New and exciting gourmet restaurants are constantly opening in the Hungarian capital, many led by experienced chefs looking to bring imagination and prestige to the Budapest gastronomic experience.
In the past 12 months alone, two restaurants in the Hungarian capital have been awarded new Michelin stars, bringing the total number of Michelin-starred establishments in Budapest to six.
Hungary only got its first Michelin star nine years ago, so it’s a pretty remarkable twist.
There is no doubt that a culinary revolution is taking place in the “Pearl of the Danube”, but what has caused this growing movement?
Record numbers of tourists and a booming economy have definitely played their part.
Hungary’s troubled past is well-documented, and it’s fair to say that fine dining hasn’t always been a priority for locals persecuted by communist austerity.
“Hungary has always been a rather poor country,” explains Hungarian restaurant critic András Jokuti. “Therefore, the main goal of Hungarian cuisine was to stay alive. It was very important to have a lot of proteins and carbohydrates – it was based on potatoes and meat.
Miguel Vieira of Budapest’s Costes restaurant tells CNN Travel what great creative cuisine is all about.
Changing this perception was a long process that continues today. However, things are definitely changing.
Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira believes that this is partly due to the fact that good quality products have become more affordable in the country over the past decade.
“I would have to buy oil abroad [before] because there was no good quality oil here,” he tells CNN.
“Now it’s completely different.”
Vieira leads Costes, located on Rue Raday, and was in charge of the restaurant when it became the first in the country to receive a Michelin star in 2010.
He prepares modern versions of classic Hungarian dishes, offering a set menu of four to seven courses with various wine pairings.
Yokuti credits Vieira with bringing Hungarian and Portuguese influences to life in his dishes.
“When Miguel arrived in Budapest, it was like the very beginning of fine dining history in Hungary,” he says.
Vieira admits he didn’t know much about Hungarian cuisine when he came to the country years ago and was often “criticized”.
“My cooking has changed a lot,” he adds. “Now I can proudly tell you that my seal is in the food.”
“One of the biggest compliments we can get here is if someone says, ‘I felt like this dinner had a personality.’
Although Vieira tries to incorporate Hungarian traditions into his dishes, this is not the “end goal” and he certainly doesn’t think about Michelin stars when he works in the kitchen.
“I always tell the boys: “We have to cook for ourselves. We have to do what we believe in.” It’s not about cooking for awards,” he adds. “This is not a search for stars or recognition.
“This is the icing on the cake. But that’s not why we work 14, 15 or 16 hours a day.”
Chef Tamas Sell of the Budapest Restaurant Stand up for his modern interpretations of traditional Hungarian dishes.
Hungarian chef Tamas Sell is credited with making Hungarian cuisine famous back in 2016, when his modern interpretation of the country’s traditional dishes earned him a gold medal at the prestigious Bocuse D’or Europe competition.
Sell and his assistant Sabine Sullo lead the kitchen at Stand, which received its first Michelin star in March this year.
“Food is the best communication between chef and guests,” Sell tells CNN.
“I hope that sweet childhood memories are preserved in our dishes. When I prepare a dish, it must be acceptable to our grandmothers and to the Michelin inspector. This is the hardest part. [part] I think. “
The stand opened in Budapest in 2018 following the success of the Stand25 market bistro, which was also run jointly by Sell and Sullo.
“My inspiration definitely comes from my childhood,” he adds. “My mother had a saying: “We are poor, but we live well.”
Sell says his fish soup, which consists of carp, paprika, water and a small ravioli-type pasta known as deraya in Hungary, is the second most popular soup after goulash.
“When I was a child, my mother often did it this way,” he explains.
Szell’s dishes seem to have the desired impact. The stand, built on Szekely Mihai Street, has become a hit since the opening.
In fact, Yokuti describes it as “the perfect Hungarian restaurant”, praising the ingenuity with which Sell manages to tone down the richness of traditional Hungarian cuisine.
“This, I think, is his greatest achievement. Somehow recreate tradition into something modern,” says Yokuchi.
Cell buys dairy products from a tiny farm near Budapest, which supplies them to several gourmet restaurants in the city.
Within 48 hours of the milk leaving the cow’s udder, it is fed back to the stand in the form of curd.
“I think the ingredients are the most important thing,” Sell adds. “Good ingredients are always trying to find the chef, and the chef is always trying to find the best ingredients.”
Find out why Budapest’s Babel Restaurant is a unique feature of the city’s culinary scene.
It’s relatively small, with a dozen tables, brick walls, and dim lighting, providing an intimate atmosphere.
Inspired by Hungarian traditions and the Romanian region of Transylvania, Chef Istvan Veres presents a tasting menu of 5-10 courses containing simple ingredients such as nettle or lichen.
Veres says cooking is more of an “obsession” than a passion for him, describing how he often dreams of a dish and then tries to make it happen the very next day.
“In fine dining, you have to do something special, something unique,” he says. “You put your soul on the plate.”
“I’m never afraid of new things.”
According to Jokuchi, it is this fearlessness that makes Veres such an innovative chef.
“Istvan’s taste is not easy to follow,” Yokuchi says. “I love being in Babylon because I’m always surprised.”
Salt could be the next Michelin-starred restaurant in Budapest.
Courtesy of Salt Budapest
It is run by chef Szilárd Toth and manager Mate Boldizar, who often serve meals themselves to patrons.
He regularly travels to the Hungarian countryside for groceries, returning with all sorts of edible delicacies.
“We find so many essential ingredients that the average chef doesn’t actually see very often,” Toth tells CNN.
“This means we can introduce a world of flavors to our food – amazing combinations of flavors that can’t be found anywhere else.”
The chef’s table is located in the center of the restaurant, so diners can drop by to ask questions about the dishes or simply watch Thoth and his team in action.
Meals are presented simply – some don’t even require cutlery – and customers can choose from a menu of Hungarian wines to complement their meal.
The Salt team takes pride in turning ordinary foods into gourmet dishes, and the restaurant is filled with jars of fermented or pickled foods found in the forest.
“We have a course called fatty bread,” Boldizar says. “In its original form, this is a very, very simple dish.
“Just a piece of bread with fat. We put a little bacon on it, a little caviar and a little mutton skin.”
Only time will tell if Salt earns the coveted Michelin star, but the restaurant seems to be gaining the trust of diners in its short time.
“I think he [Toth] shows that you can make very hedonistic yet very modern food with sometimes humble but very Hungarian ingredients,” says Jokuti.
A few years ago, a restaurant like Salt seemed unthinkable in the Hungarian capital.
Its arrival is a clear sign of the adventurous direction the city’s culinary scene is currently taking.
“It’s very interesting to see what’s going on in Hungarian cuisine,” Jokuti says.
“I travel a lot, I visit the best restaurants in the world. It’s amazing to see that I can come home and eat at these wonderful restaurants.
“It’s not like, ‘OK, it’s not that good, but at least it’s Hungarian.’
“It can be fun, it can be excitement. We’ve reached a very fantastic level.”