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Seven steps to near heaven

Fusing the flavours of the Far East with those of Europe, Baraka was born in Budapest in 2001. This gem of a restaurant has seen three lifetimes in the city. From a modest infancy on Magyar Utca to its demure teens in the MaMaison Hotel on Andrássy, it has now come of age in the beautiful Palazzo Dorottya just off Vorosmarty tér.  I had the address and still walked by the place twice. It’s easy to miss – whether by design or happenstance, I’m not sure.

baraka-5968 (800x533)I had fond memories of eating there back in 2013 so when invited by a friend to try out its most recent incarnation, I didn’t think twice.

We like our food. We like our tipple, too. He had assured me that the cocktail bar (the cleverly named Akabar) was to be taken seriously. He was right. You can eat there, too, but we were saving ourselves for the seven-course degustation menu. Recently inspired to pair my meals with gins rather than wines, I opted to forego the latter in favour of the former. That said, I did sneak a peek at the wine list. The champagne offer alone is impressive and the wines very representative of Hungary.

baraka-6018 (800x533)My overall first impression of the dining room was that of space. The tables are set far enough apart to allow some modicum of privacy in an open-plan room that seats 38 in all. Separated from the kitchen by a glass wall, chef Norbert Biro and his team work their magic in full view of anyone who cares to look. And again, just as with the cocktails in Akabar, food is taken seriously at Baraka.

schrimp carpaccio (800x533)We started with a white shrimp carpaccio with coriander spinach pesto, and a coconut prawn velouté. Coriander, spinach, and coconut rank up there among my favourite foods of all time so I was in heaven. In fact, we both were. It salmon (800x533)would be a hard act to follow. Next we had Acacia wood-smoked Scottish salmon, with butternut squash, wasabi, and goat’s cheese. While it certainly looked the part, the wasabi didn’t quite work for me. That said, I cleaned my plate regardless.

scallop yuzu buttermilk 2 (800x538)Next came a choice between scallops with yuzu buttermilk, a tomato confit, and candied egg yolk or seared foie gras with poached pear, port, and peanut. Few foods trump scallops in my culinary book and although not a great fan of tomatoes, I’m even less keen on foie gras. And as I’d never knowingly eaten a yuzu before, I was keen to try this Japanese citrus fruit once we had been introduced. I was glad when my half-hearted offer to share a taste was turned down. My friend had opted for the foie gras and was, by the looks of it, equally happy that he didn’t have to share his either.

Next up was the sweet potato and leek ravioli with a green curry velouté, a simple dish that seriously challenged the shrimp carpaccio.  At this stage, I was wondering where I’d find the room to finish. Degustation menus can be deceiving. The portions may seem small but when you take into account the richness of the seven courses and the plethora of tastes involved, it adds up. It didn’t help, of course, that the leek bread served as an accompaniment was positively orgasmic, lending some credence to the rumour that David Seboek (baker of said bread) wooed his wife and co-owner Leora and won her heart through his baking.

atlantic cod (800x533)Our second, and final choice, was between Atlantic cod with miso, cilantro, and squid-ink gnocchi and Hungarian deer loin with fig, ginger, mascarpone, chestnut, and chocolate. Usually anything with chocolate gets my vote but I just can’t do figs. So I went with the cod and found it just a tad too salty. It might have been the miso.

Rounding off what will be remembered as an almost perfect meal, we enjoyed a cheese plate and a selection of handmade desserts. Usually anything in the dessert line gets a short shrift but I was so full that I had to savour each morsel and savour I did. Delectable.

I’ve had a few taster menus in my time, the most recent before this being at the Michelin-starred Costes. And while the food at Baraka ranks right up there, I’d have liked a little more conscious, nay confident, discourse about what I was eating. It’s not on everyone’s wish list, but I like to know the provenance of my food and how it has been prepared. It all adds to the experience.

The seven-course degustation will set you back 25 000 ft (39 000 ft with wine pairing) and is worth every forint.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016

Marry me!

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.

_MG_7808 (800x533)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