My child is growing up

I’ve lived a life without issue. I have no children. I’ve not watched someone grow day by day, week by week, month by month. I’ve not been present for the teething, the nappy changes, and the terrible twos. I’ve not see them start school, play sports, and pass exams. I’ve not seen the first date, the broken hearts, and the angst that comes with being a teenager. The closest I’ve come to such a metamorphosis is my little corner of the VIII kerület (district).

When I moved into the neighbourhood back in 2008, I was flying in the face of some strenuous objections. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live. It was full of minorities. (There are just about enough Irish in Budapest to form a minor minority… hello?) It was home to drug dealers and hookers and less than savoury people. It had no decent shops. It had nothing in the way of good restaurants or wine bars. And apart from Corvin cinema, it had nothing much in the way of entertainment at all.

Now, rating powers of observation on a scale of one to ten, with one being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that taxis in Budapest were turning yellow’ and ten being ‘so unobservant that I didn’t notice that the Nemzeti Hotel on Blaha is now furnished’ I’d rate myself about five. Okay, so I never noticed Corvin Plaza being built. In fact, I didn’t know it had opened till a month later when it was pointed out to me by a friend. And I live just 200 meters from its front door. But since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to what’s going on in my corner of the VIIIth.

corvinCorvin Sétány now boasts its own fab Hungarian fusion restaurant – Kompót – that has an excellent daily menu and a yellow fin tuna starter that’s to die for. It also has a great little wine and chocolate bar – Vino és Wonka – that has a chalkboard menu sporting wines from every wine region in Hungary, wines you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else. And it has a friendly fruit and veg shop that will source whatever exotic fruit or veg you can think of. It’s home to Dumaszínház – comedy central and has other restaurants, bars, and cafés to suit all tastes.  It has a gym with a 25-metre pool (or so I hear), a Norbi outlet, and just opened, (or should I say, just noticed) a Lidl. And this is on the Sétány, not in the mall itself. The area is landscaped to within an inch of its life with the best of materials and in summer is a great outdoor space with live music, and an almost Barcelonian feel to it.

Until recently, it had its own community garden but this was bulldozed a few months ago. Fences went up. The diggers came in. And I was left wondering what was afoot. Yesterday I saw the placard. Another 227 flats are being built … these, in addition to the hundreds already built in phases I and II. When will it end?

My child has grown from an unruly but lovable ragamuffin into a cosmopolitan teen with its own ideas and opinions, its own taste and style, it own flair and fashion. And I’m the one rebelling.

Of course I love it. I want for nothing. Everything is there, right on my doorstep. What’s not to like? But a little part of me wishes that it was still untamed. That it hadn’t matured so quickly. That we weren’t losing touch.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 February 2014


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)