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Where to Eat in Budapest, According to a Chef

Chef Tim Wiechmann is the man behind Boston’s lauded German-focused Bronwyn restaurant. Wiechmann is on a mission to promote what he feels is the underrepresented cuisine of Central and Eastern Europe. “It’s a region known more in the U.S. for its beer than its food,” he jokes. He’s recently been traveling throughout Eastern Europe to research his forthcoming cookbook, as well as the menu for his next restaurant. Here, he shares highlights from a trip to Hungary.

Pearl of the Danube

“Budapest is the gem city of Eastern Europe, endowed with beautiful architecture, a long and lazy river, extremely amicable people, and a unique culinary landscape—one part Germanic, one part Ottoman, one part Balkan—yet all Hungarian. Its scenery is as grand as Paris or London: a massive parliamentary palace and an ancient castle oppose each other on each side of the city (called Buda and Pest), connected by stately bridges from various eras. In addition, the unique colors of Hungary (a pale green, red, and white) detail the shutters, flags, windows, and just about everything else you see about the city. If that isn’t enough, the city sits atop a huge thermal spring that is prized for health and culturally engages the city’s people via the numerous baths. Most of these baths are highly adorned in mosaic tiles and are works of art in themselves.

“We stayed in a historic hotel, named Hotel Corinthia, which aside from the spectacular service (the Eastern Europeans seem to understand understated, non-ostentatious hospitality), had a terrific spa. The spa was modeled after an Ottoman design several hundreds of years old, and each day we swam in one of the various pools, that brought up salty, 120-degree water from the earth. Late at night, after a full day of sightseeing and eating, we would drink a beer on the hotel roofdeck overlooking the city, while watching the Football World Cup, which was going on. In addition to seeing the major sites that are a requirement to visiting the city (Parliament, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Vaserely Museum) we also explored the great food.”

A Unique Cuisine

“One of the reasons Hungary has excellent food is the country’s advantageous agricultural location. Hungary sits on the Central European Plain, which allows for extensive animal husbandry and excellent grain and vegetable growing capabilities. Nearby is the large Lake Baleton, whose rivers and streams provide carp, salmon, and other fresh water delicacies. Agriculture is strong here, with a mild temperate climate that has enough sunshine to support peppers and tomatoes. Culturally whisk in an Austrian occupation and a Turkish influence on top of this (with traditional Jewish cookery mixed in) and you have a recipe for a unique cuisine.”

 Hungary’s Star Vegetable

“No vegetable is more famous here than the paprika. I tasted three paprika from an artisan farmer at a market, and discovered I had actually never had cayenne pepper or Hungarian paprika before. Their flavors were so deep and pronounced. Paprika in Hungary is processed in different ways via texture (fine to coarse) and according to spiciness. For instance mild is called csipossegmentes, and hot is eros, or fine-sweet is edes-nemes.

“The Hungarians put paprika in everything—in the cream sauce, cut raw beside pork fat spread, eaten pickled at breakfast. However, the flavor, juiciness and crispness win you over very quickly. Dip it into fresh Hungarian cottage cheese and you are a happy guy. And don’t miss it in the prized dry cured salami called cispos kolbasz, which after you slice it, permeates a deep perfume of dried pork and paprika.”

Must-Try Meat Dishes

“Meat is serious business in Hungary. The gulyas (or goulash) comes from peasant cookery of Central Europe. Seen also in the Balkans, it is made of beef, lamb, veal, or goat, slow simmered in an iron kettle over a wood fire with paprika, tomato, and onion. A good gulyas is not too thick. It is delicate and perfumey, finished with small potatoes, some little dumplings (like spatzle) and a good dollop of sour cream. It is eaten as a starter in modern restaurants. Beef is delicious in Hungary. There is a large Hungarian cow with huge horns that is raised to perfection in the plains. Good pork is a staple, with dishes like koromporklett, a stew with pork shank, or debrencen, a famous smoked paprika sausage.”

Carb Heaven

“Baked goods are a core to the daily Hungarian routine. The crescent is by far the most famous item, a sweet and soft roll, shaped like a half moon, with multiple fillings and variations: walnuts, poppy seeds, coconut. I ate a lot of strudels in the traditional Germanic style (flaky pastry) but also with quick yeast doughs, known as beigli. These are bread doughs rolled out and smothered in a filling, then rolled and baked. Apple, cherry and walnut strudel are common as well. Fried donuts called szalagos are filled with lemon cream or raspberry jam. But the most famous is probably the Hungarian palacinta. This is a pancake that is used either for sweet or savory preparation. It is thicker than a crepe, but not quite as thick as an American buttermilk pancake. I had variations filled with braised chicken and smothered in the famous Hungarian sour cream. The most famous are available at Gundel Restaurant. Another terrific Hungarian item is called langos (a seasonal favorite on my menu at Bronwyn). Langos is essentially a fried dough, made with lard and milk, then fried and covered with a variety of toppings—from crispy pig ears to grilled corn. Also be sure to try krumplis, sweet potato dumplings (a gnocchi derivative) filled with apricot jam and crusted with almonds.”

Underdog Wines

“The Hungarians have been growing the grapes for thousands of years, and their wines are nothing short of first class. The Tokaji 5 Puttonyus is the most famous, and actually exported (This sweet, botryticized wine was a favorite of the French King Louis XIV). But there are many grapes vinified dry, both red and white, that I found rival the best reds and whites from even France. I particularly like the aged Furmint, which can reach a deep, rich golden color, with complex perfumes of mushrooms and grassland.”

Tim Wiechmann’s Budapest Restaurant Black Book

“A Michelin-star establishment that uses high-level French technique to create a very Hungarian menu. Highlights are the butter plate (six varieties including duck fat butter and paprika butter), the homemade bread, the river carp, and the exceptional wine list and service.”

“The most prestigious restaurant in Budapest with stately Austro-Hungarian décor. Gundel serves very good gulyas and palacinta.”

Bock Bisztro
“A very approachable and delicious wine bar in the brasserie style from an excellent chef. We went twice. The restaurant owns a winery and features many of their own terrific wines.”

Onyx Restaurant
“Another high quality Michelin restaurant that was closed when we visited, but a good friend just told me how great it was. Next trip!”

Trofea Grill
“A very festive and traditional restaurant that has nearly all of the Hungarian specialties listed above. I had fried carp.”

Photo by Michael Adubato