Seven steps to near heaven

Fusing the flavours of the Far East with those of Europe, Baraka was born in Budapest in 2001. This gem of a restaurant has seen three lifetimes in the city. From a modest infancy on Magyar Utca to its demure teens in the MaMaison Hotel on Andrássy, it has now come of age in the beautiful Palazzo Dorottya just off Vorosmarty tér.  I had the address and still walked by the place twice. It’s easy to miss – whether by design or happenstance, I’m not sure.

baraka-5968 (800x533)I had fond memories of eating there back in 2013 so when invited by a friend to try out its most recent incarnation, I didn’t think twice.

We like our food. We like our tipple, too. He had assured me that the cocktail bar (the cleverly named Akabar) was to be taken seriously. He was right. You can eat there, too, but we were saving ourselves for the seven-course degustation menu. Recently inspired to pair my meals with gins rather than wines, I opted to forego the latter in favour of the former. That said, I did sneak a peek at the wine list. The champagne offer alone is impressive and the wines very representative of Hungary.

baraka-6018 (800x533)My overall first impression of the dining room was that of space. The tables are set far enough apart to allow some modicum of privacy in an open-plan room that seats 38 in all. Separated from the kitchen by a glass wall, chef Norbert Biro and his team work their magic in full view of anyone who cares to look. And again, just as with the cocktails in Akabar, food is taken seriously at Baraka.

schrimp carpaccio (800x533)We started with a white shrimp carpaccio with coriander spinach pesto, and a coconut prawn velouté. Coriander, spinach, and coconut rank up there among my favourite foods of all time so I was in heaven. In fact, we both were. It salmon (800x533)would be a hard act to follow. Next we had Acacia wood-smoked Scottish salmon, with butternut squash, wasabi, and goat’s cheese. While it certainly looked the part, the wasabi didn’t quite work for me. That said, I cleaned my plate regardless.

scallop yuzu buttermilk 2 (800x538)Next came a choice between scallops with yuzu buttermilk, a tomato confit, and candied egg yolk or seared foie gras with poached pear, port, and peanut. Few foods trump scallops in my culinary book and although not a great fan of tomatoes, I’m even less keen on foie gras. And as I’d never knowingly eaten a yuzu before, I was keen to try this Japanese citrus fruit once we had been introduced. I was glad when my half-hearted offer to share a taste was turned down. My friend had opted for the foie gras and was, by the looks of it, equally happy that he didn’t have to share his either.

Next up was the sweet potato and leek ravioli with a green curry velouté, a simple dish that seriously challenged the shrimp carpaccio.  At this stage, I was wondering where I’d find the room to finish. Degustation menus can be deceiving. The portions may seem small but when you take into account the richness of the seven courses and the plethora of tastes involved, it adds up. It didn’t help, of course, that the leek bread served as an accompaniment was positively orgasmic, lending some credence to the rumour that David Seboek (baker of said bread) wooed his wife and co-owner Leora and won her heart through his baking.

atlantic cod (800x533)Our second, and final choice, was between Atlantic cod with miso, cilantro, and squid-ink gnocchi and Hungarian deer loin with fig, ginger, mascarpone, chestnut, and chocolate. Usually anything with chocolate gets my vote but I just can’t do figs. So I went with the cod and found it just a tad too salty. It might have been the miso.

Rounding off what will be remembered as an almost perfect meal, we enjoyed a cheese plate and a selection of handmade desserts. Usually anything in the dessert line gets a short shrift but I was so full that I had to savour each morsel and savour I did. Delectable.

I’ve had a few taster menus in my time, the most recent before this being at the Michelin-starred Costes. And while the food at Baraka ranks right up there, I’d have liked a little more conscious, nay confident, discourse about what I was eating. It’s not on everyone’s wish list, but I like to know the provenance of my food and how it has been prepared. It all adds to the experience.

The seven-course degustation will set you back 25 000 ft (39 000 ft with wine pairing) and is worth every forint.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016

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