Say Michelin and I think tyres. I think of the white plastic Michelin man that for so many years rode atop my neighbour’s haulage truck. I think of a doctor many years ago explaining to me that I had candida and using the Michelin man as an illustrative example of the systemic bloating that results. And try as I might those are the first two things than come to mind when I hear the word Michelin. I’d never eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant and now, even though I can cross that off my bucket list, the Michelin man is still first and foremost in my mind.
But there is a connection. It was in 1900 that Michelin (the tyre people) first launched a guide-book to encourage people to drive around France. And later, in 1926, they started reviewing restaurants anonymously and giving them stars. Apparently one star is very good, two stars are worth a detour, and three stars are worth a special journey. Who’d have thought it?
The first Michelin star in Budapest was bestowed on Costes, a restaurant on Raday utca. Back in 2008, the owners decided that the restaurant needed a revamp. They took on Miguel Rocha Vieira from Portugal as executive chef and, with the help of the two-starred Francois Radolphe, it wasn’t long until Michelin gave its first star to Hungary. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I went to see what all the fuss was about.
The entire menu fits on one page (which is printed on glossy silver A4 and signed by the chef and presented as a take-home, if you’re interested). This suited me fine as I have abhor lengthy menus. I prefer a limited choice. But limited though it might have been in terms of the number of dishes, the variety included everything from lobster to duck, from sea bass to deer. Glorious.
We’d signed up for the five-course menu (with wines) which included a complimentary appetizer, a cheeseboard or pre-dessert and then your choice of three dishes from the menu and a dessert-dessert.
We were offered an aperitif and were told it wasn’t included in the price, but hey, how much could a glass of champagne be? (It was just as well I didn’t know, as I’d not have enjoyed my meal). But it was just what I needed to transition to my fantasy world where eating in restaurants like Costes would be my norm.
First up, the appetizers, which disappeared far too quickly to get a photo – all delicious. The combination of curried marshmallows, salmon tartar, and carrot macaroons is not everyday fare in my world. What intrigued me most though was the slab of salt stone on which the butter sat: flavour-infused butter at that. I was in heaven. My top three were the basil, black olive, and paprika. Had anyone told me that four intelligent adults could debate their favourite butters for five minutes, I’d have been little dubious but there was something about that Michelin star that made foodies of us all.
Then came the dishes. We had marinated lobster with green peas, mint, and lemon creme fraiche. We had marinated duck liver with ginger and rhubarb. And we had the wonderfully presented hand-rolled free range egg yolk ravioli with homemade ricotta and spinach. (At this stage, I began to wonder whether I was more in love with the tableware or the food… )
Each dish came with its own wine, the tale of which was very nicely told by the resident sommelier, who, word has it, spent time with Gordon Ramsey in Claridges in London. I dread sommeliers who elevate themselves so far above those of us with uneducated wine palates that we feel we’re being lectured on a subject they think we have little hope of ever understanding. Rita was interesting, engaging, and not at all supercilious. There wasn’t drop of condescension added to the wines she offered. And they were perfect. (I even enjoyed a glass of red, something I rarely, if ever, touch.) My new favourite wine though is a Tramini from the Somlói Apátság Pince, Somló (2012) and with this my kindergarten palate may well have graduated to first grade.
Back to the menu. We sampled poached John Dory with kohlrabi and tapioca pearls. We tried sea bass with artichokes and gnocchi. We even tried the free-range chicken with poached grapes and oats. Perhaps the tastiest might have been the fallow deer with pomegranate, butternut squash, and nasturtium root. So much choice. So much flavour.
Friends who have been to Costes said the mix was just too much. Too many conflicting tastes all vying for attention. I quite liked the competition, the craziness, and am grateful that tapioca pearls, once a dreaded childhood threat, have climbed a notch or three in my food rankings.
When the cheese plate arrived (to share between two) I was a little taken aback. I’m not used to such delicacies, preferring slabs of cheese and plates of bread and crackers, with grapes and olives thrown in for good measure. It certainly is a matter of what you’re used to. And in this instance, less was definitely more. The accompanying jellies were a perfect complement. And just the right size. The portions are a far cry from usual Hungarian portions and yet I have it on good authority (I was the only Michelin novice at the table) that those at Costes are more gracious than others of its ilk. So much so, in fact, that the desserts were boxed and taken home. I couldn’t have fit them had they been offered on a silver platter by a naked Jack Reacher.
Although the price of my glass of champagne was an effervescent €27 , it was worth it just to see how it was served: a flute in a silver holder. If anyone, anywhere, sees them for sale, I’d like eight please!
Overall verdict? The food was excellent. The service was just right. The experience was one to remember. Would I go again? In a heartbeat.
My one and only peeve was that every time I got up from the table, I came back to a brand, new napkin. Now lads, that simply can’t be good for the environment!
The five course with wine runs to €130 per person (so it ranks up there in the treat section) – but if you’re interested, I just might know a chap who knows a chap who could do a deal…