Say what you like about Parisians, but you can never call them short on self-confidence. And it’s just as well, because after decades of their city being acknowledged as the undisputed capital of great food and greater restaurants, now it seems barely a week goes by without some place or other calling themselves the new centre of the culinary universe.
The latest challenger is Budapest, where rumblings of a foodie revolution have been in the air ever since slickly presented eatery Costes (+36 1 219 0696) bagged itself a Michelin star in 2010. Attempts to emulate Costes’ success have seen new openings springing up across town, old favourites upping their game and tables across the city being booked up quicker than a Britpop reunion show.
While Budapest’s dining scene has sprung to life, then, so far, only one restaurant has joined Costes in the city’s newly established elite. Opened in 2007 and situated just off József Nádor Square in the centre of town, neo-baroque styled Onyx (+36 30 508 0622) got the nod from the folks at Michelin in 2011. The restaurant’s signature ‘Hungarian evolution’ tasting menu is the undoubted key to its success, taking classic Eastern European cuisine and running it through the molecular gastronomy lab. The result – a seven-course meal lavished with purees, reductions and more foam than an Ibiza nightclub – is absolutely exquisite, with produce as unfashionable as rabbit, white beans and cabbage rendered triumphant by exceptional imagination and a tremendous amount of technical skill. At over £100 a head (with wine pairing) Onyx certainly isn't cheap – but as an ambassador for Hungary’s ambition to be taken seriously by the world’s gastronomes, it couldn’t be stronger.
Thankfully, though, the culinary uprising isn’t exclusive to those with platinum cards to flex. Down by the river at Gepárd És Űrhajó (+36 70 329 7815) – a more casual spot with a standalone drinking area – Italian and German influenced mains like duck breast with herby gnocchi and pork schnitzel are excellent value at around Ft3,000 (about £8), while the wine selection is equally well-priced and almost as extensive as that at Onyx. Prices are just as reasonable at Kárpátia (+36 1 317 3596) – a veteran of the city’s dining scene, where steamy bowls of goulash and huge hunks of grilled venison come presented under unintentionally kitsch silver domes. Modern and trendy it most certainly isn’t, but at Ft9,000 for a four-course set meal of hearty Hungarian classics, its worth cramping your style for.
Away from the polished cutlery and amuse-bouches, the city also offers plenty to appease less sophisticated cravings. Ring Café & Gourmet Burger Bar (+36 1 331 5790) near the city park is the clear king of the diners, serving up inventive, perfectly grilled burgers (try the stilton-studded ‘black & blue’ for a particularly intense experience) and crisp skin-on fries, while a young crowd make the most of the free wi-fi to complete the trendy urban hangout look. Meanwhile, for good sushi, head to Takebayashi-Bambuszliget (+36 1 318 1144) on the Pest side of the Danube, where the fish is fresh and served in generous portions. For bigger appetites, a set dinner including grilled fish, tempura and udon costs around £25 for two – a price which, incredibly, includes a bottle of wine.
Speaking of the grapey stuff, it’s also worth making a trip to Faust Wine Cellar (+36 20 326 3503) near Buda Castle for a crash course in Hungarian wine, which must surely be among the most underrated in the world. A six-glass tasting package costs Ft4,800, while hard-core drinkers can try eight glasses plus a sample of pálinka – the notoriously potent Hungarian brandy – for Ft6,800. Though it’s not actually affiliated with the hotel, the cave-like space is accessed through the Hilton near Buda Castle – ask at reception and they'll point you in the right direction. It's also advisable to book a taxi to pick you up after you're done quaffing, since navigating your way down the treacherously steep Castle Hill is a challenge even without half a vineyard in you.
And then there’s the pastries. Wherever you go in Budapest, it seems you’re rarely out of nose-shot of a hot batch of freshly baked treats. Small stalls are a fixture in just about every one of the city’s Metro stations, the resulting buttery waft giving those ascending the escalators the impression that they’re about to step out into a city made entirely of croissants. Crescent-shaped kiflis aren’t a million miles away from the French favourite, although they’re breadier and tend to sport savoury (poppy seed, caraway seed and cheese seem to be the staples) rather than sweet fillings, while puffy salatini are best likened to bite-size sausage rolls and pogásca resemble miniature scones. All can be bought by weight from the city’s many bakeries, costing around Ft1,000 per kilo.
Sweet treats are also ubiquitous, with cake shops along the touristy hub of Váci Street tempting enough to break even the most determined calorie-counter. For the ultimate in sugary decadence, though, head around the corner to Auguszt (+36 1 337 6379) on Kossuth Lajos Street, where cake and coffee for two (the ginger cake in particular is moist, sticky and sublime) will set you back around Ft1,910 – that’s just a whisker over £5.
While great food is everywhere you turn in Budapest, then, this isn’t a city that’s simply obsessed with stuffing its face. There’s the impression that it’s also hugely curious about the food it’s eating and tremendously proud of its native cuisine. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Szimpla Kert (+36 20 261 8669), a delightfully scuzzy, squat-like bar in the Jewish quarter featuring enough reclaimed furniture, marker pen grafitti and general hipster kudos that it wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch or Greenwich Village. The centrepiece is a large food market in the main hallway, where you can buy everything from live rabbits to fresh fruit and veg. But it’s a heaving table of mangalica sausage (a local variety that comes from an odd-looking breed of pig with sheep-like fur) that draws the most attention from the fashionable young crowd, and after sampling the soft, chorizo-esque meat, it’s not hard to see why. Tasters are free, but with prices once again so reasonable, it makes sense to buy a chunk, have it hacked up into bite-sized pieces and nibble away with your pint of Dreher.
Let’s make this clear, then – Budapest isn’t ‘the new Paris’. Crucially, though, it’s also massively apparent that it doesn’t want to be. From the modern riffs on classic fare at Onyx to Szimpla’s locally-sourced beer snacks, the driving force behind the foodie uprising in the city – and doubtless elsewhere in Hungary – seems to be a simple case of confidence. And while we expect it’ll be a while before Eastern European flavours find a place in mainstream Western cooking, a visit remains an eye-opening, mouth-watering experience.