A new take on traditional

Life in the ‘hood is certainly taking a turn for the better. Despite repeated warnings by all and sundry when I first moved to Budapest, I bought a flat in what’s known as the ghetto – the VIIIth district. The few blocks behind my flat are unrecognisable from what they were five years ago. The developers moved in and the place has boomed. It amuses me no end to think that right smack in the middle of it all is a kert  (garden)  bar called Grund. The boys are holding out and it, and the community garden next to it, are a sharp reminder that some things are better left untouched by progress.

But with developments like Corvin Sétány come new businesses – new restaurants, new wine bars, new shops. And while the shopping centre itself is nothing much to write home about (but then I’m not a fan of malls anyway) – I’m quite pleased to see that the culinary offer has improved dramatically.

I’ve been to Kompót Bisztró a couple of times for lunch. Simple Hungarian fare, served hot. There’s always a crowd. But until recently I’d never been there for dinner. And now that I have, I’ll be back.

That someone decided to do a new take on the traditional is obvious. Re-interpretation is the name of the game. The rather typical, if bland, furniture is broken by a round antique dining table with matching chairs always set with gleaming cutlery and sparkling glasses. This sets the tone and whispers that something in this restaurant isn’t quite as it seems.

Csaba took our order and humoured me; he let me speak what little Hungarian I have. This is a rare enough occurrence; most I’ve encountered in the Hungarian hospitality industry, when hearing my pathetic attempts at mastering their language, revert to English – either to practice theirs or to relieve the pain of listening to mine. So before ever looking at the menu, I was predisposed to liking the place.

On special that evening was the hortobágyi húsos palacsinta – a typical Hungarian pancake stuffed with meat. I’ve eaten this before but my dining companions had yet to savour the experience so I ordered for four. I was expecting the traditional flat crepe-like pancake rolled and stuffed like a carpet. Instead, we got a two-inch high square of layered meat, for all the world like a slice of cake. All the ingredients were there – but the presentation was totally different.

And other impressive thing  – one that tickled the protocol princess in me –  none of our plates were removed until all of us had finished. The staggered removal of place settings is a major irritant for me when I’m eating out and in the spirit of etiquette, I’ve been known to ask the waiter to leave my plate until my dining companion is finished. Waiting on tables is an art, one that is all too often underrated or ignored. I know. I’ve sat through enough protocol training dinners and am well-versed in what is acceptable and what is not. The waiters at Kompót are well trained. There was no reaching across the table – everyone was served from the right inasmuch as the seating allowed it. Very telling in my book.

946712-1 (800x600)Although struggling a little after the hortobágyi, we’d already ordered our mains so had little choice but to continue. Next up, we had two orders of salmon filets with cornbread, an order of boned pork knuckle, and the best schnitzel I’ve had since coming to Budapest, served with Bavarian potato salad in a hinged jam-jar. Again, all the ingredients were there – but the presentation was far from traditional.

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Dessert wasn’t looking like an option – we’d already had plenty to eat – but when I saw that they had somlói galuska (the Hungarian version of trifle) on the menu… well, that was a different story. Mind you, Csaba warn me that it wasn’t traditional. It was a new take on an old recipe. I was okay with that, seeing that the new takes so far had all been for the better. But this I didn’t finish. Yes, it was excellent, in and of itself, but it wasn’t somlói. This was taking re-interpretation to a new extreme. A mite disgruntled, I realised that I was facing the fact that my culinary issues had issues. I was just a tad too entrenched in my food thinking to enjoy the bastardisation of an old classic when a simple re-christening would have sufficed. But, in fairness, when I checked the menu again, I saw the disclaimer – it was billed as somlói-style… so what fault there was, was of my own making.

Kompót Bisztró is one to put on your list of places to eat. It’s certainly earned a place on my visitors’ tour and might even become a regular haunt, with or without visitors in tow.  Come visit the VIIIth and enjoy the rebirth of the Hungarian kitchen. You won’t be sorry.

Corvin Sétány 1/b | 1082 Budapest VIII. ker.

(Photos courtesy of Ms Charlotte Mercer)

Hungarian road trip (3): Nyíregyháza to Hajdúszoboszló

Up at the crack of dawn, we joined the procession of cars wending their way towards the flea market. According to the guide book (?) we could look forward to ‘a motley crowd consisting of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Roma selling the usual diamonds-to-rust mixture of goods’. In my mind, I’d already found the csillár (chandelier) for my living room, complete with four complementary wall lights, not to mention an eight-place Herend dinnerservice in muted greens. What I found was the usual tacky tat (mostly from China) and lots of vegetables. As we left, the queue of cars to come in was about two miles long! I would have been gutted, had I queued for hours only to leave empty-handed. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though – the chocolate palacsinta (crepe) made a great breakfast!

The plan was to drive to Beregdarác for the village fair and then take it from there. Simple really. The previous couple of days, both the church in Parádsasvár and the one in Mezőkövesd had been closed and as churches (open churches, ones where I can have three wishes and light a candle) are high on my list of things to see, we followed the signs for Máriapócs, home to the weeping Black Madonna (I have a fascination with the Black Madonnas). This particular one though has been removed to Vienna and what remains in Máriapócs is a nineteenth-century copy. This gave us some solace when, after driving around the country for sport (neither of us are great navigators: in fact, when I say I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag at the best of times, KG is only marginally better, but better she is!) we arrived to find the chuch under renovation. And yes, it was closed. What do the faithful do for sanctuary in this part of the world? An open church is as difficult to find as a glass of wine in Parádsasvár after 9pm!

IMG_3483Our luck was in, though, when we got to Nyírbátor. The Calvinist church there is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Hungary and it was open! Now, I’m a tad rusty on my architectural periods but this certainly isn’t what comes to mind when I think ‘Gothic’. Nice ceiling though. Am sure PJF will have a comment or two on this! From there it was on to Mátészalka for some Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta (meat pancakes – what can I say, I’d been in pancake mood since breakfast!). Having eaten our fill, we mosied on to Fehérgyarmat, where the chuch was also closed. Honestly, I was beginning to despair at this stage. Mind you, it did have some rather lovely carvings in the grounds: once again, we were on the outside looking in! IMG_3495From there is was on to Tivador, a little town with the most gorgeous carved wooden street signs and then on to Tarpa, home to yet another Calvinist church, also closed! IMG_3497 Apparently, the Reformation brought Calvinism to Hungary and the Thirty-Years War (1618–1648) established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, which explains the number of Calvinist churches in the area.

Eventually we made it to Beregdaróc – the reason for the road trip in the first place. The place was deserted. What could we do but laugh – all this way for nothing. Not a sound from anywhere. And then we turned a corner and met the crowds – the cars, the buses, the villagers, and a Canadian! It was good, down-home fun with lots of music, dancing and crafts. KG had arranged to meet a cross-stitcher (who has won the Kis Janos Bóri prize in her day) so we hooked up with her and went to see her exhibit at the school and then back to her house to sample some hazi palinka. I couldn’t drink, of course. Those damned laws! But I did get a little bottle to take home with me. The Greek Catholic chuch was open and although there were no candles to light, I did get my three wishes!  With all the fun at the fair, it was past five when we left. And, as neither of us can make a decision to save our lives, we just drove on down the road to see where it would take us.

IMG_3608The road led to Csaroda , where a lovely little old woman took a massive key from her pocket and opened the church for us. The cross-stitching in this part of the world is everywhere – and is recognised as a true craft with women gaining folkartist status if good  enough. The church here was full of it. And the painted woodwork was something else. I think that after this trip, plain and simple is the way to fo for a house of worship… forget the marble and the gold. As I child, I remember Fr Jim, a relative of my mother’s, coming home from the missions. When he’d visit a church, he’d pop inside the confessionals and tap the wood; walk up on the altar and check out the tabernacle; he’d even check out the altar cloths! I was horrified that someone, anyone, could be so bold. If he were alive today and visited Hungary, he’d get plenty of ideas of simple houses of worship, where you can simply be, without distraction.

Then it was on to the almost Sussex-like village of Takos for a much-needed coffee and some decision-making. There again, the church (known as the barefooted Notre Dame) was bloody closed  but the café was open. The woman of the house was sitting by the window, cross-stitching. To be female in these parts and not to be able to wield a needle and thread must be akin to being Irish and not knowing how to cook a potato! We decided to head south to Debrecen and make up our mind where to stay along the way. Through an inability to decide, an uncooperative hotelier in Hortobágy, and a wedding en route, we ended up driving to Hajdúszoboszló. The guide book calls it a cross between Blackpool, Bondi Beach and Coney Island. I’ve spent a lovely day in Blackpool watching the bikers take their dancing shoes from the saddlebags and twirling around the dance floor. I’ve never been to Bondi and  I honestly can’t remember Coney Island but truth be told, all I wanted was a bed and it was supposed to have accomodation aplenty! It was like driving through a time warp. Flat land everywhere. Fields of sunflowers and corn. Lights in the distance but nothing to suggest the sheer size of the place. Known as the ‘poor man’s Balaton’ the thermal springs were discovered when some plonker was drilling for oil. The place is surreal. Packed to the gills with the young and the trendy; sidewalk bars and restaurants; amusement parks; stalls selling touristy tat and candyfloss… it was incredible and it was buzzing. So much for those who think this is where the frail and the elderly come to be cured! There wasn’t a zimmerframe in sight. I was stuck to the seat of the car, in danger of hallucinating for want of a beer on what was still a very hot day. I’d driven nearly 275 km, so KG had to go find a room – we drove around and must have checked 12 or more places, none of which would take us in, before we found the Lila Hotel. Now, it’s seen better days, but it was clean. And so what if there were no towels and the wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and the clientele looked liked the bailmen could be coming a callin’, it was a bed. And was I grateful! The beer could wait.