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Recommended without reservation

I love my food. I’ve always loved my food. I love the way it looks, the way it tastes, the way it complements a mood. I have a list of my top ten most memorable meals, a list that is constantly changing: a five-hour dinner in Italy at the Monte Cristo in Rome, where I discovered for the first time that, for Italians, pasta isn’t a main dish; a five-course dinner in Glaslough, Ireland, where I was introduced to the notion of accompanying my meal with gin rather than wine, choosing a new one for each course; a five-minute snack in Marrakesh that brought a whole new meaning to Moroccan street food.

Sometimes it’s the ambience. Sometimes it’s the food. Sometimes it’s the company. But to make the list, it takes all three.

In Budapest, I’m spoiled. Unlike Dublin or London or other cities in which I’ve lived, eating out here is affordable. I have particular restaurants I go to if I’m craving a particular food. Huszár Étterem at II. János Pál pápa tér 22 in the VIIIth district is a favourite for goose and red cabbage and a bableves (bean soup) that has yet to be bettered. It’s a quiet, unassuming place that never disappoints. If it’s fish I’m after and want to stay in the city, then I head for Trattoria Toscana in the Vth district at Belgrad Rakpart 13. The salt-encrusted sea bass is mouth-wateringly good, especially when accompanied by buttered spinach and a simple pasta dish. And if it’s pork I want, I wander around the corner from my place in District VIII to Kompót Bisztró on  Corvin Sétány 1 1/B for the spicy pork tenderloin with sour cream lángos. My cravings never go unsatisfied.

But for those days when I can’t make a decision to save my life, when I have no idea what I want to eat, or am in company and have no clue what they’d like to eat either, I head for the VIIth district to Fricska on Dob Utca 56-58. For my money, it’s the best restaurant in the city today. And I’ve eaten in plenty.

fricska-gasztropubThey bill themselves as a gastropub, something I can’t quite figure out because it’s the least-likely looking pub you’ll ever find. The cellar space is just that, a cellar space, but a classy one. The tables are far enough apart to work with the acoustics and afford a modicum of privacy, which is always important. I hate having good food spoiled by an adjacent conversation that’s too inane, too loud, or too interesting to be ignored.

The lunch menu is simple: three starters, three mains, three desserts to choose from. Even with wine and coffee, you’ll easily get change from 5000 ft. I’ve had goat stew. I’ve had roast quail. I’ve had delectable lamb. There’s always something interesting to try, and in all the lunches I’ve had, I’ve yet to be disappointed. The dinner menu is more extensive and when there’s fresh tuna on the menu, that’s what I go for. I like that they always bring out the fish so that I can see it first.

When asked, they say they’re reviving the bourgeois cuisine of the early twentieth century. Take Italian cuisine, add a little French to it, and then update it with a modern Hungarian twist, and you have Fricska. The menu changes daily depending on what’s available in the market. With their chefs’ fresh ingredients and mindful creativity, eating there is a joy. The sommelier is evidently proud of the wine they offer from small Hungarian wineries, and is happy to share his knowledge, making every lunch or dinner an education in itself.

If you haven’t yet been, do yourself a favour and make a reservation. I’ll most likely see you there.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 January 2016

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Rediscovering the joy of breakfast

Back in the day when I had a regular job, I  was a great fan of breakfast meetings. Chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy, eggs, hash browns, and toast (two rounds) could make the most irksome news palatable. No matter what the higher-ups threw at me, if I was told over breakfast, I could deal with their inanity.

Back in the day when I’d party until the early hours of the morning, knowing I had to be at my desk at 9am, it was the full treatment of bacon, egg, sausage and black pudding that got me through the day. Nothing else could come close.

Back in the day when I travelled a lot more than I do now, I never missed a hotel breakfast. There’s something about sitting on my own in a huge dining room, with no one to bat an eyelid if I went back for seconds or thirds. The anonymity of it all was quite cathartic, even if the cheeses at times were a trifle rubbery and what some countries serve for breakfast is quite an experience.

Sadly, I’ve found no one this side of the Atlantic who can make a chicken-fried steak or even come close to decent hash browns or sausage gravy. Sadder still, I no longer have what it takes to pull all-nighters, or even early morningers and still function the next day.

So that leaves me with hotel breakfasts. But how to have the breakfast without staying in a hotel?

The lads at Kompót, a great little restaurant on Corvin Sétány that I’ve written about before, have started doing a continental buffet-style breakfast each morning from 7am to 10am to cater for the folks in the myriad aparthotels in that part of town. Curiosity got the better of me (as it usually does) and I wandered over yesterday morning to check it out.

2014-05-07 08.55.56It didn’t disappoint. Cold cuts, cheese, eggs, sausage, cereals, yoghurt, fruit, coffee, tea, bread, were all present and accounted for. I helped myself and then went outside to eat in the early morning sunshine. As I sat and watched the world go by, I thought that I might well have been on holiday, rather than 200 metres from home. I had my book. I had my coffee. I had my eggs. And I was in no rush to go anywhere. Methinks it will become a regular occurrence.