As I argued a while back, Hungary’s ongoing – or at least looming – “restaurant apocalypse” may not be such a bad thing, as there is plenty of dead wood in the national eatery trade that deserves to be cleaned out. What I didn’t say at the time was that the slowdown in business is likely to sharpen the minds of those restaurateurs who remain in business, and even lead to the opening of new restaurants better attuned to the new economic realities.
In several regards, the recently-opened Stand Bistro (follow link for contact details and user feedback) would not seem to be such a place. For one thing, it is owned or backed by a local corporate titan – the head of Hungary’s unit of mobile telecom giant T-Mobile, from what I gather – and mogul-owned restaurants are seldom about good food for good prices. Meanwhile, the “consulting chef” charged with getting the kitchen up and running is none other than Victor Segal, whose previous stints at Baraka and his own two eponymous restaurants (both now sadly closed) don’t immediately bring “value dining” to mind. And then there is its location across District V’s Sas utca from Dió and Mokka, two places that continue to embody what you might call pre-crisis restaurant culture. Finally, given the time it takes to plan and open a restaurant – especially in the “permitting hell” that is Hungary – it is likely the place was conceived well before today’s cash crunch made flash dining seem so 2007.
That Stand was meant to stand apart from the city’s clutter of sleek international restaurants is apparent from its name, which I first mistook as the more swanky-sounding “Strand.” According to the restaurant’s refreshingly simple website:
Stand Bistro was named after the market stands. We offer simple, one-course dishes made of fresh, quality materials in a place of friendly atmosphere combining traditional and modern values – just like in the market-place, where also fresh, quality, home-made foodstuffs can be found.
The interior of the restaurant is a similar departure from the “gangster glam” that most modern eateries in town always seem to be going for.
Actually, it’s sort of hard to see what look they were going for. It’s not exactly minimalist, but is also neither fussy nor in any way quirky. In fact, it’s so functional the overall effect is what you might expect at the world’s nicest motorway chain restaurant, though not necessarily in a bad way.
Anyway, enough background and theory, and on to the food. Over a four-week period I made four visits – twice for lunch, and twice for dinner – and here are some of the things I tried.
Let’s start with lunch. Like many local restaurants, Stand offers a daily lunch menu, usually with a pair each of starters, mains and desserts. Currently, you can choose two courses for Ft 980 (roughly €3.50) or three for Ft 1,180. You can also order off the regular menu, though note that both times I lunched at Stand I was only offered the lunch menu.
Among the daily lunch items I tried was a vegetable soup with chicken dumplings (offered in lieu of a soup that had run out), a dish of pork tenderloin with Dijon mustard sauce and new potatoes, and a bowl of spaghetti carbonara (not pictured).
Off the regular menu came this bowl of rice noodles with veggies (Ft 990) and the sandwich of pork tarja (collar) with greens pictured up top, which, like the other sandwiches on the regular menu, costs Ft 790.
While everything I had at lunch was delicious, there seem to be two significant issues with lunch at Stand. One is that it is sometimes way too slow, even by Budapest standards. On my first solo luncheon visit I waited at least 20 minutes for my soup, and I have heard several reports of people not being able to get out in under 90 minutes. This may have something to do with the newness of the place, but still: some of us have jobs.
The second issue is that the portions for the daily menu items can be too small. Of course, at less than €4 with tip for a tasty two-course meal it may seem churlish to complain about the portion sizes. Let’s put it this way: A fashionably slender Budapest hostess of my acquaintance notorious for serving starvation portions to her guests said she came away from a two-courser feeling peckish. So maybe the thing to do is add another couple of hundred forints to the bill, and a couple hundred more calories to the plate.
Now on to dinner. This creamy carrot soup (Ft 690) was smooth as silk, and had a nice Asian spice kick to it.
The above pear salad with Grana Padana (Ft 890) was super-fresh and elegant. And the choice of Grana Padana instead of the better-known Parmesan is a real sign of smartness, because the shavings are probably just as tasty, while allowing them to shave a few forints off the cost of the dish.
The duck liver terrine (Ft 1,190) was maybe a bit too livery for me – I’m actually a bit lily-livered when it comes to liver not from a goose – but it was certainly good, and bigger than it looks in the pic above.
Now some mains: This duck breast with pear chutney and mashed potatoes (Ft 2,190) was a crisp and refreshing take on Hungary’s favorite fowl.
On my first visit I quickly honed in on the short ribs with pan-fried vegetables and spring potatoes (Ft 2,390) because I’ve never had much luck with Hungarian beef ribs. According to Segal, whom I bumped into a few days after scarfing down these ribs, the reason they are so tender is a lot of hours bagged up in a very low-temp oven.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have as much luck applying the slow roast technique to this hunk of pork tarja. I won’t claim that it had actually gone off, but it was a bit too “porky” for even me, and I’m all about porky.
The plate of schnitzel made from veal cheek one of my companions had was also a bit of a dud. While tasty, using such an unusual cut of meat – and Japanese “Panko”-style bread crumbs – for such a traditional dish (note the potato salad) just struck us as a bit unnecessary. “Don’t mess with the schnitzel” was how one of us put it.
Rounding up the mains is the butter fish with green bean purée with ricotta and oyster mushrooms (Ft 1,990) pictured at the top of the page. My only regret with this one was that I wasn’t the one ordering it.
Dessert wise, on my first visit I tried the crème brûlée (Ft 590), which was just as it is supposed to be. Our server also more or less demanded that we get the brownie with home-made star anise ice cream (Ft 890), which she called isteni. I’m not sure if it was actually holy or Godlike, but if you like chocolate and ice cream and anise, it certainly was heavenly.
I somehow misplaced my notes about the wine list, but suffice to say that it offers a decent selection of options subject to decent markups, although starting the reds off at over Ft 4,000 a bottle seems inappropriate given the obvious priority given to keeping the food prices in check.
In terms of service, it seems friendly but not as smooth or consistent as it should be. On my first visit for dinner our server put up a bit of a fight when I asked for a glass of tap water, but the following week I was cheerfully delivered a carafe of the stuff. We also got a basket of beautiful, fresh-from-the-oven bread, but were charged for it without being told in advance that it cost extra. Oh, and get this: you can’t smoke, but you can bring your dog.
What this all adds up to I am not quite sure. Good food at good prices? Definitely. (Just look again at that fish dish up top and consider that it cost less than €7.) But a revolution in Budapest dining? No, or at least not until some of the above wrinkles are ironed out. I am sure of one thing, though. If 30% of Hungary’s restaurants really do end up being consumed by the current economic hellfire, I sure hope to hell that Stand is one of the 70% that remains standing.