HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!
IN THIS ISSUE
DINING OUT IN BUDAPEST, Part Two
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
WHAT I'M DRINKING NOW
By John Mariani
DINING OUT IN BUDAPEST,
By John Mariani
In his classic study The Cuisine of Hungary (1971), George Lang traced his country’s culinary beginnings very precisely to 896 AD, when the Magyar tribes arrived under Prince Árpád (right). But Lang he goes on to say that, “Hungary has always been, because of its position between East and West, overrun and invaded; and the occupiers have left indelible marks on Hungarian cuisine.”
Sadly, that rich stewpot was put on a back burner during the Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1991. Only since then has the diversity of Hungary’s cuisine bounded back, at first with little access to the best ingredients but now in full flourish, which is best seen in Budapest’s numerous markets.
The best known is the immense Central Market at Fővám Square, built in 1897, now sprawling over 11,000 square feet on two floors, with scores of stalls selling poultry, meat, fish, cheeses, sausages, spices and vegetables, all of it well-lighted, which makes an enormous difference in the purveying of food. The profusion of foods is in fact so vast that it is difficult to imagine how the tenth or twentieth poultry stall can compete, which goes for every segment. Of course, the variety of paprika is astounding.
Downstairs is where most of the food stalls are, separated by long, wide aisles. Upstairs the stalls are filled with knickknacks, souvenirs and cheap clothing, along with a swathe of fast food places serving up hearty Hungarian fare at very low prices. There is also a nook of a wine bar that’s a fun place to go after shopping. Open Mon.-Fri.
In addition there are several other markets around the city, each with its own character and size, including Fehérvári, A Belvárosi, and Fény Street on the Buda side.
As noted in an earlier issue, Budapest is now home to many fine new restaurants that would rank with the best in Europe, joining older restaurants that followed in the wake of the Soviet exit, including the elegant Gundel, Remíz, with its lovely garden, and Krúdy Vendéglö, with its deep wine cellar.
To read Part One of this story click
26 Dob Street
There is a slew of small, hidden away neighborhood restaurants opening throughout the city, many in the quickly developing 7th District. The three-year-old Macesz Bistro is set on a narrow street in Budapest’s Old Jewish section, not far from the Great Synagogue.
Tasnádi changes his blackboard menu frequently
with seasonal specials, and not all of the items
are from Hungarian Jewish cookbooks, but all the
food is hearty, beautifully presented and served
with exceptional cordiality.
Macesz means “matzoh,” which you’ll find in the bread basket, and it is a fine way to start with tasty hummus (1,290 HF). Also thoroughly traditional and prettily presented is a plate of fried potato latkes with a sour cream foam and watercress (1,290 HF). Order foie gras pâté with sun-dried apricots (2,190 HF) and you get an enormous slab, good for two people.
The confit of goose with pearl barley (1,290 HF) is a very hefty dish indeed, succulent to the bone and kept moist by the vegetable broth. Unexpected and delicious is a lasagne made with matzo and layered with many vegetables (3,290HF). The only dish I didn’t think matched the rest was a dessert of flodni, made of thin pastry layered with apple, walnut, poppy seed and jam (1,290).
Prices include VAT and 13.5% service charge.
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily.
Fortuna utca 21
Across the Danube on the
Buda side, 21 Restaurant—the name refers to the
card game and the address—offers the very best of the Old and New worlds. Set
just a block form St. Mary’s Church in one of the
prettiest areas of the city, this charming
eight-year-old bistro might just as easily fit in
a less crowded arrondissement of Paris or a quiet
section of Greenwich Village.
Manager Márk Bense speaks perfect English, which he uses to tell you proudly about his all-Hungarian 30-label wine list of small estates—an option unthinkable even ten years ago, when investment just began coming back to winemaking in Hungary.
There are specials, seasonal and daily--I was there this winter--so you might begin with Chef Lajos Lutz’s újházi, a traditional deeply flavorful chicken soup (1,790 HF), or hortobágyi chicken crȇpe colored with mild paprika (2,290 HF, or 2,960 HF). Hungary makes a good deal of foie gras (much of it imported by France), and at 21 it comes in the form of a velvety gras pâté drenched with the marvelous Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji and served on toasted housemade brioche (2,940 HF).
Delicate ravioli (right) stuffed with juicy duck
meat are afloat in a lovely green apple and celery
velouté with its own slab of foie gras (3,260),
and you’ll need a good appetite for the hearty
pig’s knuckle (left) that is roasted, then
deep-fried and served with gelatin cubes of pork
and sauerkraut (4,860 HF).
The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
302 Bleecker Street (near Christopher Street)
I’m beginning to think that Greek food is the most underrated cuisine in NYC, almost wholly neglected by the media. Perusing the NY Times listings, I found that none has been covered during the tenure of the paper’s main critic and only a handful by neighborhood stringers.
Which is not only too bad but wholly myopic. Greek food is not only some of the most delicious around but also fits in with contemporary health and nutritional recommendations to consume more seafood, vegetables, olive oil, yogurt and much else that falls under the so-called Mediterranean diet.
Manhattan has plenty of fine Greek restaurants, as does Astoria, where the Greek community makes up about 18% of the population. The brand new Nisi, in West Greenwich Village, is representative of a style of Greek cooking that evolved after Milos and Molyvos, in Midtown, broadened the seafood aspect of Greek menus and caused a significant upgrade in the quality of all ingredients.
Nisí is the creation of partners Mike Himani and Andreas Kelemidis, along with Chef Nikola Karvelas (below), a handsome fellow who’s worked in some of the best restaurants in Athens then Istanbul. Eventually moving to the U.S. to cook at Avra and Anassa Taverna, he is now manning the stoves at Nisí—the Greek word for island—and both inside and out it has a delightful buoyancy of spirit. The façade is done in the white and blue colors of the Greek flag, leading to a raftered bar and front dining room and on to an enchanting outdoor patio ringed with Edison light bulbs. The wait staff shows the same hospitality you’ll find in the tavernas of the Greek isles, and the menu is of a size that encourages lots of meze.
You are first brought toasty country bread and a creamy taramosalata spread, and there are several other spreads available, served with pita bread (somewhat dry on my visit). The spanakopita of spinach, scallions, leaks and dill-flecked feta cheese wrapped in handmade phyllo ($15) is colorful and very good, the Nisí zucchini and eggplant chips served with tzatziki ($17) should be gobbled up by your party of four, and the saganaki is a pan-fried orb of sheep’s cheese ($14) that will go fast. Best of all the mezes I tasted was a generous platter of grilled octopus ($21) done in a red wine vinegar with salty capers and a dash of oregano. I’ve become accustomed to tender octopus in Greek restaurants, but this one was extraordinary in every way.
Every bit as good were fat, heads-on jumbo shrimp ($21) dressed lightly with lemon and olive oil and needing nothing more.
The special that evening was a silky, moist tsipoúra (gilt-head bream) impeccably grilled ($29). The mousakas ($29), done in the style of Astakos in western Greece, comes steaming in a ceramic dish as layers of eggplant, potatoes, zucchini and a lobster ragôut topped with a very rich béchamel sauce ($29).
Kopsidia ($56) is a generous assortment of meats, intended for two people and including grilled lamb chops, lamb sliders, lamb kebab, meatballs and chicken, with Greek fries, pita bread and tzatziki. The kebabs came off the best, for while the other meats were good, their amalgam seemed to suffer from all being plated without regard to their individual cooking times.
For dessert there is a fine baklava and a moist chocolate cake with ice cream.
Nisí’s wine list is conveniently on the back of the menu and is predominantly and proudly Greek, with plenty of top labels, most offered in a little carafe by the glass. Mark-ups are reasonable on the Greek wines; the international bottlings less so.
Right now, on a spring night, walking along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is one of NYC’s most delightful pastimes, with a restaurant in every other storefront. But that inviting white-and-blue façade of Nisí is one that will likely make you stop, peek in, and make the idea of dining outside in twilight as alluring as strolling through the winding pathways of Mykonos for the same reasons.
Open daily for dinner.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By John Mariani
ARE CORK STOPPERS OBSOLETE?
As discussed in this column last week, “corked” wines—those tainted by a chemical due to a faulty cork—make up between five and fifteen percent of all bottles. That is an astounding failure rate in any industry short of North Korean missile tests.
Yet the appeal of cork stoppers continues to the degree that the vast majority of wines in the world, especially premium wines priced above $15, use corks. There must, you would think, be a very good reason. But, frankly, there isn’t.
Corks have been used since Ancient Greece in their ceramic amphoras (left), though the practice lapsed in the Middle Ages in favor of wood, wax and pitch, then returned to favor when glass bottles appeared in the 17th century. Failure rates considered, cork was still the best thing available until the 20th century, when several other closures were invented, including metal screw caps, synthetic corks, and Teflon-coated glass, all of which preclude any bottle cork problem. So why don’t wine producers use them?
I ask this question of most wine producers I meet and interview, and the answer is almost always the same: Corks are more ... romantic. Some of those producers warm to that idea, though I’m never sure if they really mean it. Most point the finger at consumers who have become conditioned by the dubious romance of pulling a cork from a bottle or who believe only cheap wines have non-cork closures. Such people may never be convinced that the ritual of finding the right corkscrew, risking destruction of the cork, getting cork bits in the wine, and sometimes needing a superhuman strength to get the damn thing out is hardly romantic in any way and may lead at best to embarrassment and at worse to a complete mess. Such cork lovers always smile and mention the celebratory “pop” of the cork when it comes out of the bottle, giggling like teenagers when a Champagne cork shoots across the room. They’re the same people who find slicing off the top of the bottle with a sword a giddy amusement (right).
Those who wouldn’t be caught dead serving a bottle with a “fake” cork or a screw cap do so out of abject fear they will be judged cheap by their friends. They insist that a screw cap on a bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy is like putting plastic covers on antique sofas, which is certainly not pretty but highly protective.
In fact, when E&J Gallo wanted to gain their Hearty Burgundy wines a little more respect, they switched from jugs to Bordeaux-style magnum-sized bottles and ditched the screw caps for corks. It didn’t make the wine taste any better.
I will bet you, however, if an avid wine lover purchased a case of, say, $125 per bottle California Cabernet and found every bottle—even half of them—corked, they would storm back to the wine store and demand a refund, which they will probably get; the store owner may then get a refund from his distributor, who eats the loss. All of which could have been avoided if the wines had been stoppered with a screw cap or imitation cork. Regarding the screw cap, “It’s the best technology for closing wine in a glass bottle,” says Thomas Henick-Kling, director of Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology program, who did research on the subject.
Well aware of all this debate, the Portuguese cork industry has redoubled its efforts to make a better cork. Formerly, they bleached the corks but found that actually increased the possibility of TCA (the chemical compound that causes cork taint); then they used hydrogen peroxide, irradiation and heat to destroy mould. After being placed in plastic bags, the corks are hit with carbon dioxide. These techniques showed promise but have not eliminated the TCA problem by a long shot.
A somewhat more reasonable objection to screw caps is that wine in a bottle can benefit from what is called oxygen transmission, by which oxygen enters the bottle through a cork, affecting the wine and contributing to its development and aging. Makers of big red wines insist their products definitely need longer aging and a little oxygen. Fans of corks contend screw caps allow no oxygen transmission and synthetic corks not enough. But it’s a transmission that may cause other problems: Too much oxygen and you’ll have a nasty oxidized wine; there’s no such thing as too little.
But both synthetic cork and screw top makers have managed to allow some oxygen into the bottle. Indeed, a French company named Diam Buchage has even found a way to offer products with different oxygen transmission rates. Take your pick.
There is, to be sure, a vast number of producers who would love to switch to synthetic corks or screw caps. Back in 1997 Napa Valley’s highly regarded PlumpJack winery decided to bottle its finest Reserve Cabernet under a screw cap “in an effort to maintain only the highest quality wine.” Just this year Quady wines of Madera, California, switched most of its wines to screw caps, and most of the wines from Australia and New Zealand now use them.
But change has come slowly. The rather elegant glass stoppers made by Alcoa Germany (left) work very well, but the bottle itself has to be specially made to accept them. Napa Valley’s Whitehall Lane uses them, as do many German wineries.
In Europe premium wines still use cork, but even there producers are testing the waters with alternative stoppers.
I believe it’s only a matter of time before synthetic corks or screw caps replace real corks in wine bottles. And when true wine lovers begin to admit that corked wines can be an expensive way to fake romance with the pop of a cork, the change-over will come quickly.
ANNALS OF FOOD DECADENCE,
ANNALS OF FOOD DECADENCE,
Mother's Day in the UK, Groupon Supermarkets is
selling a nail polish made with real prosecco that
smells and tastes like
For Mother's Day in the UK, Groupon Supermarkets is selling a nail polish made with real prosecco that smells and tastes likethe Italian sparkling wine, although Group does not recommend actually drinking the product.
"So long, farewell auf wiedersehen, adieu,
Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu!"
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