Fine Dining in Budapest: How the City Became a Culinary Power

(CNN) — While Budapest is primarily known for its architecture, geothermal springs and communist heritage, the city’s gastronomic scene has attracted considerable attention in recent years.

New and exciting fine-dining restaurants are constantly opening up in the Hungarian capital, many overseen by prolific chefs keen to add imagination and prestige to the Budapest dining experience.

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

Hungary only got its first Michelin star nine years ago, so this is quite a remarkable turnaround.

There’s no doubt that a culinary revolution is underway in the ‘Pearl of the Danube’, but what sparked this burgeoning movement?

Record tourist numbers and a booming economy have certainly contributed to this.

Given Hungary’s well-documented troubled past, it’s fair to say that good food hasn’t necessarily been a high priority for locals beset 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 a lot of protein and carbohydrates – she was based on potatoes and meat.”

culinary movement

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

Changing that perception was a lengthy process that continues to this day. However, the tide is definitely turning.

Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira believes this is partly because quality produce has become more readily available in the country over the past decade.

“We would have to buy butter abroad [before] because there wasn’t any good butter here,” he told CNN.

“Everything is very different now.”

Vieira runs Costes, based on Raday Street, and spearheaded the restaurant when it became the country’s first restaurant to receive a Michelin star in 2010.

He creates modern interpretations of classic Hungarian dishes and serves four to seven course menus with various wine pairings.

Jokuti believes Vieira breathed life into the restaurant scene by incorporating Hungarian and Portuguese influences into his dishes early on.

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

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

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

“One of the greatest compliments we can give here is when someone says, ‘I felt like this dinner had personality.’

While Vieira tries to incorporate Hungarian traditions into his dishes, that’s not the “ultimate goal” and he certainly doesn’t have Michelin stars in mind when it comes to cooking.

“I always tell the guys, ‘We should cook for ourselves. We should do what we believe in.’ It’s not about cooking for awards,” he adds. “It’s not about stars or recognition.

“That’s the icing on the cake. But that’s not why we work 14, 15 or 16 hours a day.”

Modern interpretations

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

Hungarian chef Tamas Szell is credited with putting Hungarian cuisine on the map in 2016 when his modern interpretations of the country’s traditional dishes earned him the gold medal in the prestigious Bocuse D’or Europe competition.

Szell and co-chef Szabina Szulló, who oversee the kitchen at Stand, which received its first Michelin star this March, have a similar approach to cooking as Vieira.

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

“Hopefully our dishes will hold the sweet memories from childhood. If I cook a dish, it should be acceptable to both our grandmothers and a Michelin inspector. That’s the hardest part [part] In my opinion.”

The stand was opened in Budapest in 2018 following the success of the market hall 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 fisherman’s soup, which contains carp, peppers, water and tiny ravioli pasta known as deraya in Hungary, is the second most popular soup after goulash.

“When I was a kid, my mom used to do it a lot,” he explains.

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

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

“I think that’s his greatest achievement. To somehow transform the traditions into something modern,” says Jokuti.

Szell sources its dairy products from a tiny farm just outside of Budapest that supplies a handful of fine-dining restaurants around the city.

Within 48 hours of the milk leaving the cow’s udder, it is served at Stand in the form of cottage cheese,

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

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

Located in downtown Budapest, Babel is one of the city’s youngest restaurants to earn a Michelin star.

It’s relatively small, with around a dozen tables, exposed brick walls, and dim lighting, and offers an intimate dining experience.

Inspired by Hungarian traditions and the Romanian region of Transylvania, chef Istvan Veres presents five- to ten-course tasting menus using simple ingredients like nettle or lichen.

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

“In haute cuisine 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’s this fearlessness that makes Veres such a groundbreaking boss.

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

basic ingredients

Budapest restaurant Salt

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

Courtesy of Salt Budapest

The new Salt restaurant, which has only been open since October, hopes to repeat the success of Stand, Babel and Costes.

It is run by chef Szilard Toth and manager Mate Boldizsar, who often serve the dishes to guests themselves.

Toth regularly scouts the Hungarian countryside for produce and comes back with all manner of edible delights.

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

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

The chef’s table is located in the center of the restaurant, allowing guests to walk over to ask questions about the dishes or just watch Toth and his team at work.

Dishes are presented simply — some don’t even require cutlery — and customers can opt for a Hungarian wine pairing menu to complement their meal.

Salt’s team prides itself on turning simple produce into fine dining, and the restaurant is filled with jars of fermented or pickled produce found in the forest.

“We have a course called greasy 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 it, some caviar and some lambskin.”

Only time will tell if Salt will earn a coveted Michelin star, but the restaurant seems to be winning over many diners in the short time it’s been in existence.

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

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

Its emergence is a clear indication of the adventurous direction the city’s culinary scene is currently taking.

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

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

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

“It can be a pleasure, it can be an excitement. We’ve reached a very fantastic level.”

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