Posts

La Boca (2) Sundowners

Back in the day, I would watch various TV dramas like Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest, and note how the rich enjoyed their preprandial G&T or Scotch on the rocks. I’ve always though it to be a very civilised way to drink but secretly preferred the cowboy version of a beer on the porch watching the sun set over the corral. There’s something about sunsets that cry out for a toast of sorts.

While in La Boca, our evenings took on a routine of their own. We’d wander up the village either before dinner (if eating at home) or for dinner, if eating at the local bar. Those evenings were a highlight of the holiday. Sitting with the locals, enjoying a sundowner, watching the sun set over the ocean and arguing over whether that really was Venus we could see in the sky.

We became regulars of a sort – the few hours we spent there each evening became familiar. We were greeted, got the nods, had the banter, and enjoyed watching what was going on around us, building up profiles of the characters as if they were part of a real-life sitcom.

The locals hung around, milled outside under the tree, or queued at the kitchen trying to cajole something or other from the cooks. The kitchen and the bar seemed  to be two separate enterprises but worked well together. One night, my cowboy came to town, dismounted, tied up his horse as they do in the Westerns, and then ambled across the street to meet his gal (our waitress). I was confused, as I’d been sure she was seeing someone else. But as no one else blinked an eye at the amorous hello (and the other fellah hadn’t yet arrived), I said nothing either.

The boys had their tables. We had ours, too. Other tourists  happily pulled up seats and joined random strangers content to eat and drink and enthuse about their love of Cuba. Many were travelling alone. All had their stories. And as the rum took hold and the beer made headway, potted histories were traded. Language wasn’t a barrier. Everyone was understood. People simply got it. They got the moment. And they valued the time. It didn’t take much to fantasize about learning Spanish, learning how to fish, and wintering in La Boca.

But without the stunning backdrop, it could well have been just another coastal village. People travelled out from Trinidad, they came over from Playa Ancun. Taxis pulled up outside disgorging the Nikoned tourists come to digitalise the famous sunset. This is what La Boca is known for – the sunset. Breathtakingly beautiful. Different every night. As close to the Great African Sky I’ve come in recent years. Highly recommended.

The fresh fish and grilled chicken and pork at €5 a plate were tasty. The service was friendly and the bill was but a fraction of what it could have been. It’s the only gig in town – you can’t miss it.

 

Yes in my back yard

There’s a tradition in Skopje that is dying out. There are probably lots of these, but this particular one speaks to the stomach. For the last 30 years, Vase (pronounced Vassy) has had a restaurant in his back yard. There are about half a dozen tables and some inside, too. There’s no menu. No choice. You get whatever it is he has decided to cook that day. He’s not listed in any tour guide. He doesn’t have an online presence. And the only way to find him is to know someone who knows someone who knows someone. I know someone.

IMG_2047 (800x600)One of very few Macedonians in an Albanian part of town, Vase reigns supreme. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he trades jibes with this guests, most of whom seem to be quite familiar with this attitude – and some seem to be in better favour than others. You can tell by who gets the last of this season’s kajmak cheese. We were honoured. When one young girl asked for French fries, he told her that she needed a prescription. The only choice you have is to eat or not to eat.

IMG_2044 (800x382)Vase buys all his veg localIMG_2045 (800x600)ly and specialises in what’s in season. It’s been a while since I had an onion that was really, well, oniony. The beets and radishes, the pickled cabbage, the fried courgettes, and grilled peppers – all to die for. As for the kajmak…. well… I IMG_2046 (800x600)was in heaven.

And then the meat came – randomly. Chicken, pork, and sausage, and liver that was probably the best I’ve had in years. The wine was unpretentious and local, too. There was no pressure to go anywhere, no pressure to do anything buIMG_2048 (600x800)t eat and enjoy. I had my doubts that we would do it justice and, truth be told, wasn’t looking forward to Vase’s reaction if we didn’t clear our plates. But I needn’t have worried.

There are only two such places left in Skopje. Vase’s kids are not interested in carrying on the family business. It will die with him. Not because someone else couldn’t do the job or cook the food or serve it up, but because he is the restaurant. People come to see him – to talk to him – to eat whatever it is he’s cooked that day. You never know who might be at the table beside you. It’s classless and it’s fun. And he runs it his way. When the food runs out, he closes up. If you don’t like it, you leave. And if Vase doesn’t like the look of you, you won’t get a table. For him, it’s not a business. It’s a vocation, a way of life. So best find someone in the know.

 

 

 

 

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!)

IMG_0111

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.

IMG_0113 (800x423)

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.

IMG_0115 (800x599)

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

Grateful 13

When I bought my flat I had no idea what the neighbourhood held in store for me. So sure was I  that this was where I was meant to live, I didn’t do my usual stroll around the streets to see what was on offer. The only things I noted was the Catholic Church and the mtro station. Blind faith or sheer stupidity – call it what you will. I’ve never laid claim to being the most careful consumer in the world.

Things come and go in my neighbourhood – shops are open today and closed tomorrow; they transform overnight from a bakery to a nail salon. There is little rhyme or reason to it all, but that’s what makes the nyolcker (local term for the VIIIth district) what it is. It’s even spawned a cult animation film: In a Budapest ghetto, Richie, a young gypsy in love with Julia, daughter of the local Hungarian pimp, wants to put an end to the old family feuds. But there’s only one way to do it: money! For that, Richie goes back in time to eradicate mammoths and turn them into oil he’ll be able to sell later.

From my front windows, I can see across into the IXth and that, too, is a treasure trove of interesting finds. Take Mézes Bödön Kisvendéglő – a little restaurant on the corner of Bokréta utca 28. The upstairs has two dining rooms, one of which is brightly painted with folk murals. The furniture is old and the ambience older still. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe you’ve left the city and are now firmly ensconced in the countryside.

I wandered down one Sunday for lunch with the lovelies MC and DB. There was a daily menu on offer (on a Sunday?) and we had the most  delicious  cold grape and plum soup, followed by some sort of Hungarian chicken noodle dish. All for the princely sum of 800 ft. (that’s about €2.80 or US$3.60). I went back there again, just to be sure I was on a winner, and this time I took a couple of Australian visitors who were mega impressed with the decor – not quite what they’d seen on their tour so far. We had a choice of soups – cold fruit or pumpkin – and then a mouthwatering catfish stew. Where would you be going, I ask myself.

This week, as I seemed to have shelled out moxie loads of money on flights, health insurance, and …em… books, I’m grateful that it’s still possible to get good food at a reasonable price, literally across the road.

Ferencváros, Bokréta u. 28, Budapest, HU.

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

Food, glorious food…

One of the greatest pleasures of living in Budapest is the sense of discovery when I find a new place to eat – one that warrants talking about. When meeting the illustrious BA for lunch on the eve of his collecting yet another award for one of his translations (this time extracts from The Hangman’s House by Andrea Tompa),  I agreed to try Bohémtanya on Paulay Ede utca. I’d never been there before, but by all accounts this 37-year-old restaurant has its share of devotees in the city.

Arriving promptly at noon, we had our choice of tables. Choosing a main course was a little more difficult as the menu is quite expansive. Not so much so that I began to question the quality of the food on offer, but detailed enough for me to read, and read again, and again, each time narrowing down my choices. I’m a sucker for house specialities, figuring that if someone is going to put their name to a dish, it has to be good so I opted for the Bohémtanya borzas finomsága hasábburgonyával which translates into chicken breast baked in  a spicy grated potato-pasta with fried garlic, cream and cheese. I plumped for the house white – a 2010 Villányi Rizling – which was very palatable and a lovely companion for what  truly was an excellent meal.

Since arriving in Budapest nearly five years ago, I’ve been in search of the perfect Cosmopolitan and have  been so unsuccessful that I’ve resigned myself to making my own. Not so with the traditional Somlói galuska something that is quite beyond my culinary expertise. I’m always on the lookout for one that’s better than what I’ve had before. While not the absolute best I’ve ever had, Bohémtanya’s was quite respectable indeed, garnering 8/10 on the Murphy scale, and was perfectly accompanied by a glass of Tokaji Szamorodni – a rather lovely dessert wine.

The service was friendly; the food was excellent; and the conversation wasn’t half bad either. What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Looking out the window at the more popular restaurants on the other side of the street, I felt a little sorry for  those diners and what they were missing. The Bohémtanya might look a little like an old-fashioned rustic tourist trap, with its traditional chequered tablecloths and stout wooden furniture, but believe me, it’s kitchen has mastered traditional Hungarian cuisine and it is certainly good value for your forint. I can see this place becoming a personal favourite.

1061 Budapest, Paulay Ede utca 6 / open 12-24 every day

When the lights come on in Sarajevo

I doubt there’s a village, town, or city in the world that doesn’t look good when the lights come on. There’s something magical about dusk – that corridor of time between daylight and darkness, when street lamps come to light and buildings morph into man-made stars. Sarajevo is no exception.

From the terrace of the Park Princeva restaurant on Iza Hrida br., the view of the city is stunning. The synagogues, the mosques, the Catholic cathedral – the diverse culture clearly visible to the naked eye.The building you can see here, if memory serves me correctly, is the Academy of Arts – but I could be wrong.

The restaurant has been in operation since 2001, long enough for them to get the food and the atmosphere right. My veal fell apart as soon as my fork touched it. And the local wine? Superb.  Four musicians played a selection of Balkan ballads  and yet again, I witnessed the great regard in which musicians are held.

Wandering down the hill at closing time (our taxis had gotten lost), all was quiet. Sarajevo closes early and unlike Budapest or Belgrade, there are few places to go after midnight. Lights reflect off the Miljacka River. Very shallow in daylight, its waters takes on new depths once the sun has gone in and the moon is out.

As we walked across the Latin Bridge and stood where Archduke Ferdinand was shot, time stood still, just for second. It was on this very spot that World War I started. I wondered briefly how different life would have been had Gavrilo Princip not found his mark. What would Sarajevo look like today? I believe that everything happens for a reason. I also believe that I have no need to know the reasons behind all happenings. But on occasion, I’m given to flights of fancy and wonder where I might be now, if something or other hadn’t happened as it did in my life. It seems as if everything I have every done has led to me sitting here, writing this blog post. And if I had my life to live over, I doubt I’d live it any other way.

New fish in town

I’ve been craving fish and chips. Real fish and real chips  – hand-cut. Actually, given a choice, I’d even be so specific as to say Cajun fish and chips. But I’m in Budapest. No coastline. No chip shops. No Cajuns. And then PL mentions a new place has opened on his street – 33 Veres Pálné Utca to be precise. It’s a fish shop… and it does chips… and it does catfish. It only opened last Friday so this is hot off the fryer. Bright and airy with seating for about 20, it’s located just off Váci and just off Muzeum korut. Near Kalvin tér metro or the 49 tram . The menu (in both English and Hungarian) boasts trout, carp, catfish, and pikeperch (none of which to my knowledge is on the endangered species list). Toppings include pumpkin seed with purple onion, basil and tomato, sour cream and lemongrass, and spiced mayo. You can have fresh salad or grilled veg and a great selection of hazi limonade.

Not being a beer head myself, I was urged to try a local brew – Little John – and surprisingly, I liked it. What more can be said: local freshwater fish, locally brewed beer, homemade lemonade, in a friendly, open atmosphere with great service (pinch me!) … it’s a must try for anyone in Budapest.

I can vouch for the fish and chips – beer battered catfish with the subtlest Cajun twist. It could have been the summer of 1998 down in the deep south in that mosquito infested river-side cabin in the woods – without the mozzies, without the woods, without the river… but you get the picture.

And, as it’s their first week open, don’t forget to throw some money on the floor – to wish them all the best. I’d like to see this place stay open for a long time. It’s open 10am to 10pm Monday-Saturday.

Spread the (Balkan) love

To say Geneva is expensive is a little like saying that Sultan Kösen is tall. It’s just a hair’s breadth from being a massive understatement. Having paid 34 CHF (about €28) for four very ordinary sandwiches, I was still suffering from shock three hours later. To pay €200 per night for a very, very, very ordinary hotel room (ordinary to the point of being that same hair’s breadth from a hostel dorm room) didn’t hurt as much, as I wasn’t picking up the bill.

Reluctant to throw myself at the mercy of travel advisors, tourist advertisments or concierge recommendations when it came to have dinner last night, I was happy enough to be guided by some Serbian friends who like their food. When it comes to networking while living abroad, the Irish have nothing on those who hail from the Balkans – it seems as if everyone knows someone who knows someone and this particular someone owns/manages/runs La Sixieme Heure  at No. 6 Place des Philosophes close to the Plainpalais (Tram No. 15 from the station) in Geneva.

Once we’d made ourselves known (i.e. as having been sent by the boys), what was already promising to be a good experience took a turn for the sublime. The place itself is furnished with a random selection of mismatched chairs and tables and sofas that transport you to just about anywhere you’d like to be. There’s plenty of room between tables so no eavesdropping to distract from the food. The menus, printed on simple, white sheets of A4 were written in French (of which I have enough to spot an artichoke from 10 yards out). I opted for tagliatelle with artichokes, sunblushed tomatoes and mushrooms topped with oodles of freshly shaved parmesan while PC indulged his taste for truffles and chanced an interesting combination of feta cheese, truffle oil and ruccola with his tagliatelle. The ‘on-the-house’ New Year’s aperitifs of white wine with apricot kirsch led nicely into a Swiss Sauvingnon Blanc for me and a Rioja for himself.

Having already talked at length about replacing ‘want’ with ‘need’ in my life’s vocabulary, I couldn’t justify ordering the warm chocolate tarte so I declined… for both of us – a decision which was promptly ignored by our man from the Balkans. And was I glad. It was just about as ‘to-die-for’ as he is! Add a couple of digestifs and some coffee to the mix and there was little change from 100 CHF (€85 / $120).

It’s been a long time since I shelled out €50 for a main course and some wine and it’s been equally long since I’ve enjoyed a meal as much. I’ve had good food with good company in good settings before – and this was no exception. But what made it so different and so special was that Balkan hospitality. I know I’ve written about  the restaurants and the music in Belgrade and about Serbs and their passion for life and for living and yet I still can’t quite put my finger on where that passion comes from and why it’s so tangible. Just knowing someone who knows someone seems enough to unlock the door to a hospitable world where the Irish céad míle fáilte and the Latino mi casa, su casa combine to create an exquisite sense of welcome that makes you forget to go home.

If you find yourself at a loose end in Geneva and are in need of some soul-warming sustenance that will restore your faith in human nature, you could do a lot worse than drop by La Sixieme Heure. In fact, I’d recommend that you go out of your way to drop by…