Like food itself, restaurant reviews are perishable, meaning that after a certain period of time they always go off. In some cases, though, a review can remain valid for years. Back in the summer of 1998, for example, a reviewer for the Budapest Business Journal pseudonymously known as Bernie Innis positively disemboweled a restaurant in the Tabán area of Buda then called the Aranyszarvas Vendéglő, writing it off as no less than “revolting.” (Click here to enjoy the entire review, which is nothing short of delicious.) And from what I gather, Innis’s harsh judgment remained valid for much of the intervening decade, though I never had the nerve to find out for myself. Sometime in the fall of last year, however, Mr. Innis’s longtime dining companion told me that things were looking up for the restaurant, which is now under new management and known as the Aranyszarvas Bisztró (follow link for contact details and user feedback). And from my own visit, it appears they certainly are.
First, a little background. While the “Golden Stag” has apparently been a restaurant only since the 1970s, it had a long and distinguished earlier life as a coffee house. The historic building it sits in features a wonderful stucco bas-relief of its namesake animal, and is one of the few in the area that survived the various horrors of the last century intact. And following the aforementioned decade of culinary horrors, it was reportedly taken over by Gábor Kereszty, a well-known former television executive who has been involved in several other notable Budapest restaurants, among them the former Vörös és Fehér (now Klassz), at least one incarnation of the late and lamented Papageno, as well as Két Szerecsen.
While my own longtime dining companion initially balked at the suggestion of taking her visiting family to the place – especially given its tourist trap location and dubious history – she relented when she saw the selection of Hungarian-international dishes on the restaurant’s website. In addition to a long list of tapas/nibbles, there were many examples of the sort of hearty “half-Hungarian” fare that turns out so well at places like Klassz.
Our table of five started off with two big plates of nibbles, including various hams made from game and other “curio” meats (e.g., buffalo). The restaurant suggests that you make a plate of five such items – at Ft 450 each – and then for another Ft 250 you get bread, some slices of green paprika, and small mounds of körözöt and tepertőkréme. Most were great, though a few were just okay.
As no one was interested in any of the three soups on offer, we moved on to mains, with items chosen from both the “permanent” and special menus. Again, there were lots of nice-looking dishes to choose from, though perhaps because it was over the holidays, several items were not available. (Note that the restaurant also offers attractively-priced lunch specials on weekdays between noon and 4:00 p.m.)
While the idea behind each of the main dishes that came out was nearly perfect, I’d say the reality came up short in almost every case. My bőrös szopós malackaraj káposztás rétessel és sörmártással (suckling pig chop with cabbage strudel and beer sauce, above, Ft 2,500/€10) was tasty, though both the meat and the savory pastry were on the dry side.
The meat part of the őzpörkölt burgonyafánkkal (roe deer stew with potato donut, Ft 3,250) was similarly a bit too dry. Dryer still was the diós hajdinafelfújt (walnut and buckwheat soufflé, roughly speaking) that accompanied an otherwise quite fine saddle of venison with sour cherry sauce (third pic from top, Ft 3,950); it brought to mind something that is served in American prisons and called “Nutraloaf.”
Even more disturbing, a tenderloin of wild boar (Ft 3,850) brought to my brother-in-law tasted fishier than his sister’s excellent roast trout (Ft 2,850). But aside from that excessively gamey wild boar, I’d say everything was decent enough. If nothing else, it all got finished, leaving no room for dessert. Likewise, the wine list was much better than average.
As for the service and atmosphere, our waiter was downright wonderful, and the rest of the staff quite friendly and efficient. The main dining area sports a modern design which suits the historic building well. The music, however, was pure disco ballad death. Finally, the decision to automatically add a 10% service charge to the bill can maybe be blamed on the increasingly greedy Hungarian tax authorities. But the decision call it a borravaló – thus essentially disguising it from foreign patrons – can’t. Not good!
So all in all, the “new” Aranyszarvas is not only a big improvement on the culinary black spot that so scandalized my fellow reviewer a decade ago. It’s a significant improvement on the average up-market “Hungarian-international” restaurant in town today. And with a bit more attention in the kitchen and a few other areas, it could be among the best restaurants in Budapest in the decade to come.