2015 Grateful 20

Many years ago, while dancing with some chap in the Dinn Rí nightclub in Carlow, he turned and paid me what I can only suppose was his idea of a compliment: ‘I can see by ya’, says he, ‘that ya like a bit of chocolate.’ When I finally found the positive in this, the song was over, the dance was over, and we were over, having never even started.

But he was right. I like my chocolate. I like my food. Eating is a joy. One of the simplest pleasures in life. And for those who don’t share my love of all things culinary, I feel for you.

Food7Bulgarian cuisine was  like one massive fish’n’meat menu with variations on the same theme. There were definite staples shared by most restaurants, with some doing them better than others. There were fish I’d never heard of – and didn’t fancy trying. And there were Food6versions of things I orderd that didn’t come close to what I had in my head. A roasted pepper, tomato, garlic, and olive dish that I expected to be a salad turned up as a pureé. A spinach, mushroom and cheese dish showed up as mush, and I was never Food3Food5curious enough to order the popular dish ‘Mish Mash’.

As in most cities, TripAdvisor has taken over. There’s a restaurant here in Budapest – Zeller Bistro – that is booked up days in advance because it’s rated  in the top 3 in the city. And
yes, it’s good. But there are plenty better that don’t get a look in. We ate in Vodenisata twice before we noticed it listed by Lonely Planet. And it was good. Good Eastern European cooking. And it’s not rated by Trip Advisor at all. But then, it was mainly Food 2locals. Which is always a plus.

One night, we stayed in the ‘hood and wandered through the maze of back streets overlooked by towering apartment blocks. About a mile away, on the edge of a park, beside a kids’ Food1playground, sits Teniova Kashta – a family-run institution that has been serving massive helpings to the local populace for what seems like centuries. It’s all over the place. Inside takes about 150. Outside, on all levels, takes another 120. The size of the tables and food8the size of the portions speak to the tradition in Bulgaria of big groups eating out. You could get a whole stuffed roasted lamb for €150. A piglet for €135. A rabbit for €25. And then there’s the offal – livers, gizzards, tongue, tripe, even pigs ears. There are over 300 items on the menu – more choice that I usually like to have – but it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly taken with them calling a Baked Alaska dessert an omlette 🙂

I found myself imagining winning the lottery and bringing 12 of my nearest and dearest meat-eating friends to the table. What a night that would be. And isn’t that what meals were made for? None of this eating in front of the TV, or from your  lap on the sofa. If you’re in company, a meal is an occasion. And indeed, even if dining alone, they can still be occasions. Think Trond Sander, in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Or my visit to Croatia a while back when I dined each night with Jack Reacher. [I was quite delighted today to see that Lidl has some one-glass cans of prosecco on offer. Nothing like a few bubbles to spruce up a dinner table.]

This week though, as I land again in Budapest and read of the countless thousands flooding in to the country, thousands who have had little in the way of fine dining (or any sort of dining) for quite a while, eating has taken on a whole new perspective. And, if anything, is o be even more appreciated. This blessing came to mind:

In a world where so many are hungry,
may we eat this food with humble hearts;
in a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.

Yep, this week, I grateful that I can find such pleasure in the simple act of eating.

Gained in translation

Just four days in Skopje taught me the value of suspending disbelief and just going with the flow. After a while, nothing seems too fantastical. Within two hours I’d stopped asking how old anything was because it was all new. The carousel on the river bank opposite the yet-to-be-opened Museum of Archaeology didn’t seem out-of-place. But I have to admit a little incredulity when I saw the boats.

Skopje doesn’t have a riverboat history. The Vadar is not Old Miss. It’s not the Danube. It doesn’t have cruise ships or steamers. And yet someone, with a great imagination, thought up the idea of having boat restaurants.

IMG_1862 (800x600)Built to look like brothels (my opinion: I’m doubt that was the intention but it was the first thing that came to mind) they actually look like old wooden ships. But like everything else in Skopje, looks can be deceiving. Strip away the veneer and you find a massive metal structure, built atop foundations on a makeshift island of gravel which looks for all the world like an old battleship. An illusion shattered.

IMG_2062 (800x600) But when you strip away the metal, you get a steel frame, just like any old building. Is this really how ships are built? When  I Googled, I found an article in Macedonian and it would seem that the name of the company responsible translates to Dim Phalanx. How appropriate. Something lost (or gained) in translation.

IMG_2054 (800x600)Some who are concerned reckoned that the boats, built to look like galleons, would add a new dimension to a city that is gaining a reputation as a new Disneyland. They’re thinking Pirates of the Caribbean. And I feel their pain. Somethings are better left imagined.


Once bitten, twice shy. Bloody Mary indeed!

A favourite question of travellers everywhere concerns the tipping protocol. Do we tip? If so, how much? And do we tip everyone? What exactly are we tipping anyway – service or service with a smile or service with a smile and a little banter?

I’ve had two posh-bad tipping experiences [in fancy places that you’d expect more of]. Both experiences are quite dated now and I’m sure the wait-staff in question have long since moved on. My anecdotes should not be taken as a reflection of current service, which, as I’ve never been back to either establishment, I can’t vouch for. [Once bitten, twice shy – that’s me!]

Valuing time over money

The first was the illustrious Gerbeaud. I’d dropped by for a pre-lunch cuppa to show the place to a visiting friend who is rather fond of a bit of grandeur.  It took about five minutes to catch someone’s attention – although it was a Sunday about 12.30 and the place wasn’t exactly hopping. I ordered a coffee, my friend a tea. Some ten minutes later, my coffee arrived along with a cup of hot water sans teabag for my friend. By the time the bag appeared, I’d finished, and we had a pressing lunch reservation (elsewhere, thankfully). I tried in vain to catch said someone’s attention to ask for the bill. So I calculated what we owed. Because I hadn’t the exact change, I rounded it up and left a sizeable tip [some indication of how much I value time over money].

As we stepped outside and began our walk across Vorosmarty tér, the missing ‘someone’ appeared running after us shouting ‘a szamla, a szamla’. I turned. I told her that I’d left the money on the table. ‘With the 10%?  she asked.  ‘Yes’, I said, through gritted teeth – ‘but only because I didn’t have the correct change’.

Using my discretion

Can it be that tipping for service is becoming mandatory in Budapest? I’ve been told as much, particularly when I cross out the added 10% and refuse to pay anything more than the actual amount as the service was so bad it couldn’t actually be considered service. Mind you, even if the service charge is added automatically, when the service is so good that it’s added to my enjoyment of the occasion [i.e. service + smile + said bit of banter], I’m happy to add the same again.

Making sure I’m noticed

I was being treated to a cocktail at the New York Café one afternoon. Again, it took an age to get someone’s attention – we were but two, neither bedecked nor bejewelled. We took the initiative and  sat ourselves down at at small table. Someone materialised immediately, completely aghast. We should have waited to be seated. The 10 minutes we’d been holding up the wall obviously didn’t count as waiting.  We decided that given the price and the surrounds, the Bloody Mary would no doubt come with vegetables and be topped with the regulatory spoonful of sherry. So we ordered two. They eventually arrived…in plain water glasses accessorised with a simple plastic straw… and the bill. Not brave enough to make a scene, we supped and upped, leaving our money on the table. My friend was all for not tipping, but I added 50 forints just to be sure that said someone knew we hadn’t simply forgotten!

Reading the fine print

I’ve heard some similar stories this week. One diner had a 12.5% service charge added to the top of the bill. I’ve only ever seen it added to the bottom as a percentage of the total, and I read my bills religiously from top to bottom. Not seeing a service charge at the end, the diner tipped an additional 10% – generous to the extreme, in hindsight. Someone else ordered what they thought was a 2000 ft bottle of Tokaj (on special offer) but it was added to the bill at three times the price. Apparently the 2000 ft was the take-away price.

I am sure that there are hundreds more stories just waiting to be told. Who’s at fault?  Is it too much to expect that bills contain only what’s been ordered and that the service charge is added once the bill has been totalled and not before? Or should we each take responsibility for how we spend our money, check the bill before paying, and only reward good service?

One thing’s for certain – variances in tips and tipping or  bills and billing are not peculiar to Budapest, or indeed to Hungary. They’re part and parcel of the service industry worldwide. Whether we call it pulling a fast one or trying to get one over, man has been at it since the dawn of time…and isn’t looking like he’ll stop any time soon.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 November 2012