Maybe you already knew this. Maybe your familiarity with goulash surpasses thick, lumpy sauces dished out reluctantly in a lunch cafeteria, or maybe you long ago embraced Furmint in your wine repertoire. I, for one, was blindsided – and dazzled.
Like many warm-blooded pleasure-seekers out there short on shame, I travel to eat and drink. (It’s no mystery why we’ve been lingering in France and Italy these past few months.) But we found ourselves in early September, looking ahead at three uninterrupted weeks in Paris with zero agenda, and thought: let’s do something different. Think outside the rigatoni. A quick Google flight search revealed cheap tickets to Budapest, and subsequent research showed that since Hungary isn’t on the euro basically everything in Budapest is cheap. We cheerily booked a plane and an Airbnb, excited to hit the ground and do… I don’t know what. The food probably wouldn't be all that special, we thought, but, you know, thermal baths and castles and all that.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the punchline is this: we sorely underestimated the food in Budapest. Goulash is perfect, especially if you land in Hungary on a cold, rainy day – creamy, not gloopy, and bright with Hungarian paprika, always served alongside “egg noodles” (dumplings, kind of like spaetzle) with just the right amount of bite. (Fun fact: Apparently goulash and paprikash are basically the same thing, except the latter uses a roux for thickening.) Dishes tend to be hearty and light on veggies, except beets and cabbage, so I would recommend a) visiting when it cools down a bit, unless beef stew sounds good to you in the middle of July, and b) disinviting any vegetarian friends.
Our favorite stews came from Gettó Gulyás, where you can get paprikash made with chicken, veal, or lamb, and that is what most people do. If you visit, that is what you should do, too. The darling M Restaurant served Hungarian food with a French flair, so you can enjoy more paprikash, this time with a smoked salmon or foie gras starter.
Our one “fancy” meal was at KönyvBár, the top recommendation from our Airbnb host Lea, who was literally ten for ten with her restaurant picks by the end of the week. The name translates to “book bar,” and it’s set in a space that looks more like a café, with walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves surrounding a handful of dining tables. Every few weeks the chef picks a new book to focus on and builds a prix-fixe tasting menu around the plot – in our case, Paulo Coelho’s The Fifth Mountain. The dishes were well executed and presentations were beautiful, if quite literal: a smoked pork belly to represent a tragic fire and letter-shaped gnocchi heralding the development of the alphabet. Our attentive server described the parallel between each dish and the book’s plot, which would have been more memorable if we’d actually read it. But happily, cake tastes just as sweet with a dash of literary analysis.
Other highlights were the Jewish food we ate in the old Jewish quarter of the city – think matzo ball soup and more traditional Mediterranean favorites like hummus and falafel. We went twice to Köleves, a very cool restaurant-slash-B&B known for its matzo ball soup and vegetable dishes, which I’m embarrassed to say we largely skipped, save some exceptional braised cabbage. Instead, we favored the more barbaric goose confit (like duck, but more chicken-y!) and the baked beans with a smoked boiled egg buried underneath. Dobrumba had more traditional Lebanese cuisine and a clientele stylish to the point of intimidating, plus a whole menu of shakshuka varieties. I’ve been terribly shortsighted with shakshuka, it turns out.
Any Budapest guide will tell advise you to visit the Szimpla Farmers’ Market on Sunday, which you certainly should. It’s a bustling outdoor space where vendors line up their booths side by side and sell handmade cheese, bread, preserves, cured meats, and locally grown produce. A soup kitchen operates in the back of the market (my money’s on goulash), and locals and tourists brunch at the café upstairs. In fact, we were bigger fans of the closed Great Market Hall, much less charming to look at but rich with lunch-friendly street food, from Russian borscht to pastrami and sausages and, yes, ever more goulash. Our preferred lunch there came from A Séf Utcája (The Chef’s Street), which we came to call “the big sausage place,” for reasons that will be clear in photos.
Hungarians have been making wine since pre-Roman times, and today’s producers are serious about their craft. You won’t find the consistency you might in France or Italy in Hungary, but we tasted some incredible bottles from all over the country. We drank them before dinner at Doblo wine bar (the reds Kékfrankos and Kadarka won our hearts), where live bands play many nights and the cheese plates looked awfully inviting; and after dinner at the more raucous Kisüzem, shoulder to shoulder with beautiful people swigging beer and taking shots.
Speaking of shots, don’t leave Budapest without trying their pálinka, or fruit brandies. They’re made with most fruits, and they all taste quite different. If it were me, I’d order the plum, but John votes quince. They are nice enough to sip that you don’t have to take them as a shot, unless you crave the ceremony.
And coffee. We’ve dubbed Budapest the “Portland of Europe” thanks to its plentiful coffee houses and devotion to varied, complicated methods like cold brew and aeropress. Our favorite cafés were the bright, quiet My Green Cup, though I found their 45-minute wi-fi policy ungenerous, and My Little Melbourne, much cozier but with more personality and unusually salty but very appealing croissants.
Yours in goulash,
O & J