All good city breaks feature a balance between sightseeing (the “culture bit” as my other half calls it) and finding the best food and booze in town. We definitely succeeded but I will admit that we had help.
First up, the Michelin-starred Borkonyha Wine Kitchen as recommended to us by Ant and Charlotte of Forth Bay Guest House in Leven, Scotland. We were silly and did not book a table ahead of our trip, so when we stumbled upon the restaurant on our first night out, we popped in and made a reservation for the following evening. Booking is essential. We saw untold numbers of sad, hungry diners turned away from the fully-booked sidewalk tables because they did not have a reservation.
Pickled potatoes with anchovies "soup" at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen
Rabbit rillet - like a popsicle!
Borkonyha Wine Kitchen has a tasting menu option but we were both seduced by different items on the regular menu, so we went a la carte. Since we quickly realized that we were foregoing the wine pairing as well, we asked out waiter to choose a different glass of Hungarian wine for each of us for each course. The local wine knowIedge displayed by the serving staff all over the city was impressive, but our server on this evening was particularly spectacular. I started with the rabbit rillette, which was a sort of rabbit popsicle, with a glass of Furmint. It was delicious, as were the pickled potatoes with anchovies selected by my partner with his glass of Riesling. (Ok, I really wanted both of them, so I made him have one of my choices.)
Mangalica pork tenderloin with soured tomatoes and breaded potatoes
For our mains, we went with the Mangalica tenderloin with soured tomatoes and breaded potatoes (read more about the Hungarian Mangalica woolly pig) and the saddle of venison in spiced peanut crust, paired with local Hungarian red wines. All food and wine was amazing! We finished the evening with a selection of local cheeses and glasses of Tokaji, 6 Puttonyos. How much does such a fantastic meal hurt your wallet? All of this amazing food, wine, and service came in at about 100GBP – as compared to upwards of 250GBP for a similar experience in the UK. We would have gladly eaten more just on that basis if we weren’t absolutely stuffed by the end of the meal.
Venison with a spiced peanut crust
We desperately needed to walk off our meal, so we thought that a nightcap in the lively Jewish Quarter would be a good idea. Only we never made it. Along the way we found a fairly unassuming cocktail bar on a quiet street that we decided to investigate. It’s called Boutiq’Bar and has all of the drinks and service you would expect of a high-end New York speakeasy, but with none of the pretension. The star of the show was the menu, featuring “Number 5” from the 1986 childhood favorite film, “Short Circuit.” Number 5 is alive and living out his days in a cocktail bar in Budapest! They were busy but somehow managed to deliver great service and creative cocktails to our table rather quickly.
Number 5 is alive !
Having missed breakfast at our hotel the next morning, we set off for a brunch tapas extravaganza at Vicky Barcelona. We had passed it on another evening when finally exploring the nightlife of the Jewish Quarter. At night, Vicky Barcelona turns into the kind of Euro-pop hell club that appeals to the continental youth. But during the day, they are serving up imaginative tapas that you’ll want to take home with you. All of our dishes were scrumptious and extremely good value – not to mention their fantastic cocktail and wine list – but you must not miss the potato salad. With fresh veggies and no mayo, it’s unlike any version you’ve ever had.
Potato salad at Vicky Barcelona
The tapas kept coming.
Most refreshing cocktail ever - vodka in some form, if I remember correctly...and hubby's local beer.
Two other places not to be missed – Zeller Bistro with their fantastic menu and tableside wine pairing service and the street gyros at Fröccskocsma. If, like me, you’ve been to an amazing rock concert at the sports area (thanks Foo Fighters!) and you had a bit too much wine, courtesy of the native San Franciscan working the bar at the arena, then stopping for a gyro on your way back to the hotel is the best way to soak up all of that alcohol. As I was enjoying what I was sure was the best gyro EVER (it had fries in the middle, which seemed revolutionary at the time), I thought that I was standing in front of a picture of Dracula. Turns out, in the sober light of day, that it was actually a priest, which is the logo of the crazy Fröccskocsma bar to which the gyro stand is attached.
Last but not least, no city break is complete without a culinary walking tour. Again, I turned to Viator for booking a half-day tour run by Taste Hungary. We met our intrepid guide, Barbara, at the Great Market Hall, collected a few other tourists who were on the same tour, then promptly began our day with a shot of the local spirit, Unicum. This spirit tastes every bit as horrible as Jägermeister and, in Barbara’s experience, is used to ferret out children who are playing sick to get out of school lessons. In her house, if one of the children claimed to be ill, they would have to take a spoonful of Unicum. Apparently many miraculous recoveries are owed to the spirit, since most children would decide that school was the lesser of the two evils.
Pickle stall in Budapest's Great Market Hall - they have faces!
I won’t give away the whole tour, so it will be a surprise if any of you decide to go, but all of the places we visited were fantastic and Barbara was incredibly knowledgeable about Hungarian food, wine, and history. (Note: You will struggle on this tour if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or gluten/lactose intolerant. These folks love meat, cheese, cakes, and anything battered and deep fried.) The tour ended with a wine and cheese tasting at the Taste Hungary headquarters and we did not need any dinner that evening as we were completely stuffed.
What struck me as most genuine about this tour is that Barbara and her colleagues at Taste Hungary - and, really, most people we encountered who are involved in food and wine in the city - are extremely passionate about promoting Hungarian food and drink. Some of them had traveled abroad for education or work experience and had all returned to Hungary for the advancement of their home country. They are all either old enough to have experienced communism for themselves or have parents who continue to warn them about the old ways. They are incredibly optimistic about foraging a new path for their country and putting Hungary on the international food and wine stage. Go now, before the rest of the world catches on to what this country has to offer!
Jewish Quarter at night
Exterior wall art over Vicky Barcelona's patio garden in the Jewish Quarter.