Budapest: Baths, Baked Goods and a Life-Changing Meal

Budapest: Baths, Baked Goods and a Life-Changing Meal

A Hungarian proverb: "Ki a kicsit nem becsüli, a nagyot nem érdemli."

"He who doesn't appreciate the little does not deserve the big."

This is a follow-up to my Budapest Trip Part I, hereOn Day Four we also took a side trip to Vienna, Austria by train.

Day Five (post-Vienna trip):

For a late brunch, we headed to Lotz Hall - Book Café, which was a lovely old-fashioned spot tucked behind a modern bookstore.

I ordered a Dreher beer and Körözött, which is a paprika-spiced cottage cheese, with a baguette, and vegetables. It was very comforting, reminiscent of the classic Southern pimiento cheese, and the Hungarian peppers on the side were a nice, crunchy addition.

Then we took a nice walk toward St. Stephen's Cathedral, and wanted to grab an early afternoon coffee. We ended up treating ourselves at one of Budapest's best-rated spots, Gerbeaud.

We had a few desserts specifically in mind, to accompany our coffee, and first got a very fancy version of Somlói Galuska, a cake trifle with rum.

It was excellent, little islands of sponge cake soaked in rum and chocolate.

Now, because we are so good at sharing, we also got a classic, though admittedly strange-looking, Gesztenyepüré, or chestnut purée, dessert. Always finding myself surprised by cognates, as castaño is chestnut in Spanish, which sounds strangely similar when pronounced aloud.

It was very strongly rum-infused, and had cherries hidden in the center of the odd-looking, tangled nest of chestnut purée. It was a very different taste and texture sensation that I'm glad I got the chance to try, especially in such an elegant setting.

Now, hold on to your hats, my friends, because I am about to describe a food experience that changed the way I think about food.

When we visited Zeller Bistro, I enjoyed one of the most incredible meals of my life. It's not often that a meal makes me re-think everything, but this was one of them.

As soon as we walked in, we were greeted with elderflower-infused champagne at the door. The restaurant was small, and tucked into a less-commercial area, and the man who sat us down was one of the owners, explaining that nearly everything on the menu came from his family's farm or winery, near Lake Balaton. Explaining the menu to us, starting with the story of his father being a wine-maker, a few uniquely Hungarian items came up, besides the extensive wine list."Grey" beef was among them, coming from the protected Hungarian Grey Cattle, and Mangalica, a Hungarian pig breed with its own festival turned out to be the centerpiece of the night, for me.

But, before I get ahead of myself, we started out with Östermelöi Sonka És Szalámi Tál, a country ham and salami plate. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, especially when paired with subtle dabs of paprika sauce, tomatoes, and country bread. It reminded me of a classic Polish breakfast, with bread, thinly sliced meats, and cheeses spread out with onions and tomatoes for a good, old-fashioned kanapka.

 

We had ordered the house lager, and a house white wine (my first wine tasting went more smoothly than I expected). The wine was pleasantly dry, but the beer was particularly good. I had a few sips, and the aroma was distinctly grassy, like fresh straw. It was one of the best-smelling beers I've ever tried.

Then, we moved on to the föétel, or main course. We ordered a Supreme Csirke Curry Mártással És Zöldségekkel, or a chicken with curry sauce and vegetables. We also ordered the Mangalica Tarja Paprikás Krumplival, which was a deliciously buttery Mangalica pork chop with "paprikás krumpli."

I truly did not know what to do after trying my first bite. It was so perfect. The mangalica was perfectly crispy on the outside, and fall-apart soft in the center. The sauce was sweet, laced with paprika and sour cream, punctuated by pieces of cured meat and potatoes to accompany the mangalica.

We then got the Napi Mostoha Torta, or the "Daily Stepmom's Cake," which for us was apple. The crust was perfectly buttery and crispy. Crust goals were brought to a new level, for my own baking.

This trip has me thinking a lot. About my hiatus from over a year of vegetarianism (and whether I will be going back or not), about food sourcing, and about the culture surrounding the sharing and thoughtful enjoyment of food.

Budapest has proven to be a haven for the thoughtful enjoyment of a meal, a walk, or a moment.

Day Six

Today's mid-afternoon coffee break, at Smuz, consisted of me trying Hungarian coffee with pálinka, a traditional Hungarian brandy in it. To be truthful, it was a bit more than I bargained for. Pretty strong -- glad I tried it, but probably won't do it again.

I accompanied this with Mákos guba vanília sodóval,  a traditional poppyseed cake with vanilla custard.

We also ordered a Gesztenye Torta, or chestnut cake, which came dotted with cherries, to split, as well. Strategic double dessert-splitting is marvelous.

We walked around a while, working up a hunger after some vigorous tourist-dodging and window shopping. We decided that we wanted to try kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes, which are roasted over coals and dipped in your choice of toppings, ranging from almonds to cocoa to coconut. We chose vanilla sugar.

Kürtőskalács

Kürtőskalács

Hungarian versions of fried dough seem to be plentiful, including lángos, as well as these delightful chimney cakes. Next time, I think I'll go with my beloved coconut.

After a few hours more of walking around, and a rest at the hotel, we headed out to Comme Chez Soi, the absolute top-rated restaurant in Budapest. I was skeptical, at first, expecting a tourist trap. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.

The restaurant was cozy. Like, really cozy. We counted 22 seats total. It was lovely.

We were greeted with champagne for having waited (really, we just went and had a drink next door, isn't life just so difficult sometimes?) and sat down to some antipasti of prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, bread, and herbed butter. We also ordered some cheese croquettes which were perfectly crispy, like grown-up mozzarella sticks.

Then we ordered Sertés Szüz Fokhagymásan, or garlic pork medallions with mashed potatoes, and Vörösboros Marharagu, or red wine beef stew.

The pork medallions came from, you guessed it, the same Mangalica pigs as my incredible meal the previous night at Zeller Bistro. Glad I stuck to the local stuff.

We then shared an unassuming-looking but absolutely creamy and delicious tiramisu, paired with a sweet Tokaji dessert wine that was presented to us along with a few unexpected dollops of lemon sorbet.

We then tucked into some pistachios with our espresso, and were offered tiny glasses of very strong Limoncello. Not a bad way to end the meal; "the Mediterranean way," according to our server, David.

We finished up our meal, nearly rolling ourselves out the door from having so many unexpected treats added to our already-generous meals, with a sleeve of chocolates pressed into my hand along the way. As if we needed more reasons to be impressed.

The nighttime view of the Danube, or Duna, has never been viewed by two more pleasantly stuffed and enchanted tourists.

Day Seven

On Day Seven, we woke up early and taking the Metro over to Gellért Hill to visit the Gellért Thermal Baths.

Though the process was (as expected) a confusing one, I came out of those thermal pools feeling like new; ready to take on my next adventure and my next meal.

Though the process was (as expected) a confusing one, I came out of those thermal pools feeling like new; the dips between the soothing warm pools and the small, and frigid-cold tubs seemed to do something good for the mind and body. I was ready to take on my next adventure and my next meal.

The pools were magnificent, and the level of comfort between strangers was strangely reassuring. Everyone was there at their own pace, doing their best to relax. After a morning of mild anxiety surrounding the trip to the baths, this new and comfortable perspective was pretty refreshing.

We then set out, crossing the green Liberty bridge back to the Pest side of Budapest, grabbing a quick and easy bite to eat (ending, again, with somlói galuska, our new favorite dessert), and walking back to the hotel.

For dinner, we decided on something decidedly un-traditional. We hit Tuning Bar and Burger, where I kept up my serious Mangalica pork momentum with this beast of a burger, complete with garlic, cracklings, and gravy.

It was as glorious as it was greasy, perfect paired with an Arany Jónás (Golden Jonas) beer, and a handful of salted, toasty peanuts. I hate to admit it, but it gave my favorite Southern BBQ spot a run for its money (Sorry, Dad).

We then hit one of Budapest's famous "ruin bars," Szimpla Kert. It really was a cool spot, with some decidedly eclectic furnishings and poor lighting, which added to the ambiance, but not my photography skills. For that, I apologize.

A strangely situated bar, with tourists galore, this would be a good spot for a rowdy group outing (we certainly saw our fair share while there), but not so much for a thoughtful post-dinner drink. Oh, well.

Day Eight

The next morning, we headed to Ket Szerecsen, off of good old Andrássy Útca that we traversed each day. I ordered the körözött, again, with baguette, and an egg scramble with a variety of cured (YOU GUESSED IT) Mangalica meats, tomatoes, and onions.

Eastern European breakfasts are probably the heartiest and most delightful that I've encountered so far. It is best for all involved that I have a decent serving of protein in the morning, and Hungary delivers.

We then spent a good deal of time walking around before our official tour of Parliament (now that we had figured out that we really did need to buy tickets online in advance). We stopped at Espresso Embassy, and sampled some oddly bitter-sour espresso, and finally had luck securing some flódni, a layered, traditionally Jewish pastry with poppyseed, apples, and nuts.

We then toured Parliament, which was an extremely quick tour, and learned that the crown jewels of Hungary were held in a fort in Kentucky for many years, to protect them in times of political instability, only being returned after a deal was struck with President Jimmy Carter. The cross adorning the crown is also bent, supposedly in an accident involving losing the keys to the royal jewel cabinet and busting open the doors -- sounds like a move I would make. "Sure, the crown looks better that way!" Unfortunately, we were not able to take any pictures in the crown hall.

Overall, Parliament was absolutely beautiful, and absolutely golden. I think they mentioned the amount of gold used to decorate the interior at least three times.

The outside looks like Hogwarts, which is also a plus.

We took a break in the Great Market Hall, after walking and overlooking the river for a few miles. The Hall had all sorts of produce stalls, spice vendors selling the classic Hungarian paprika, both sweet and spicy, lace sellers and all manner of clothing and textiles. I picked up a few line drawings of iconic Budapest buildings, to remember some of the views from the week. Mostly, though, I took in the smells and the sights of the market, quietly buzzing in the late-afternoon light.

We ended the day looking for a monument that we are pretty sure no longer exists (or has at the very least moved on to Ulm, Germany, according to online sources), and headed back to the hotel before having a last pub meal (chicken paprikash, or paprikás csirke, for me) before our very early-morning flight. Jet lag is the new normal.

The Part Where I Reflect on my Time

Hungary taught me to linger. In a country where the bill isn't shoved onto your table halfway through dessert, rather something that is requested by the diner, you learn to sit back and enjoy that post-meal espresso and contented silence. There is nothing like silent people-watching after a good meal. Feeling comfortable with yourself in the given moment, disregarding that tiny voice in the back of your head that many label as "fear of missing out," and instead replacing it with that lofty goal of presence is a concept, for me, that merits continuous improvement.

But, anyway, as they say in Hungary; Üres hasnak nem elég a szép szó, hanem a czipó. In other words: "Fine words are not enough for the empty stomach, it needs bread." Enough writing about the food, the next step is to re-create it and let it inform and inspire my cooking.