mitteleuropa, part ii: animal fat, three ways. the hungarians do not seem to believe in light, unsubstantial fare. or if they do, they're good at hiding it. it is not at all difficult to eat well in budapest, but i was given great direction. i can't say if this holds true for all restaurants there, but they were definitely more into ambient lighting than the italians, because many of my photos from dinner are a bit too dark. i did some photoshopping, which hopefully hasn't produced really heinous results. let's start at the beginning, at nagycsarnok, the great market: which is clearly ginormous. and much of it is devoted to some really really ugly 'folk art' (read: tourist tchotchkes). but in the basement, one finds at least three pickle stalls and fishmongers and butchers as well: there are also butchers on the main floor, next to produce sellers and the dudes with the paprika (say with me, people: PAH-pree-kah. not pa-PREE-kah). which means peppers in all their glorious shapes and forms (fresh, dried, pulverized, in paste, you name it, they eat it). but the floor we really care about is above. you squeeze past the ugly tourist crap until you find the beer stalls and stalls that sell sausages, chicken, veal and other paprikas (PAH-pree-kash') (paprika stews), rice, cabbage, peppers and beans. and we of course had to try at least four of the sausages, from left (presumably, since the lady's description of them all was 'different. all different'): paprika/garlic, blood, liver and a sort of plainer kielbasa-like one. they're served with excellent sauerkraut and some remarkably greasy and tasty potatoes. the veal paprikas had really lovely, intense flavor and complexity. great beans. this, of course, was after we made the requisite stop at the lángos stall. i was urged to hunt down lángos by two of my budapest advisors. apparently, this delectable, delectable treat is getting harder to find all the time. and we have no idea why, because people, it is fucking good. good in that completely not-good-for-you-at-all kinda way. it's a big ol' disc of fried dough that they then smother with sour cream and sprinkle with shredded cheese. the closest approximation i can come up with for the dough is churro-like, but there's also a chinese fried dough thing, called you tiao, that's similar, but crunchier. this is not for the faint of heart. before i forget to mention, the other great aspect of eating in hungary, besides the food itself, is the cheapness. we got both those plates for 1200 forints, or about $5.77. and that's just the market. there's a great pastry tradition in hungary, and we aren't ones to miss out on tradition, so on our trip to the castle district, we made sure to stop by the fabled ruszwurm, where the windows are full of such sublime creations as esterházy torta, a walnut cream egg custard confection. gerbeaud szelet, which has has layers of wafers and apricot. meggy rétes, or sour cherry strudel (so, so, so good), and our favorite everywhere we went, pogacsa, a biscuit-like savory pastry. but if the biscuit could be likened to a wee mouse, the pogacsa is like a capybara, or better yet, one of these guys. okay, bad analogy -- pogacsa is like a no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall biscuit that must contain copious amounts of butter and/or animal fat. i love ruszwurm's description of their pogacsak. we had two dinners out -- apparently, most hungarians eat dinner at home, so we were mostly surrounded by french, german, italian, british and american tourists (which i guess we qualify as). we went to kárpátia étterem (the latter means 'restaurant'), which, like so many dining establishments in budapest, has successfully retained its very old world feel and beautiful, turn-of-the-century decor: we began with the meat plate: and for good measure we had them add some foie gras. and speaking of, the hungarians have an extraordinary amount of foie gras at their disposal it seems. i mean, every butcher erects fortresses of tins of fatty goose liver on top of his glass case, and every restaurant/bar/café offers at least one preparation (some offer at least four). they use it like a garnish, the way the italians use parsley and raw carrots (guess which i prefer?). the foie here would be those big pale slabs on the right. clockwise, from 6 o'clock, we've got mangalica sausage, made from these ridiculous-looking beasts and another spicy, coarser salami, and a third finer-ground, super-fatty salami that spurted oil and bits of fat when you bit into it. the pickled onions (2 o'clock) were delicious. matt got a sort of cockerel paprikas, which came with two fist-sized túros dumplings (túros being the beloved hungarian version of quark, or a sort of cottage cheese). while very tasty, we were both more impressed with my csusza, their typical square-cut pasta (that is very similar to maltagliati). this is covered in a sour cream sauce into which a heaping portion of oyster mushroom-like mushrooms have been added. yet again, probably not good for me, but i can't say i didn't enjoy it. or that i didn't reallyreallyreally enjoy it. oh, before i forget, hungarian wines are fantastic. they seem to be becoming the hot new thing in the states, but i think they're probably still overlooked or difficult to find outside the big metropolises. i'd never even heard of the villányi region, but the reds from this area are fantastic. they tend to vint cabs, cab francs and the like. they have a wonderful fullness in the mouth but aren't overpowering. they go perfectly with hungarian food, of course, but would make a great red for regular drinking. and of course, everyone knows about tokaji aszu botrytized wines, but i also had some lovely dry tokaji as well. (how convenient that tokaji aszu takes to foie gras like nothing else. i'll take it over sauternes any day. okay, i lie. i'll take both.) there's just dozens of hungarian varietals that i've never even heard of, not to mention regions. the possibilities make me all kinds of excited. and no, we're not done yet. i really should have broken this up into separate posts, but i think getting the full effect is not unlike the experience of actually eating in hungary. so, dinner saturday night was at borvendéglo'' 1849, gundel's (perhaps the most renowned budapest restaurant) youngest sibling. located in gundel's wine cellar, the setting and ambience are definitely among the best i've ever come across in europe. and the food was just spot on: first of all, because they give you a little basket of mini-pogacsak. just as buttery and delightful as ruszwurm's. the requisite cured meat assortment. from top, counterclockwise: (smoked?) chicken breast, wrapped in bacon. some túros spread, paprikafied, i think. some nice peppery unidentifiable sprouts. cured venison. there's some duck breast stuffed with its liver somewhere on there, but what we care about most are the goose cracklings on the right. yeah, sick-making, this was. in the best way, of course. oh, and there's a pear and some raw pepper slices too. for his first course, matt had the spinach palacsinta (pancake), covered in a bleu-cheese sauce. excellent. he loved it, but i have to say, i much preferred my roe-deer ragout soup with potato dumplings. a dollop of sour cream, some generous chunks of chestnut and potato and carrot. yum. unfortunately, matt's main dish came out much too dark for posting, but my oven-crisped goose leg seems to be discernible. we've also got braised cabbage and a sort of potato mash thing going on here. both goose and cabbage left me speechless. or maybe i said something along the lines of 'wow, more -- goose -- fat. mmmmrrrmmmph.' matt's main course was, in a word, ridiculous. it was slabs of veal, beef and pork, all cooked to tender, juicy, velvety perfection and covered with a sick, sick red wine demi-glace sauce (the hungarians have their sauces down; i've never had such perfect sauces) with grilled foie gras. yeah, so altogether, we managed to consume seven different kinds of animal. we skipped dessert. i should mention again how reasonably priced the food is here as well. the cost of all this, plus a bottle of wine and an aperitif for each of us for both dinners came to about $50 each. and both were definitely at least 5 times better than most places that cost twice as much in new york. on sunday, before we left town, we managed to squeeze in a trip to gerbeaud, the most famous pastry shop in budapest. and though many wish to pooh-pooh it for its touristy-ness, they really do turn out some great pastries. we had more pogacsa, naturally, but then broke down and got the foie gras terrine plate, which came with roasted endive and little brioche rolls. i'm sorry to say i left my camera in the hotel, because not only is gerbeaud breathtakingly appointed, with great views of the square outside, but we got three hand-sized, half-inch-thick slabs of terrine. it seems like most of the foie gras here is made from goose. i think goose fat is now streaming through my veins. november seems like a good month for salads. (aside from the obvious seasonality issues.) but seriously, no more meat. (well, until turkey day, anyway.)
mitteleuropa, a first foray. part i: sights. matt and i went to budapest this weekend. he was in charge of the sights, and i, of course, was in charge of the eats. let's see how he fared: terrorháza, the house of terror, a museum that depicts the nazi and communist regimes in hungary and budapest and the unbelievable tragedies they wrought upon the people there. this definitely makes my top 6 museums of all time (which, in case you were wondering, are: 1. moma (new york city) 2. cooper hewitt (new york city) 3. terrorháza (budapest, hungary) 4. fondation maeght (st. paul de vence, france) 5. musée picasso (antibes, france) 6. tate modern (london, UK) who was it that requested more top __ lists? you happy now? and no, i still haven't been to the met. yes, yes, sad, i know.). it was remarkably designed -- singularly so -- and just had reams and reams of information about every aspect of these periods. this museum is located on andrássy ut, the big boulevard that runs out from the center, past the opera house and out to heroes square and városliget, the city park, which we unfortunately did not get to see in daylight. but here's the millenary monument in heroes square: budapest is divided by the danube into buda and pest. we spent most of our time in the city in pest, which seems to be where the action's at, but we crossed the bridge more than a few times, once at night (here, you can see the buda royal castle, all lit up in the distance. matt and i agree that the hungarians know how to illuminate their monuments.) and then again to see st. matthias church, a neo-gothic monster of a church that rises above the city and is conveniently right next to the buda royal castle. which i find more institutional-looking than most and really, not all that (but i'm difficult to impress when it comes to castles), but the view ain't bad:


en france, nous mangeons comme ça. shellfish at the grand café de turin. picnic on the banks of the rhone in avignon: and the vines in châteauneuf-du-pape:


sur le pont d'avignon we drove west, west, west this weekend, for a brief respite from italian food and -- it must be said -- italians. we stopped first in nice to break up the journey, just long enough to eat dinner and then get some sleep before heading off the next day for avignon, a well-preserved medieval city that was once the seat of the papacy (in the 14th century). these pope guys did not have spartan tendencies, even back then. which means that avignon looks like there's all kinds of beautiful gothic architecture all around town, though, and many, many of those lovely narrow streets and alleyways that give the town a labyrinthine feel. but of course, we spent most of our time at the market: staring at foie gras and bread (which is at least eight orders of magnitude better than piemontese bread (and why is that? we're only a few hours away. you'd think the proximity would influence the breadbakers here, but no. crustless cotton balls, anyone?)) and picked up some provisions for a picnic on the rhone, just outside the city walls. on sunday, we took a little detour through châteauneuf-du-pape to pick up wine and to check out the view from the chateau on the hill. which is not a bad view. (there's that rhone in the distance.) the vines here are remarkably different looking from those in piemonte -- we passed many vineyards driving in and through and for the longest time couldn't figure out what they were, they were so short, stubby and tidy. châteauneuf-du-pape is also much flatter than we'd anticipated, compared to the rolling hills one thinks of as wine country. most of the vines seem to grow on the flattest parts as well. seeing these vines up close and in person definitely gives the whole act of drinking the area's wines a whole new dimension. after some discussion of pan bagnat, getting this sandwich (of tuna, hard-boiled egg, anchovies, olives, sometimes peppers, tomato and lettuce) became an idée fixe and we decided to stop off in antibes on the way back for lunch. and here, the view is different (and the temperature 15 degrees warmer than in piemonte, of course):