2013 Grateful 49

Eons ago, in another life, the lovely MC et moi would go on a regular ‘posh night out’ in London. This usually consisted of frocking up, and booking a table at one of London’s fine dining establishments having first explored a suitable cocktail venue. I have fond recollections of cosmos at the Ritz, and roast lamb at Simpsons. Having found in VP a kindred posh-frock, white-tablecloth, silver-service spirit, this tradition has been revived, in Budapest, for 2013. And this weekend marked our first venture forth.

When we turfed up at Baraka, the restaurant at MaMaison on Andrássy, we were a little surprised to find we had the place to ourselves, but immediately reckoned that this would have a knock-on effect of attentive service and deep and meaningfuls with the sommelier and the waiter. Initially tempted by the degustation – a five-course tasting from the menu, with wine – actually having our minds made up for us, while tempting, wasn’t quite what either of us wanted.

When asked, the waiter assured us that he knew how to make a cosmopolitan and indeed could make a good, if not a great cosmo. When you think of the specific ingredients that make up this nectar of the gods – vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and lime – you have to wonder how it is possible to screw it up. Ever since those heady days in London in 2002/2003, I’ve been in search of the perfect cosmo and the highest I’ve rated any in Budapest is 8. Suffice to say that it was topped this night. And, the secret – according to our amateur mixologist – is to go a little light on the cranberry.

We discussed the wine. Or rather VP showed her extensive knowledge of all things grape-related while I dealt in the more perfunctory ‘white, dry, no berries’. Wine is definitely not my forte. Gyergy knew this stuff, though, and pretty soon had shown he had that rare ability in a man to anticipate just what it is I want when I don’t even know myself –  a glass of Szászi Endre Szent György-hegyi Muscat Ottonel 2012 (now on my list of favourite Hungarian wines). VP opted for a Landlord Chardonnay from Légli pince – a little too oakey for me. (Am impressing myself!)


I started with Langoustine roasted with piment d’espelette, beef cheek, confit croquette, cauliflower, red pepper coulis, and arugula pesto. And, admittedly, after I got over the fear of having to leave a restaurant hungry, I did something I don’t often do – I ate slowly and savoured every morsel. VP enjoyed a gingered pumpkin soup with duck confit-canelli bean tartlette, with mango balsamic espuma.

Then the wine change. The part I dread. I know there’s nothing to say that I can’t keep drinking the same stuff throughout a meal, but those in the know say a wine should complement your meal. What to do? I simply don’t like red wine yet I’d ordered meat. After some more discussion, our man hit on a Dörgicsei Rozé Cuvée from Pántlika Pincészet. In my limited experience with sommeliers, I have found the vast majority to be a tad condescending, particularly, as is usually the case with me, it’s patently obviously that I’m clueless. Yet with VP holding her own in the bouquet stakes, I was actually getting an education. And knowing what she liked, her choice of a 2009 Merlot from Takler Pince in Szekszárd was a choice born from experience.

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For my main, I ordered mangalica: walnut crusted loin, braised cheek, glazed belly with wasabi potato, celery and pearl barley. Beautifully presented, my immediate thought was ‘this wouldn’t feed a pidgeon’. Again, I ate slowly, savouring each bite, enjoying my wine and the conversation  – which was by now becoming quite philosophical. VP was daintily devouring her date-crusted venison loin, red cabbage purée, onion confit, gratin potato french fries, Brussel spouts and cocoa sauce. A couple of more tables had filled up but this didn’t in any way diminish the discreet attentiveness of our waiters.

At this stage, I was surprised to find myself almost pleasantly full. Yet having seen the portions and recalibrated my perspective, I was confident I could fit in dessert.

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My New York cheesecake with cranberry, almond and caramel, was a perfect accompaniment to a glass of Vissy László Tokaji  Peres Furmint. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave and easily the most interesting guests that evening. So at Gyergy’s suggestion we tried a chocolate-flavoured digestif – and it was our undoing. Too thin, I thought. And I wisely left mine alone. Ye gods – could it be that I am finally growing up?

I’ve been to breakfast meetings in the States where the food was piled six inches high on the plate. I’ve been to Hungarian restaurants where you wonder if there’s a plate there at all. And I’ve had this type of haute cuisine where you can count the slivers of carrots on one hand (one other Hungarian experience still haunts me). Baraka has it all though – great food, excellent service, nice atmosphere, good-humoured staff, and portions that while they  may cause some initial concern, actually do what they are designed to do – satisfy.

You could do a lot worse in Budapest if you’re looking for somewhere to entertain a client or celebrate a special occasion.  If you’re watching your forints, it’s worth saving for….you certainly get value for your money.

This week, I’m grateful that I’ve finally learned to eat slowly, to really savour my food, and to put my portions in perspective. And I’m grateful for the revival of an old but not forgotten tradition. Thanks VP.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Chapter One

Some of my questions are never answered because they are never asked. Some of my questions have never been born. Then some questions pop up and I wonder why I’ve never thought to ask them before and I’m almost ashamed of my ignorance (almost!). Take this Michelin Star business. Yes, I know it’s the hallmark of fine dining but I didn’t know it had any connection with Michelin, the tyre people. And I didn’t know that back in 1900 Michelin first launched a guide book to encourage people to drive around France. And I didn’t know that in 1926, they started reviewing restaurants anonymously and giving them stars.

Somewhere in my head, I’d assumed that Michelin was some sort of famous chef and is to fine dining what Pulitzer is to jouralism. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in a Michelin Star restuarant and am still not sure if it’s the chef or the restaurant that gets the stars.I know now that one star is very good, two stars are worth a detour, and three stars are worth a special journey. The fact that there are so few stars in the world is a sad indictment of the state of modern restaurants.

Walking by Chapter One in Malta last week, I stopped to read the menu only because there’s a Chapter One in Dublin that friends rave about and I know that it has a Michelin Star. The two are not connected. But still, I was curious. And when I saw that the Maltese restaurant had a Michelin-trained chef in residence, I gave voice to the question. Does this mean that he has been trained by a chef with a star or has he worked in a restaurant with star? Well, Hiram Cassar trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris and opened the doors to this restaurant in Malta in 2010. The menu was simple, typed on an A4 page, nothing fancy (I like the transparencey of this sort of unaffected simplicity.) Prices were a little on the high side for me, but I still thought it worth checking out. And last night, I did.

From start to finish, it was exquisite. I hold my hand up to doing a double-take when I first saw the portions (have I ever had half a radish before?) but the sum of the parts was far greater than the sum of the whole.  I opted for tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms in a thyme and garlic infused cream, followed by roast breast of duck, braised red cabbage, parsnip pureé, cracked pistachios and red wine au jus. SM started with a carpaccio of sea bream and prawns marinated in a citrus emulsion with fennel salad and herb oil. He opted for the duck, too, which was served with roast potatoes and the most diverse, interesting, art-like veg I’ve seen in a long time. Apart from me asking SM to identify the various veg (local produce is a speciality), conversation was embarrasingly inane, replete with deep sighs, mmmmms, and groans of sheer ecstasy. Dessert, served on a slate tile plate, was modestly described as a classic apple tart tatin with vanilla ice-cream. Positively orgasmic.

The decor is understated, the service just right; the food does all the work – which is as it should be. I’m already saving up my pennies for my next trip to Malta. To show you how good it is, I’m going back even though the website commits what in my book of pedantry is a cardinal sin by using a possessive apostrophe in ‘its’.

I have a rotating list of my top five meals of all time. It was pretty stagnant there for a while, until my last trip to Geneva. But unnecessary apostrophes aside, it looks like Chapter One is going to shake it up some more. If you’re in Malta – make it your business to drop by. It’s well worth a detour.