It’s no great secret that, value-wise, the best dining out in Budapest often happens not at dinner, but at lunch. For whatever reason, local restaurateurs tend to believe that a well-priced, multi-course midday offering is a must, which in turn makes the better of such lunch deals must-eats. And which in turn made me sit up and notice when the világevő blog claimed that the recently-opened Laci! Konyha! was offering the best-value quality lunch in Budapest.
Befitting a place that is being held up as a “find,” the restaurant sits in a basement behind a nondescript door (without a sign) on a nondescript street. Világevő described the room as being reminiscent of a romkocsma (“ruin pub”), but I found it a bit swankier, and very much a piece with the Mák Bistro,
with which it shares ownership (see correction below). The two “brand” names in the kitchen are Gábor Mogyorósi, late of Aranyszarvas and Csalogány 26, and one Kata Tálas, who is apparently best known for having worked under Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. The menu is said to change daily, and include items identifiable as French, Basque and Mediterranean in addition to what I would identify as “nouvelle Hungarian.”
My lunch companion and I staked out a space across from each other on a long table that apparently is designed to accommodate more than one group; nearby a few single diners sat around a large round table doing their best to ignore each other. I have no idea if this “cafeteria”-style seating is a trend in other cities, but I find it hard to believe it will catch on in Budapest. All in all I like the feel of the place; in case it matters to you, the air down there seemed fresher than up on the street.
Our service experience started out strongly, as a waiter promptly greeted us with a big smile and an offer to take our drink orders. We both had soda water spiked with homemade fruit syrup, which came back in a flash and in cute little highball glasses. But then we had to wait quite a bit for someone else to come back out with placemat menus, and then to come out again to take our lunch order. Things started looking up again when the first items of our Ft 2,500 (€8.75) three-course menus quickly arrived.
I thought my vajtökleves (butter squash soup, above) was both great to look at and to eat, as was my partner’s chicken liver salad, though the csirkemáj itself had obviously not been cooked to order, being a bit tepid.
Then came the mains, or I should say “mains.” My sertéslapocka, pok-choy (pork shoulder with bok choy, above) was delicious, and pleasantly proportioned, at least in a carb-free, let’s-save-room-for-dessert sort of way. Alas, the same could not be said for my associate’s rizibizi (third from top). The Hungarians’ take on the Venetian Risi e Bisi is usually seen here as a side dish, and even when accompanying a piece of fried fish or cheese it comes in portions twice the size of the parsimonious pile my partner is pointing at in the above pic. Sure, it was not just plain old rice and peas – there was a least a full gram of genuine snow pea in there – but it was unpleasantly undercooked and outrageously overpriced at Ft 1,400 as a stand-alone menu item.
Luckily, both our desserts – a “classic” krémes and a carrot cake – were very tasty, and quite impressive to look at. Unfortunately, my companion again got the smaller item, which was actually dinkier than it looks next to his little finger in the above pic. So all in all, except for the overly-crunchy rizibizi I thought the food part of the meal was only marred by the lack of food.
I wouldn’t make such a big deal about the small portions – paying more for less seems to be the rule in most fashionable restaurants around the world these day – but when we ran into proprietor Zoltán Benkő on the way out, his response was similarly skimpy. Benkő – who, by the way, always looks like he is faint with hunger – said there had been a mistake in placing the rizibizi on the menu in such a way that it looked like it was one of the “mains,” rather than one of the “starters.” But this didn’t really cut the mustard for us, since there aren’t any headers indicating which item was which. (Apparently you can choose any three courses for your lunch.) Moreover, I find it hard to believe that even the Fat Duck would charge the equivalent of £4.25 for a few mouthfuls of rice and peas. The bottom line is that, at least for me, it’s hard to find great value in a meal that leave you hungry, however good it tastes. And if you mention to a restaurant proprietor that you feel like you got the short end of the stick, the last thing they should do is poke you in the eye with it by mumbling some lame excuse.
While the place apparently was originally meant to be lunch-only, they are now open for dinner, following delays in the opening of a “brother” restaurant called “Laci! Pecsenye?” at the ill-fated CET building on the banks of the Danube in District IX. (You can read the latest on that saga here.) When I asked Benkő when he expected the new place to open, he said he thought April. Whenever it does open, I’m sure I’ll go, just like I’ll probably go back to Laci! Konyha!, and may even go back to Mák, from which I’ve been generally scared off by repeated reports of starvation at the hands of surly servers (including a truly terrifying tale of a itty-bitty piece of undercooked rabbit.) There is something potentially great in what Benkő and his people are doing – but somehow it never feels like it is quite good enough, or at least not enough.
(Editor’s Note: Following the publication of this review we received a very gracious and correct email from the manager of the MÁK bistro pointing out that Benkő “is not in any ways related to MÁK bistro any longer,” and urging us and everyone else to give the place another try. Apologies for the mistake, and we absolutely plan on going back to MÁK, and encourage everyone else to do the same.)