The two most recent restaurant reviews I’ve written on this site – of glamorous Japanese dining spot Kyoto and the more humble Chinese eatery Wang Mester Konyhája – were both very positive, but prefaced with lots of grumbling about how un-excited I have been about the local dining scene. Now that I am on my third glowing review in a row, this time of the recently-opened Olimpia Vendéglő (follow link for contact details and user feedback), it’s probably time for me to skip the griping and confess to again being excited about the prospect of eating out in Budapest.
It’s actually hard to know where to start in explaining why this unusual restaurant is not only worthy of a visit, but of quick elevation to the Chew “Top 33″ list of better Budapest dining establishments.
I guess a good place to begin is with what makes it unusual. First, location and setting. From what I can tell, Olimpia occupies the former premises of a Greek restaurant on a side street near City Park, which the proprietors seem to have simply moved into, name, cheesy stucco columns and all. Second is the high-powered team behind the place, the members of which have been previously associated with Csálogany 26 and the Gold Bisztró – both in Budapest – and the Szent Orbán Borház és Étterem down on Lake Balaton.
Third, there is the restaurant’s truly extraordinary pricing and menu format, which I would be tempted to write off as a gimmick if it didn’t seem to all work so well. Diners simply order a set number of courses from the day’s offering, and are billed according to the number of items. At lunch you can have one main course for Ft 1,000 (€3.85), two courses for Ft 1,250, or three for Ft 1,450. At night you can order from three courses (Ft 3,500) to six, at which point you are paying out a grand total of Ft 6,000, or Ft 1,000 a course.
It gets weirder, because the only menu in sight on our visit was a list of a half-dozen items scrawled on a chalkboard on the wall, and our waiter suggested that we should just sit back and enjoy what he brought us. When I protested gently that there were a few things I might not enjoy – like certain types of innards – he smiled slyly and said something along the lines of oh, hey, good point, how about some nice porcini mushroom cream soup instead of the sheep entrails I was going to bring? I wanted to kiss him.
Then the food starting coming, and everyone at the table wanted to kiss him, too. We started with a plate of beautifully-cooked duck liver topped with a slice of smoked sturgeon and a kompót of quince (second from top). Then he brought lovely bowls of soup for the two people at the table who wrinkled their noses at the mention of lamb innards, and lovely bowls of icky lamb innards (above) for the two who didn’t. At this point I was really getting excited, because I thought he had been joking about the lamb innards, and because the lamb innards were actually delicious. In fact, I was so excited I forgot to take a picture of my soup, and several subsequent courses. Also: maybe the most delicious bread I’ve had in a restaurant all year.
After this came the fish: two delicate pieces, one of mackerel and another of some white sea fish I couldn’t exactly place. Both were cooked beautifully. Next up were pieces of itty-bitty duck (third from top) which were so perfectly cooked I can’t remember what the exotic starch served along side it was.
Following this, everyone at the table was already feeling pretty full, and maybe even a little panicked. But it just kept coming. Missing from my camera’s memory when I got home were shots I thought I’d taken of the dish of rare veal breast, which some at the table didn’t love, but I did, because it had that wonderful beef taste that beef never seems to have in Hungary.
And speaking of beef! When the above plate of (I think) sirloin strips came trotting out out after the veal, my three co-eaters started to protest, as this was course #6, and we thought the last wave would be dessert. But when meat hit mouth all opposition melted (as did the beef). Meanwhile, the small tangle of barely-cooked julienned snow peas sitting next to the hús was one of the most inventive veggie sides I’ve ever had in my long and gluttonous life.
After scarfing this down, there was another quick negotiation with our waiter, who calmed us down and then brought the tiniest cheese plates to pick at while we waited for our desserts, which involved chocolate mousse, some kind of cream and a rich cake with (I think) crab apples. And then came the bill, which simply consisted of 4 x Ft 6,000, plus some waters and a very reasonably priced (Ft 3,300) bottle of Cab from Raspi. No problem!
Now, of course I could nitpick a bit if I wanted to, but about the only negative things I can say about my experience were that a) it took a bit longer than I was expecting (from around 8:30 to an hour past the posted closing time of 10:00 p.m.) and b) we had to call several days in advance to get a reservation. So I guess I should stop writing, pick up the phone and reserve for my next visit now.