Although Budapest is primarily known for its architecture, geothermal springs, and communist heritage, the city’s food scene has gained considerable attention from travelers in recent years.
New and exciting fine dining outlets are constantly opening in the Hungarian capital, many of them led by prolific chefs eager to infuse imagination and prestige into the Budapest dining experience.
In the last 12 months alone, two restaurants in the Hungarian capital have obtained new Michelin stars, bringing the total number of Michelin-awarded establishments in Budapest to six.
Hungary only received its first Michelin star nine years ago, so this is a truly remarkable breakthrough.
There is no doubt that a culinary revolution is underway in the “Pearl of the Danube,” but what has led to this burgeoning movement?
Record numbers of tourists and a booming economy have certainly played a role.
Considering Hungary’s well-documented difficult past, it’s fair to say that fine dining hasn’t necessarily been a priority for locals haunted by communist austerity.
“Hungary has always been a rather poor country,” explains Hungarian food critic Andras Jokuti. “So the main goal of Hungarian cuisine was to stay alive. It was very important to have a lot of proteins and carbohydrates: it was based on potatoes and meat.
Inside the Costes restaurant in Budapest
Changing this perception has been a long process, which continues today. However, the situation is definitely changing.
Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira believes this is partly due to the increased availability of good quality produce in the country over the past decade.
“We should buy butter from abroad [before] because there was no good quality butter here,” he tells CNN.
“Now everything is completely different.”
Vieira runs Costes, based on Raday Street, and was at the helm of the restaurant when it became the first in the country to earn a Michelin star in 2010.
It produces modern interpretations of classic Hungarian dishes, serving set menus of four to seven courses with various wine pairings.
Jokuti believes that Vieira brought the food scene to life by fusing Hungarian and Portuguese influences into his dishes early on.
“When Miguel arrived in Budapest, it was like the beginning of the history of good food in Hungary,” he says.
Vieira admits he knew little about Hungarian cuisine when he arrived in the country many years ago and was often “hammered by critics”.
“My cooking has changed a lot,” he adds. “Now I can proudly tell you that my footprint is in food.”
“One of the biggest compliments we can get here is if someone says, ‘I felt this dinner had personality.’
While Vieira tries to incorporate Hungarian traditions into his dishes, this is not the “end goal” and he certainly doesn’t have Michelin stars on his mind while he’s in the kitchen.
“I always tell the kids, ‘We should cook for ourselves. We should do what we believe in.’ It’s not about cooking for awards,” she adds. “It’s not about looking for stars or recognition.
“This is the icing on the cake. But that’s not why we work 14, 15 or 16 hours a day.”
Michelin starred magic at the Budapest Stand
Hungarian chef Tamas Szell was credited with putting Hungarian food on the map in 2016, when his modern interpretations of the country’s traditional dishes earned him the gold medal at the prestigious “Bocuse D’or Europe” competition.
Szell and co-chef Szabina Szulló head the kitchen at the Stand, which received its first Michelin star last March, has a similar approach to cooking to that of Vieira.
“Food is the best communication between a chef and guests,” Szell tells CNN.
“We hope our dishes contain the sweet memories of childhood. When I cook a dish, it should be acceptable to both our grandmothers and a Michelin inspector. This is the most difficult [part] I think.”
The stand opened in Budapest in 2018 following the success of the Stand25 bistro and market hall, which Szell and Szulló ran together.
“My inspirations definitely come from my childhood,” he adds. “My mother had a saying: ‘we are poor but we live well’”.
Szell says his fisherman’s soup, which contains carp, paprika, water and tiny dumplings known as deraya in Hungary, is the second most popular soup after goulash.
“When I was a child, my mother often did it like this,” he explains.
Szell’s dishes seem to have the desired effect. Stand, located on Székely Mihály Street, has been a great success since its launch.
Indeed, Jokuti describes it as “the perfect Hungarian restaurant,” praising the creative way Szell manages to tone down the richness of traditional Hungarian cuisine.
“This, I believe, is his greatest achievement. To somehow recreate the traditions into something modern,” says Jokuti.
Szell sources his dairy products from a small farm just outside Budapest, which supplies a handful of the city’s fine restaurants.
Within 48 hours of the milk leaving the cow’s udder, it is served at the Stand in the form of cottage cheese,
“I think the ingredients are the most important thing,” Szell adds. “Good ingredients always try to find the chef, and the chef always tries to find the best ingredients.”
Fine dining at Babel Budapest
Located in the center of Budapest, Babel is one of the city’s restaurants that most recently earned a Michelin star.
It’s relatively small, with a dozen or so tables, exposed brick walls and dim lighting, making for an intimate dining experience.
Inspired by Hungarian traditions and the Romanian region of Transylvania, chef Istvan Veres presents five to ten course tasting menus containing simple ingredients such as nettle or lichen.
Veres says that for him, cooking is an “obsession” rather than a passion, describing how he often dreams of a dish and then attempts to make it the next day.
“In fine dining, you have to do something special, something unique,” he says. “Put your soul on the plate.”
“I’m never afraid of new things.”
According to Jokuti, it is this courage that makes Veres such a pioneering chef.
“Istvan’s taste is not so easy to follow,” says Jokuti. “I love going to Babel because I’m always surprised.”
Hoping to repeat the success of Stand, Babel and Costes, there is the new Salt restaurant, open only since October.
It is run by chef Szilard Toth and manager Mate Boldizsar, who often serve the dishes to the diners themselves.
Toth regularly forages for produce in the Hungarian countryside, returning with all kinds of edible delights.
“We find so many basic ingredients that an average chef doesn’t see very often,” Toth tells CNN.
“This means we can introduce a world of flavors to our food: surprising flavor combinations that can’t be found anywhere else.”
The chef’s table is positioned in the center of the restaurant, so diners can come closer to ask questions about the dishes or simply watch Toth and his team in action.
Dishes are simply presented (some don’t even require cutlery) and customers can opt for a Hungarian wine pairing menu to complement the meal.
The Salt team prides itself on transforming basic produce into refined dishes, and the restaurant is filled with jars containing fermented or pickled items found in the forest.
“We have a dish called fat bread,” Boldizsar says. ” In its original form, it is a very, very simple dish.
“Just a piece of bread with a little fat. We put a little bacon on it, a little caviar and a little lamb skin.”
Only time will tell if Salt will get the coveted Michelin star, but the restaurant seems to have won over many diners in the short time it has been in business.
“I think he [Toth] it shows that it is possible to create a very hedonistic, but at the same time very modern meal, starting from sometimes humble, but very Hungarian ingredients,” says Jokuti.
A restaurant like Salt would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago in the Hungarian capital.
Its emergence is a clear indication of the adventurous direction in which the city’s culinary scene is currently moving.
“It’s really fascinating to observe these times in Hungarian cuisine,” says Jokuti.
“I travel a lot, I visit the best restaurants in the world. It’s amazing to see that I can come home and eat at these great restaurants.
“It’s not like, ‘Okay, it’s not that good, but at least it’s Hungarian.’
“It can be a pleasure, it can be an emotion. We have reached a truly fantastic level.”