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A fine-dining experience

michelin manSay 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.

costes 4First 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.

costes 3Then 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. Wecostes 3 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.

costes4When 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.

costes 5 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…

 

 

 

 

Miguel Rocha Vieira
Miguel Rocha Vieira
In 2008 Costes took on Executive Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira – who once graced the kitchens of El Bulli – and with the help of two Michelin-starred chef Francois Rodolphe, a world-class restaurant was born. – See more at: http://www.elitetraveler.com/finest-dining/restaurant-guide/the-11-best-restaurants-in-budapest#sthash.8WINPEmh.dpuf
In 2008 Costes took on Executive Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira – who once graced the kitchens of El Bulli – and with the help of two Michelin-starred chef Francois Rodolphe, a world-class restaurant was born. – See more at: http://www.elitetraveler.com/finest-dining/restaurant-guide/the-11-best-restaurants-in-budapest#sthash.8WINPEmh.dpuf
In 2008 Costes took on Executive Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira – who once graced the kitchens of El Bulli – and with the help of two Michelin-starred chef Francois Rodolphe, a world-class restaurant was born. – See more at: http://www.elitetraveler.com/finest-dining/restaurant-guide/the-11-best-restaurants-in-budapest#sthash.8WINPEmh.dpuf
In 2008 Costes took on Executive Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira – who once graced the kitchens of El Bulli – and with the help of two Michelin-starred chef Francois Rodolphe, a world-class restaurant was born. – See more at: http://www.elitetraveler.com/finest-dining/restaurant-guide/the-11-best-restaurants-in-budapest#sthash.8WINPEmh.dpuf
In 2008 Costes took on Executive Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira – who once graced the kitchens of El Bulli – and with the help of two Michelin-starred chef Francois Rodolphe, a world-class restaurant was born. – See more at: http://www.elitetraveler.com/finest-dining/restaurant-guide/the-11-best-restaurants-in-budapest#sthash.8WINPEmh.dpuf

 

Service with a … hiccup

Sit any number of expats in a room in Budapest and get them talking. Ask them what they least like about living here. The phrase ‘customer service’ will undoubtedly pop out of more than a few mouths. I can’t find any figures to support this claim but a ten-minute reflection on various conversations I’ve had in the past number of weeks leaves me with little doubt.

cust serve 4We all have a view on customer service that is coloured by our experience, where we have lived, and what our levels of tolerance are. When I swing from the semi-robotic, seemingly pre-programmed, smiling service that appears to be the norm in, say, North America, to the dour, hate-my-job, want-to-be-anywhere-but-here servitude that I run in to here on a regular basis, I’m not sure which is worse: happy, clappy Wendy with her ‘have a nice day’ smile or the frozen features of Fuzia.

Bad service

cust serv 3I was at the post office recently – one of a crowd of 17 (I had time to count). Two employees chatted away ignoring the queue. A third called her mother/aunt/neighbour out of the queue and served her, completely disregarding the dagger looks I was sending her way. No one else seemed all that bothered. The ticket machine ran out of paper – it was Someone Else’s job to replace it and Someone Else was missing. The first stirs of agitation became visible though when the numberless-but-vocal new arrivals were all taken care of while the numbered-but-silent stood fast and watched in something approaching stunned disbelief.

Good service

At the polar opposite end of the customer service scale I’ve had the good fortune to eat out at a couple of very upmarket restaurants recently (Costes and Knrdy, if you’re curious) where customer service is regarded with an almost religious-like fervour. I like attention. I like watchful attention, where interruptions are not disruptive, where needs are anticipated, and where I don’t have to play ‘dodge eye contact’ with the wait staff. But it seems as if this costs extra.

No service at all

cust ser 2I tried to buy a washing machine some years ago. I knew the make and model I wanted so I went straight to a white goods shop that specialised in that brand. I had cash. And yet try as I might do you think I could get someone to take my money? We don’t have that model. Can you get it? No. Can I order it? No. Is it a current model? Yes. So why can’t I order it? You just can’t. Do you have anything like it? No. I kid you not.

At Ypsilon Café one night last weekend, a waiter took our order. We were well ahead of the post-Concert posse and the place was nearly deserted. It filled up quickly. Other tables who had come in after us were merrily sipping away while we sat… and sat. Eventually when we asked, again, we were told we hadn’t a hope of being served. They were just too busy.

Service with a smile

But my favourite interaction with customer service in Budapest has to be with the BKV. I’m in the market for a BKV employee selling monthly passes who is approaching pleasant and even slightly tolerant of my abysmal Hungarian. I shop around. My patience was finally rewarded. My chap this month was hilarious. Those of us at the back of the slow-moving queue were treated to all sorts of facially expressive comedy from those up ahead. Whatever they were doing, was creating quite a stir. When I took my turn at the top of the queue, I laughed out loud. The chap seemed either stoned or stocious. By the looks of him, he’d not yet made it home from the night before. He was in great form, full of chat as he watched the hairs on the back of his hand stand to attention. He was actually enjoying his job. Now that sort of hiccup in my service I can tolerate.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 May 2014