Fine dining in Budapest: How the city has become a culinary force

(CNN) – Although Budapest may be primarily known for its architecture, geothermal springs and communist heritage, the city’s gastronomic scene has received much attention in recent years.

New and exciting fine dining places are constantly opening up in the Hungarian capital, many led by productive chefs eager to inject imagination and prestige into the Budapest dining experience.

Two restaurants in the Hungarian capital have been awarded new Michelin stars in the last 12 months alone, bringing the total number of Michelin-awarded establishments in Budapest to six.

Hungary first got its first Michelin star nine years ago, so it’s a pretty remarkable turnaround.

There is no doubt that a culinary revolution is underway in the “Danube Pearl”, but what has led to this budding movement?

A record number of tourists and a thriving economy have certainly played a role.

With Hungary’s difficult past well documented, it is fair to say that fine dining has not necessarily been a high priority for locals haunted by communist austerity.

“Hungary has always been a pretty poor country,” explains Hungarian food critic Andras Jokuti. “So the main goal of Hungarian cuisine was to stay alive. It was very important to have plenty of protein and carbohydrates – it was based on potatoes and meat.”

Culinary movement

Miguel Vieira at the Budapest restaurant Costes tells CNN Travel what makes great, creative cuisine.

Changing this perception has been a lengthy process that continues today. However, the tide is definitely about to turn.

Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira believes that this is partly due to the fact that good quality products have become more readily available in the country over the past decade.

“We’ll have to buy butter from abroad [before] because there was no good quality butter here, “he tells CNN.

“Everything is completely different now.”

Vieira leads Costes, based in Raday Street, and was at the helm of the restaurant when it became the first in the country to achieve a Michelin star back in 2010.

He produces modern offerings of classic Hungarian dishes, and serves four to seven-course menus with various wine combinations.

Jokuti feels that Vieira squirted life into the dining scene by early mixing both Hungarian and Portuguese influences into his dishes.

“When Miguel arrived in Budapest, it was like the beginning of the fine dining history of Hungary,” he says.

Vieira admits he knew little about Hungarian cuisine when he came to the country all those years ago and was often “hammered by critics.”

“My cooking has changed a lot,” he adds. “Now I can proudly tell you that my stamp is in the food.”

“One of the biggest compliments we can get here is, if anyone says, ‘I felt like this dinner had personality.’

While Vieira tries to incorporate Hungarian traditions into his dishes, this is not the “ultimate goal” and he certainly does not have Michelin stars in mind while in the kitchen.

“I always say to the boys, ‘We have to cook ourselves.’ We have to do what we believe in. “It’s not about cooking at prices,” he adds. “It does not look for stars or recognition.

“It’s the cherry on top of the cake. But that’s not why we work 14, 15 or 16 hours a day.”

Modern interpretations

Chef Tamas Szell from Budapest restaurant Stand on his modern interpretations of traditional Hungarian dishes.

Hungarian chef Tamas Szell has been credited with putting Hungarian food on the map back in 2016, when his modern interpretations of the country’s traditional dishes won him the gold medal at the prestigious ‘Bocuse D’or Europe’ competition.

Szell and co-chef Szabina Szulló leading the kitchen at Stand, which was awarded its first Michelin star in March, has a similar approach to cooking as Vieira.

“Food is the best communication between a chef and the guests,” Szell tells CNN.

“Hopefully our dishes contain the sweet memories of childhood. When I make a dish, it must be acceptable to both our grandmothers and a Michelin inspector. This is the hardest part. [part] I think.”

Stand opened in Budapest in 2018 after the success of the market semi-bistro Stand25, which Szell and Szulló also ran together.

“My inspirations definitely come from my childhood,” he adds. “My mother had a saying, ‘we are poor, but we live well’.”

Szell says his fish soup, which contains carp, peppers, water and small ravioli pasta known as deraya in Hungary, is the second most popular soup after goulash.

“When I was a kid, my mom often made it this way,” he explains.

Szell’s dishes seem to have the desired effect. Stand, based on Székely Mihály Street, has been a big hit since its launch.

In fact, Jokuti describes it as the “perfect Hungarian restaurant”, praising the inventive way Szell manages to tone down the richness of traditional Hungarian cuisine.

“This, I think, is his greatest achievement. Somehow to recreate the traditions into something modern,” says Jokuti.

Szell picks up its dairy products from a small farm just outside Budapest, which supplies to a handful of fine restaurants in the city.

Within 48 hours after the milk has left the cow’s udder, it is served back on Stand in the form of cottage cheese,

“I think the ingredients are the most important,” Szell adds. “The good ingredients are always trying to find the chef, and the chef is always trying to find the best ingredients.”

Find out why Budapest restaurant Babel is a unique part of the city’s culinary scene.

Located in the center of Budapest, Babel is one of the latest restaurants in the city to have been awarded a Michelin star.

It is relatively small with about a dozen tables, exposed brick walls and dim lighting, offering an intimate dining experience.

Inspired by Hungarian traditions and the Romanian region of Transylvania, chef Istvan Vere presents five to 10-course tasting menus containing simple ingredients such as stinging nettle or lichen.

Veres says that cooking is an “obsession” rather than a passion for him, and describes how he often dreams of a dish and then tries to bring it to life the very next day.

“In fine dining, you have to do something special, something unique,” ​​he says. “You put your soul on the plate.”

“I’m never afraid of new things.”

According to Jokuti, it is this fearlessness that makes Veres such a groundbreaking chef.

“Istvan’s taste is not so easy to follow,” says Jokuti. “I love going to Babel because I always get surprised.”

Basic ingredients

Budapest restaurant Salt

Salt is expected to be the next Budapest restaurant to receive a Michelin star.

Courtesy Salt Budapest

Hoping to repeat the success of Stand, Babel and Costes, the new eatery is Salt, which has only been open since October.

It is run by chef Szilard Toth and manager Mate Boldizsar, who often serves the dishes to diners.

Toth regularly goes in foraging for products in the Hungarian countryside and returns with all types of edible delicacies.

“We find so many basic ingredients that an average chef doesn’t see very often,” Toth tells CNN.

“It means we can introduce a world of flavors to our food – amazing flavor combinations that can’t be found anywhere else.”

The chef’s table is located in the middle of the restaurant so guests can go and ask questions about the dishes or just watch Toth and his team in action.

The dishes are presented simply – some do not even require cutlery – and customers can choose a Hungarian wine menu to complement their meal.

The team at Salt are proud to transform basic products into fine dining, and the restaurant is filled with jars containing fermented or pickled items found in the woods.

“We have a course called Fatty Bread,” says Boldizsar. “In its original form, it’s a very, very simple dish.

“Just a piece of bread with some fat. We put some bacon on, some caviar and some lambskin.”

Only time will tell if Salt gets a coveted Michelin star, but the restaurant looks set to win the May guests over the short time it has been in existence.

“I think he is [Toth] shows that it is possible to create a very hedonistic but still very modern meal from sometimes humble but very Hungarian ingredients, “says Jokuti.

A restaurant like Salt would have seemed unthinkable in the Hungarian capital a few years ago.

Its appearance is a clear indication of the adventurous direction in which the city’s culinary scene is currently moving.

“It’s really fascinating to witness these times in Hungarian cuisine,” says Jokuti.

“I travel a lot and visit the world’s best restaurants. It’s great to see that I can come home and eat at these fine restaurants.

“It’s not like, ‘Okay, it’s not that good, but it’s at least Hungarian.’

“It can be a pleasure, it can be a thrill. We have achieved a very fantastic level.”

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