And finally part 3 --Budapest.
By this point, I was I was tiring of heavy meat-centric cuisine and second-hand smoke. On the other hand, I had a list of places recommended by a Budapest-native friend I needed to try.
Hummus Bar. A small local chain recommended by my friend. As the name suggests, it offers all kinds of Middle-Eastern fare. It is nice, clean, modern --could be in any U.S. city. I had a very good vegetarian meal of hummus and roast veggies. I'd second the recommendation for when you get tired of heavy traditional fare.
Matrjoska, in the neighborhood behind the Hungarian National Museum.
I actually found a number of good-looking places in this area running from behind the Grand Market around to the back of the museum. I think I first read about Matrjoska on CH. My expectation was of a tiny hole-in-the-wall with a tiny menu featuring a few well-prepared Russian dishes. If that was the case, it is not any longer. It is a bit upscale now, moderate for an American budget, but probably fairly expensive for the locals. They have a decent-sized menu, featuring Russian or Russian/Hungarian "fusion" food, and a menu of vodka tasting. It is situated in a really lovely, small, quiet square (though looks like there is a nightclub next door). I started with a fish soup which I'd interpret as a fancier version of traditional Hungarian fish soup, and then had a plate of Russian dumplings ("pelmeni"), akin to tortellini, in a lemony cream sauce. There were a number of tables where people were
speaking English, but it is not a place where you would expect to see the more obnoxious types of tourists, and certainly too small for tourist groups. I'd definitely recommend Matrjoska.
Lunch at Fulemule, also back behind the Hungarian National Museum.
I may have read about this on CH as well. It is a traditional Jewish-Hungarian restaurant in an old building with nice old wooden walls and an odd mish-mash of photos on the well. This turned out to be a fairly substantial lunch. I started with a traditional cold fruit soup. This
one was a sort of mixed berry soup which appeared to have some juniper. It was followed up with a roasted goose leg served with dumplings. The goose was excellent, roasted to a crisp so it was a bit crunchy around the edges. This was a nice place that I'd recommend --a bit "formal" for lunch, and off the beaten path if you are doing sight-seeing, but I assume a good place for dinner as well. Good selection of traditional Hungarian that goes beyond the usual goulash soup.
Lunch at Nu Bisztro located in a modern outdoor strip of restaurants behind the Nyugati train station, and a couple of blocks off Andrassy Ut. Whereas Matrjoska was a modern take on traditional (Hungarian/Russian) dishes, and Fulemule and Vakvarju (see below) were rather steeped in tradition, this had perhaps the most "modernist" European menu I experienced, not trying to be identifiably Hungarian. And if I recall, dishes came with greens! I had a 3-course fixed price lunch which featured a cod "tempura". The "tempura" was good, but it was pretty clear that the cod was frozen, not fresh, as it had the flakiness one finds with frozen fish. Service was ok if a bit pretentious. The meal came to about $12, so not cheap but a bit less than you might expect to pay for the equivalent in the U.S. I simply cannot remember the first course or the dessert, but I do remember them being good.
Dinner at Vakvarju in the Jewish Quarter. This was specifically recommended to me (along with several specific menu items) by my friend as a good place for the sort of typical (and stereotypical) Hungarian food, but of good quality. Finally going to get my goulash on! The place was all polished wood, with a violinist playing the "hits" and a small American mostly-seniors tour group at a table near me. I started with a goose liver terine which was very good and rich as expected. I followed it up with a small bowl of goulash soup. It was quite "authentic" and well-made: tender meat and not greasy, with a good rich flavor. I followed this with a veal paprikash. (I went a bit overboard on the paprika-based Hungarian staples.) The paprikash was served with a side of very buttery potato dumplings. I was stuffed! I finished with
a glass of plum palinka, which was a big help! Would I recommend Vakvarju? I think for its "traditional Hungarian" genre, if that is what you want, it is good --and I would not have known it without the recommendation (though I have little to compare it to).
Other places worth mentioning.
Grand Market, hoping to get lunch. I was rather disappointed: there were extremely limited prepared food offerings from what I could tell (I could have bought fruit, cheese and bread, of course, and created my own lunch). Many stalls cater to tourists, selling paprika, palinka, Tokaj, other wines. Worth a look, but for a better food culture experience, go to Fehérvári úti Vásárcsarnok (described next).
Based on my friend's suggestion, I went to Fehérvári úti Vásárcsarnok, a large covered market on the Buda side of the river, easily reached via Metro 4 (Ujbuda Kozpont stop). Without a doubt this was the best place I went to to experience the true local food culture and street food: not a tourist in sight, nothing written in English, and almost nobody I interacted with spoke much if any English. The lower level is a large grocery store along with some individual vendor stalls selling fresh vegetables, flowers and baked goods. The first level was full of stalls selling meat, cheese, fresh vegetables and fruits, etc. The second level was all vendors of prepared foods and public tables for general use. Following recommendation, I got a Langos (a disk of fried dough, on which they spread sour cream and shredded cheese), and a sausage.
I finished it with a poppy seed retes: basically a strudel dough rolled around a filling of poppy seeds. I also bought a bag of "meggy" cherries, the Hungarian sour cherries found in desserts, fruit soups, and cherry liquor. They were in full season, half the price of Bing cherries, and really tasty --not that sour at all. Actually, very little of the prepared foods looked especially appealing to me except for the baked goods, but it was interesting to peruse, nonetheless. Anyway, afterwords, I jumped back on the metro --this is not in an attractive neighborhood to explore.
I forayed into Hungarian wines at a wine bar, Borbirosag wine bar, which is behind the Grand Market. Apparently it is recommended by one of the major guide books, but I just found it because it was close by. I became very impressed with Hungarian wine (but not a fan of sweet Tokaj), and Borbirosag has a pretty decent selection, if not huge. It is a quiet place that is also a full restaurant; so if looking for a lively late-night wine bar, this may not be your best bet.
Well, that's that! neither Prague, Vienna, or Budapest will qualify as my favorite eating cities, but I'm glad I had many days in each to get a fairly good sampling.
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