenator Haz (Senator House) inn, right on the old town square in Eger, just under the castle. It's a lovely inn, with smallish rooms and very helpful staff. Really lovely.
For those unfamiliar with Hungary, Eger is home to one of the country's most famous wines, Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood of Eger), which the Hungarian soldiers drank before entering into battle with the invading Turks; the Turks saw the red stains from the wine on the Hungarians' beards and assumed that they had drunk the blood of bulls to build their stamina and were instantly defeated. Whether or not this is true, you certainly can easily find a bunch of German and Swiss tourists with similar red stains on the beards (and shirts, and blouses, and dirndls...) since there is a very handy place just outside of town in Szepasszony Volgy (Valley of the Beautiful Women) where cellar after cellar is just waiting for customers to come in and sample the wines. Some are free, others charge by the number you sample, all are cheap. We found that our favorites were Kekfrankos red wines and semi-sweet Sarga Mukotaly white wines. It is well worth an afternoon spending time in this area, and if you find something you like, you can easily buy a bottle (rare is the bottle that costs more than $7) or, even cheaper, bring your own bottle and have the wineries fill it up! We saw a pair of Stuttgarters go into one of the cellars (by far the least salubrious of them all) and have 10 plastic bottles filled to the brim with Egri Bikaver and Leanyka white wine for about the equivalent of $15.
Anyway, as for dining options, there are not a huge number of places in Eger, but two worth a visit are Feherszarvasz (White Stag) and HBH (Hofbrauhaus). The former is by far the fancier, with white tablecloths, liveried service, and a more high-falutin' menu. We had a wonderful forest mushroom soup here that was among the best we have tasted, and a main course of saddle of venison topped with goose liver slices, bacon and sauerkraut that was exquisite. Unfortunately, the desserts were a bit less wonderful, with the sole exception of a very good version of Gundel palacsinta (crepes filled with walnuts, topped with chocolate sauce and liqueur and served flambe) and a pretty good apple-sour cherry strudel. Whatever you do, avoid the Somloi Galuska, which is a large, flavourless dumpling made with cottage cheese topped with a gooey, flavourless sauce. Ick.
At HBH we had one of the best soups of our trip, a chicken soup served in a bowl of bread (the bowl was also exceedingly tasty!), though their cold cucumber soup was also a stand-out. For mains they did a great beef with blue cheese topping that was succulent and done exactly to the level of doneness requested, as well as a venison in Eger wine sauce that is likely to figure in our Christmas party menu this coming December.
Tokaj is about a one-hour or so drive from Eger to the east, and is home to the famous Tokaji wines that Louis XIV and others raved so much about. The wines lost some of their distinction during the communist period, but a range of French vintners have come in to revive the wines, and have had much success in doing so. We visited the Rakoczi cellar, right in the center of town where, for $10 each, you get a tour of the cellars and a tasting of six wines, from the dry Furmint (the type of grape used for virtually all the wines in Tokaj), to late-harvest Szamorodny (both dry and sweet), to the justly famous "Aszu" wines, made with botrytized grapes. Again, for those unfamiliar, Tokaj aszu wines are labeled as being between 3 and 6 "puttonyos", a puttony being a small bucket which they fill with the botrytized grapes and pour into a 136 liter barrel of Furmint wine; the more puttonyos they add, the sweeter the resulting wine. (They also make a wine called Eszenszia, which is made from the juice that seeps out naturally from the large vats of botrytized grapes; this juice is fermented on its own and is both extremely sweet and forbiddingly expensive, and they do not include it in the tastings.) They also make a Forditas wine, which is a wine made from grapes transfered (in Hungarian, forditani) from the sweet grapes into the Furmint, which was also very interesting, and kind of smoky.
The wines at Rakoczi were truly excellent, and we left (of course) with several bottles. However, we'd have done well to have waited to make purchases until after our visit to Disznoko (Pig Stone...) winery, just outside of town. This is one of Tokaj's best regarded wineries, and was purchased by the French finance company AXA in 1992. There you can also have a tour of the beautiful vineyards and sample the wines. These were a bit more interesting wines than the ones at Rakoczi, and again we left with several bottles.
For a wine town Tokaj is remarkably devoid of restaurants. The one that we tried was incredibly lacking in pretense, and hosted only locals other than our table. Here we had the best chicken paprikas of our trip so far, along with a stunning Jokai (yes, Jokai) bean soup and a really good porkolt (a meat stew). The place's name is Bacchus (appropriate for the town, perhaps, but a bit fancy for the actual restaurant), and it's just down the road from Rakoczi cellar.
From Eger we went to the Danube Bend, the area just north of Budapest where the Danube, uh, bends. We stayed in Esztergom, seat of the Hungarian Roman Catholic church, at Ria Pancio, a very nice pension with decent rooms at a good price just near the basilica. Next door was a restaurant, Csulok Csarda, where we had a great dinner of excellent mushroom soup and a very good potato-dumpling soup, followed by such main courses as a great beefsteak with chanterelle and boletus mushrooms, a Danube bend pork roll (with cheese and herbs inside a rolled bit of pork) and pork with goose liver, all served in a very convivial room that was very popular with locals. The crepes with forest berries was also a great dessert here.
In Szentendre, the big artist town (and tourist trap) town just north of Budapest we had another fantastic meal at Aranyszarda (Golden Dragon). No, we did not decide to give up on Hungarian food in favor of Chinese, this is a very Hungarian place named in honor of St. George, the patron saint of Serbia, since there is a large Serbian population here. The small restaurant has an open kitchen, so you can see the action taking place inside. The turkey paprikas here was excellent, as was the cold cherry soup, but the sine qua non of this restaurant is the garlic soup, which YOU MUST ORDER if you go here. INCREDIBLE flavor!!! My attempt to get the recipe from the waitress was unsuccessful, unfortunately. They also do a very good venison with sour cherry jam and a goose leg braised in wine and then crisped in the oven. Yum.