Thursday, 29 December 2011

Budapest - more than the land of the goulash

At the end of November I was lucky enough to enjoy three nights in glorious Budapest as part of the annual ‘work Christmas do’. Not knowing anything more than the humble Hungarian goulash as a dish I was keen to see what else was on offer.
We stayed at the Mercure Korona Hotel on a B&B basis which was very much a continental affair, with the odd frankfurter sausage and rasher of bacon. One thing that I found a little bit on the strange side was the dish of poppy seed bread rolls soaked in milk – not for my palette!
On the first morning we split into same-sex groups as part of a challenge, and headed off to our respective spas for the morning. We’d chosen the Gellert Bath where as well as plunging into hot water, a heavy contrast to the freezing cold weather, there was also the chance for massage and other beauty treatments. I had a stinking cold so opted out of a dip, but enjoyed a very soothing, and great value for money head massage. There were three of us who opted out of the water and happily we are all greedy sorts, so it was only a matter of time before we headed into the adjoining hotel Gellert Hotel to sample their confectionary in the coffee and cake cafĂ©.
I enjoyed a caramel cake, which was so rich, moist and moreish that I could have quite easily had another slice. Estelle and Katie went for an apple strudel and a chocolate cake. The apple strudel was like no other I’ve ever tried, it was flavoursome with cinnamon and mixed spice, and actually tasted to me of Christmas – wonderful. The chocolate cake was a small, round chocolate sponge, coated in a hard chocolate jacket – all dark chocolate, all lovely.
We found lunch in a nice little pub/restaurant – with the longest menu I’ve ever seen! Everything we had was good and with a bottle of wine plus a few beers between five of us, the meal came in at less than £15 a head which we were astounded by. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the name of the place, but there were business cards stuck all over the walls and we were given an enormous basket of monkey nuts at the table and encouraged to throw the shells straight on the floor – it was great fun.
In the evening the whole tribe of us were booked in to Matyas Pince which was hotly anticipated. The menu had been circulated around the office and there were a few options that sounded a little unusual, especially to some of the fussier eaters, so we were keen to see how it fared.
We needn’t have worried – I had a perfectly delicious meal comprising of Truffled Potato Soup to begin, baked goose leg (amazing) for mains with sides of braised red cabbage, ‘smashed’ potatoes and fried onions – this was the star showing for me, the crispy skin alone was worth the trip to Budapest! The meal was finished off for me with a ‘Somlo’ cake which I found were very common in Budapest, and are a sponge cake flavoured with rum, with chopped walnuts and a chocolate sauce. Not up there with the best ever dessert, but nice enough.
Throughout this meal we enjoyed a whole host of wines, including a dessert wine which was served up after our first course which was a little unusual and finished off with an Irish Coffee – lovely. There were a few people who had the odd dudd dish – such as the cheese soufflĂ© dessert which actually looked, and apparently tasted like an egg McMuffin, but I’d chosen wisely so was left satisfied. Also throughout the meal there were traditional Hungarian folk singers going round and singing at various people – so it was a great atmosphere.
The following evening and half of the troops had flown home so there was a smaller group and we’d found a little restaurant close to our hotel called Vendia Ketterem. Considering the overall cost of the meal which was around £20-£25 per head the food was exceptional – presented well and a great, friendly service too. This was a ‘smart’ restaurant and the food lived up to the overall look of the place too. I had a breaded cheese to start which was good and followed with a fillet steak – which I wouldn’t have been disappointed with at Hawksmoor. The accompaniments were a little strange, potato shapes, which had a fruity tang to them but as I’d asked for it blue I was more worried this would be over-done, but no – absolutely cooked to perfection.
We decided against dessert, not least because we had been indulging a little too much – but also as it was our last night and we were keen to get out drinking and dancing boots on. On our hotel reception’s recommendation we tried a little place called Fat Mo's and had an absolutely brilliant evening. The DJ was very accommodating and only too happy to play all of our random requests .Never did I expect to see three of the men from our office dancing away to the routine of Beyonce’s ‘All the Single Ladies’ however it appears with copious amounts of beer, wine and the odd shot of Unicum , anything can happen! Unicum is the Hungarian national drink and which I can safely say I’d happily never try again – a herbal concoction that reminded me of the worst kind of medicine.
I’ve only really mentioned a handful of the eateries we enjoyed food in and have to say I’d recommend Budapest to anyone, as far as the food goes. One thing that must be noted is that smiling seems to not be big on Hungarians list of favourite things to do, however don’t let this deter you from what is a great city. I definitely would return particularly in the summer to enjoy the sight-seeing more especially the views along the river which were slightly blighted by the frost factor.
We enjoyed some fine-dining Budapest style which was fantastic but on the last day I had a bowl of goulash, as couldn’t leave without trying the native classic, and have to say it was the most warming, hearty meal I had out there. I can safely say one would find it hard to go hungry in Hungary as in three days I had no complaints about breakfasts, lunch or dinners.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


Last week I had a dinner date with my Dad - he met me after work in Soho and without the rest of my immediate family hankering after the favourite haunts in Gerard Street we decided to try something new.
We decided on a packed Kaslik - a Lebanese joint that we figured must be decent considering it's remained open in Soho for almost a deccade and was jam-packed.
The last time I reviewed a Lebanese restaurant it was way back in my first ever post in January 2010 on Kenza which had an opulence and glamour about it – in the heart of the financial quarter of the city and with scantily clad ladies dancing round as you eat. Whilst Kaslik certainly didn’t match the mystique and awe on arrival it did have a certain, warm charm that almost embraces you on your entrance. The ground level area is small and there are very small round tables dotted all over with stools to sit on and the odd cushion. Be warned if you’re the shy type then this intimate dining style with strangers a mere few inches away might not be for you!
My Dad and I were won over by the charm though – everyone in the restaurant was lively and there was a real buzz in the atmosphere – a great start. We immediately ordered a Lebanese beer: Almaza which was cold, light and refreshing and certainly quenched our thirst. We scoured the menu and chose for our ‘mezze’ the cold ‘Labneh’ with pitta bread, the Kalaj, and a special which was ‘Meatball Kafta’.
The labneh was a dip of yoghurt and mint, the Lebanese version of a Tzatsiki but without the pungent garlic – it was very refreshing, and complemented our other dishes well. The ‘Kalaj’ was haloumi and black olives, sliced and toasted in pitta bread – absolutely delicious. The haloumi had none of the rubberiness that you can sometimes be faced with, instead it had a slight melt-ability to it, and a glorious flavour.
My dad had chosen the Meatball Kafta which was, simply lamb meatballs in a spicy, herby tomato based sauce and it was the star showing by far. The meat was full of the flavours of the sauce and melt-in-the mouth tender – the meatballs tasted like they’d been lovingly prepared and cooked for hours absorbing all of the cumin, coriander and cinnamon herbs and spices. It really had such a gorgeous taste and I couldn’t pinpoint one particular flavour, but I’d go back there for this dish alone.
The pitta bread which were apparently ‘cooked on hot stone’ were a bit of a disappointment and my dad continued to send them back until they had some colour as they arrived anaemic and white looking and we strongly suspected they’d been prepared in the microwave (not good!). In the end my Dad asked them to burn them – at which they came back slightly browned.
Another down point was the service at the beginning of the meal – we soon realised that there was a Christmas party of some description going on downstairs and with two waiting staff – this was never going to work when upstairs was packed and almost every table seemed to be just receiving their mezze when we arrived – so we assumed the kitchen was similarly rushed.
This thought was confirmed when every half hour or so the sweaty, harassed looking chef would appear in his full whites, hurriedly running through to the front of the restaurant for a cigarette. We found this quite funny and it only added to the character of the place.
But waiter number one in his harassed state did come across as quite rude and we were left for about 25 minutes after receiving our first beer before we were able to order as well – not a problem but nobody arrived to assure us they’d be over soon or anything, which I thought lacked thought. The waitress who took over from him was charming and pleasant which did make up in part for cheerful Charlie at the beginning.
Between the starters and mains as well there was a good 45 minute to an hour wait which was a bit much too.
Back to the food though – when the main courses did arrive I was more than happy. I had the ‘Chicken Shawarma Grill’. My Dad opted for the Lamb Shish Kebab. The menu didn’t stipulate what came with these and when asked the waiter said ‘you must order side dishes’ so we ordered a tomato and onion salad and some rice. When the meals arrived we were a little put out that the meals both came with a really rather large salad, and felt the waiter had let us down a bit.
I really enjoyed my main, the chicken was really tasty and flavourful and I’ve since discovered that ‘Shawarma’ is actually the naughtiest of dishes and realised the reason I enjoyed it so much and thought it reminded me of my beloved Greek Gyros. It was delicious and once again the meat was perfectly flavoured and very, very moreish. It came with a tortilla wrap too – which I found a little strange, especially as it was also cold, so I dis-regarded this and ate a little more pitta.
My Dad’s Lamb Shish was good too and unlike my strips of almost shredded meat, as you would expect with this dish it was served in chunks – the meat was again very tender, and quite herby. The rice that accompanied our dish had mint running through it very subtly and an almost fragrant scent and taste too that I couldn’t put my finger on but it was lovely. The labneh which we kept throughout again complemented our dishes really well.
We didn’t make dessert but this may have been in part due to the fact we didn’t finish our main course till 1030pm after arriving at 8pm and still had to make our way back to Essex – but I’ll be sure to return as I saw some gorgeous looking Baklava going to the table beside us.
The meal came in around the £70 mark including a few beers and white wine so about average for Soho.
The food was not fine dining but in flavour it was exceptional, the service average and the atmosphere electric – I’ll definitely return but with a larger crowd next time so more can enjoy the buzz that gives Kaslik it’s own unique charm.
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