I have a Hungarian friend who’s a genius in the kitchen. He’s a natural. He instinctively knows what a dish needs to rescue it, to save it from blandness and turn it into something special. I envy him this. Oh, I get it right sometimes, but his is a talent, an art.
Mixing drinks is another art form. Budapest is rife with bars boasting cocktail menus that are simply variations of the same dated theme. Cosmopolitans, mojitos, Long Island iced teas. Yes, I know they’re classics and when done right, they’re grand. Follow the recipe and get a little creative and you can come up with something that’s bordering on great but never quite makes it to the next level.
For all its fine eateries and exclusive hotels, I’ve found Budapest lacking a decent bar with an innovative bartender who can do with drinks what my mate can do with spices … particularly one that caters for those of us who don’t have a Four Seasons wallet or an expense account. I’ve tried the notables and each time have come away disappointed. They’ve never quite lived up to my expectations. But I’ve never known what exactly I was looking for until this week – when I found it.
An old friend I hadn’t seen in some time invited me to try this new bar in District V. AKA Bar is the front bar of the relocated Baraka restaurant (Dorottya u. 6) which moved downtown from Andrassy last year. I’d been to the old Baraka a few years ago on a posh night out and loved it so I needed no persuading. But, given its location, I was a tad concerned that this new bar might be verging on the pretentious side. And when it comes to high-quality mixed drinks, exclusivity and pretentiousness seem to go hand in hand.
As early birds, we had the place to ourselves for a while and got chatting to the bar manager, György Demendi. In an age when a tired apathy seems to be the order of the day, it’s refreshing to find someone who is passionate about what they do and better still, is knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge. Demendi asked what my tipple of choice was. Gin, of course. He asked if I preferred sweet or sour. I said sour. He had half a dozen bottles amidst the multitude on his shelves, bottles that were so artistically arranged that I found myself staring at them in something approaching awe as he got busy making me something – throwing it together with the practiced ease of a man at home with his ingredients.
He suggested BCN – a Spanish gin that combines juniper berries, rosemary, fennel, pine shoots, and figs from the mountains of the Priorat with lemon peels from South Catalonia. He mixed it with fig syrup, some Yuzu (an Eastern citrus mix of grapefruit and lime), some lime juice, FeverTree tonic and then garnished it with grapefruit rind and grape halves. It’s so new it doesn’t yet have a name. I took a sip. An involuntary moan rose out of nowhere. ‘Marry me’, I said.
In much the same way as a shelf of books can tell you something about the person, the selection of bottles he had painstakingly put together speaks volumes about this bar. Never did I expect to see Monkey 47 or Caorunn in Budapest. Nor the range of Japanese whisky that blends nicely with the best of what Scotland and Ireland has produced. The diversity of what’s on offer is priced on the right side of exclusive. The quiet enthusiasm with which Demendi answered my questions about provenance and taste was matched by the exquisiteness of what he pours. It’s an experience to be savoured and one I look forward to repeating … even if marriage is out of the question.
First published in the Budapest Times 4 February 2016