While most of the restaurant news in Budapest so far this year has involved places closing down, there has been at least one notable opening: the “luncheonette” attached to the Culinaris gourmet shop which opened late last summer near Parliament in Pest’s District V. The restaurant was initially expected to be opened just a few weeks after the store, but its debut ended up being pushed back by several months, apparently because of an unusually vigorous attempt by the people who issue the permits to be a pain in the rear end. Unsurprisingly, it was worth the wait.
While the eatery does not yet have an official name, co-proprietor Zoltán Bogáthy told me I could go ahead and call it the “Culinaris Bistro,” as this is the best way to sum up what he and partner Botond Boldizsár Biro are aiming at: a small number of seats available on a first-come-first-served basis (i.e. no reservation) and a smallish number of menu items that rapidly change based on what’s currently available and looking good in the market. “We start on Monday and then see what we have,” is how Bogáthy put it to me on the phone after I gave it a try last Friday with a friend. Since the objective of the restaurant is to be quick, and the food we had may already be last week’s news, I’ll try to be quick in telling you about our experience.
First, we didn’t have any trouble getting a seat, or getting attention from one of the two servers on duty that day. But we did have a little trouble deciding what to eat. For soups, there was a choice of a cilantro-zucchini cream soup and a leek-potato soup (both Ft 500). I chose the second, which was very nice.
Non-soup starters included a goat cheese and beet salad (Ft 900), a pear salad with Bleu d’Auvergne (Ft 900) and my companion’s choice, a plate of grilled duck liver with apple on greens (above, Ft 1,500). The liver was not cooked medium rare the way I like it, though my guess is that this was by design, and the overall effect was certainly pleasing.
Moving on to the mains, Friday’s board showed a salade niçoise with fresh tuna (Ft 1,550), salmon and sacchettini pasta with cream sauce (Ft 1,100), veggie lasagna (also Ft 1,100), saffron salmon with fennel and potato purée and a rabbit tagine with couscous (both Ft 1,550). The salmon and fennel dish (second pic from top) was nice, though I didn’t much go for the sauce, which seemed a little bitter. As for the rabbit tagine – which a patron sitting at “our” table suggested I order – the meat and sauce were both wonderful, but the couscous was unfortunately a bit underdone.
While the crunchy couscous left me a bit cranky, I quickly got over it when dessert arrived. Companion had a cheesecake that, if not the genuine New York article, was a very acceptable substitution. But the chocolate almond cake I tried (at left in third pic from top) was simply stunning, a rich hunk of moistness of the sort every cake-baker in this town should be forced to eat regularly. Both cost Ft 500, a regular steal given the healthy portion sizes and obvious use of heaps of high-end ingredients.
As for how to judge the whole experience, I’d say it was very good, aside from that crispy couscous, and a slight wait for our main dishes. (From what I understand the wait can be blamed on a temporary staff shortage due to this year’s ‘flu season.) But I must confess that it felt a little strange eating this caliber of food in a setting reminiscent of a fancy coffee shop. And it certainly seemed weird getting two separate bills, American diner-style, for a lunch that added up to around Ft 8,000, or roughly €27. (In addition to our six plates we had a glass of wine, two coffees and two mineral waters, and left a decent tip.) So I would urge Bogáthy not to follow through on his earlier idea of having servers “automatically” drop off checks after patrons have made their last order. Or at least they need to make sure that no one feels like they are being rushed.
On the other hand, I and my companion really went all-out, and there is no reason you can’t just pop in for a soup and salad or just a piece of cake and a coffee. Though if you’re like me, you’ll just end up spending the money you’ve “saved” on some of the endless goodies in the shop. And I for one can’t think of a better way to go broke.