There are lots of foods I love to eat, but even my favorites get boring if I eat it multiple days in a row. So having just come back from Russia (the land of smoked fish, hot soups and hearty stews), I was a little reluctant to dive right into the Budapest food scene, thinking it’d be more of the same. In fact, I was gearing myself up to eat just a lot of non-eastern-European food while we were in Budapest, but after talking to a friend of a friend from Budapest and reading both this NYT “36 Hours in Budapest” article and this excellent Budapest food blog (check especially its “Top 33″ list), I saw it’d be wrong to go to Budapest and not eat Hungarian food.
While in Budapest, we ate at Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar, Noir et L’Or, Ristorante Krizia, and Restaurant Hanna. Most of our food was pretty good, and all our meals were reasonably priced, even if you thought in dollar terms.
Decor came in all shapes and sizes: from old-fashioned wood paneling like that of Bagolyvar to the airy modern bistro style of Cafe Kor to the sleek and chic of Noir et L’Or. Our best meals (Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar) were simple and traditional with few culinary fireworks, and our worst meal (Noir et L’Or) was when things got too ambitious and “international.”
One thing I’d urge you to do before you arrive in Budapest is to make dinner reservations! On Saturday afternoon, we called five or six places culled from the “Top 33″ and the New York Times article, hoping to get a Saturday evening reservation, but hearing repeatedly that everything was full.
Cafe Kor was my favorite meal in Budapest. On a mild, sunny day, all the cafe doors open out onto sidewalk seating, and despite how often Cafe Kor is described in guidebooks and travel articles, there’s still a good mix of diners there (at least, that was the case at lunchtime). Two tables near ours seated men in suits speaking in Hungarian, and there were a few old ladies there dining with other old ladies. I liked that the restaurant was busy but not overly loud.
Food included simple, international dishes like asparagus with hollandaise (delish, by the way) as well as classic Hungarian dishes (e.g., goose crackling, goulash, veal paprika stew). The low point was the goose crackling, which tasted like stale fat. It wasn’t very crispy or goose-tasting. But the goose crackling was outweighed by the generally well-executed dishes, including my veal paprika stew, served with a chewy-but-light potato dumpling that was pretty much a cross between gnocchi and spaetzel.
Beverages were kind of sub par (the fizzy lemonade was literally soda water and lemon juice without any sugar; and the tokajs we tried tasted harshly alcoholic), so perhaps stick with water. Our total for four appetizers, four mains, drinks and service came to 25,000 HUF ($165), so it’s not cheap by Budapest standards, but Care Kor is a classy, fun place to introduce yourself to Hungarian classics.
Bagolyvar and Ristorante Krizia tie for second-best (aka middle-of-the-pack) meal in Budapest.
Like Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar serves simple, basic Hungarian food in an old-fashioned setting. It’s the “grandma’s cooking” sibling of Gundel, which is Budapest’s grande dame of fine dining. Because the weather was so mild, we were able to sit outside on a terrace that abuts the Budapest Zoo, so we ate to the sounds of screeching monkeys. (It was more fun than I’m making it sound)!
My potato soup with sausage came in an enormous portion and could’ve been a meal on its own, and Jon’s goulash soup starter (photo above) was filled with beef and savory soup stock, though it could have used more paprika for kick (note that in Budapest, goulash is a liquidy soup, not a thick stew). Jon’s veal stew with spaetzle-like pasta wasn’t bad, but the meat was tougher and the spaetzle much heavier than the version I ate at Cafe Kor. I loved my wiener schnitzel, which I know isn’t Hungarian, but it’s served everywhere in Budapest, so I think it should “count.” Like my soup, the wiener schnitzel came in a gargantuan portion size. But you can never have too much breaded and fried meat, I suppose.
Four starters, mains and a bottle of tasty Hungarian “bull’s blood” (Egri Bikaver) red wine cost 24,500 HUF (~$160).
Bagolyvar, 1146 Budapest, Aliakerti ut 2 (+36 1 468 4040); closest metro: Hosok Tere (yellow line).
Ristorante Krizia is an Italian restaurant we settled on for Saturday night (after having unsuccessfully called a *lot* of restaurants). We got this one from our TimeOut Budapest guidebook. The restaurant isn’t far from the Oktagon, which is the loud intersection packed with partygoers at all hours of the night. While the decor is pleasant (basil plants and candles on the rustic wood tables) and the servers very welcoming, the dining room is mostly underground, so you feel like you’re stepping into someone’s finished basement.
The food wasn’t bad, but it really varied by dish. Dishes with mushrooms seemed to be a strong point. My mushroom soup starter with a pastry crust was good because it was salty, creamy and came with tons of earthy, rich mushrooms. Jon’s fresh pasta with morels and spinach was al dente and fragrant with morels, and I also liked the full-bodied mushroom flavor in my “truffled” risotto (so what if it wasn’t truffles but porcini mushrooms in there).
It was at Ristorante Krizia that I tried Zwack Unicom (an herbal liqueur), and you know, it’s not half bad. It has a bitter aftertaste, but that’s balanced out by the sugary and almost-minty flavor of the dark liqueur.
Ristorante Krizia, 1066 Bp. Mozsar u. 12 (+36 1 331 8711); closest metro: Oktagon
Noir et L’Or was another one in our TimeOut Budapest. We’d been walking along Király utca, the street it’s on, because it’s allegedly lined with interesting shops, so we ended up eating at the sleek-looking Noir et L’Or. Service was polite, and the decor is, of course, all black and gold “modern baroque” (think lots of cherubs next to flat-screen TVs).
The food was pretty sub par. My cauliflower soup and Johanna’s strawberry soup were both bland and gloppy with slimy bits – a dead giveaway that they’ve been thickened with flour, rather than reduced at a slow simmer. How lazy can you get about something simple like soup?
The main courses weren’t much better. My grilled chicken (photo below) was a tad dry, but the real sticking point for me was the “too much going on” plating, the flavorless vegetables and the still-crunchy brown rice. The dish was all form over substance, which phrase describes the food we tried, generally.
Our total for four appetizers, mains and drinks came to 15,400 HUF (~$100). It wasn’t expensive, but it was definitely too much for what we were served.
Noir et L’or, 1075 Budapest, Kiraly u. 17, (+36 1 413 0236); closest metro stop on the yellow line: Opera
Restaurant Hanna, in the Jewish Quarter, was someplace we went in search of breakfast. We went solely because our friend traveling with us, Hanna, thought it’d be fun to visit her “namesake.” : ) Of course, when we walked in to a room of staring faces, we realized we were eating in the Orthodox Jewish cafeteria of a nearby synagogue. Oops. Nobody was unfriendly, but we felt out of place. We told the server we were interested in breakfast, and she just brought out four plates of fluffy scrambled eggs. They were good, and amazingly, our total was 2600 HUF ($16). So that’s a plus. But I wouldn’t recommend going back unless you’re keeping Kosher.
One last note on eating out: we were browsing the Central Market expecting to find something like Borough Market or La Boqueria. But other than an aisle or two of only-produce stalls, it was all tourist goods (think paprika bagged in cheery burlap bags emblazoned with “budapest”) and four or five food stalls. Starving, we tried the fried dough (langos) stand. I ordered the cheese and sour cream-topped langos, just like the local guy ahead of me recommended, and apparently adding the red onions and paprika salsa doubled the price of my langos to about $8. It was too many toppings for something that was served on a piece of paper towel. I didn’t enjoy it, much as I love fried foods. Russell had slightly better luck with his red cabbage topping, but overall, I don’t think you’re missing a big food experience if you skip the Central Market.