Hungarian chefs pay homage to the classics—with a twist

Hungary’s cuisine has always been unique, but a new wave of creative chefs is changing the future of Hungary’s food scene.

By Carolyn Banfalvi
Published 2 Jan 2019, 09:25 GMT

Hungary is an unrivalled destination for food-loving travellers. Hungarians take immense pride in their cuisine, along with the drinks that are perfect accompaniments to it: pálinka fruit brandy often offered as a welcome, sweet Tokaji Aszú wine marking the end of a feast, and herbal Unicum liqueur that helps to digest it all. Eating and drinking is the truest way to get to know Hungary’s history, culture, and soul—especially now that creative chefs are deliciously shaking up the country’s cuisine. 

Until a decade ago eating well in Hungary meant stick-to-your-ribs meat and potato-heavy dishes at a traditional restaurant. Those hearty meals are still a standout at many excellent establishments, but there’s been a sea change in the dining landscape since then, starting in Budapest and now spreading throughout the country. Budapest has four Michelin-starred restaurants, more than any other central European nation. Outside the city, the dynamic food scene includes great restaurants scattered around the country, farmers' markets and festivals showcasing fantastic regional ingredients and products, and wineries offering pairing experiences.

At Gusteau restaurant in Mád, chef Gábor Horváth creates dishes that pair perfectly with Tokaj’s food-friendly wines and utilise the region’s produce.
Photograph by Stephen Álvarez

The food in Hungary is wide-ranging and diverse, and lends itself well to change and reinvention. It has been heavily influenced over the centuries by the intermingling of cuisines from other nations (particularly Turkey), other former members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Jewish kitchen. Hungarian chefs remain true to their classic dishes, such as gulyás (goulash), chicken paprikash, and Dobos torte, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to the traditional style. Hungarian meals are characterised by rich layers of flavour, and some of the most iconic dishes can be prepared either as simple comfort food or in variations complex enough to be served at the ritziest establishments. The best chefs in Hungary today are balancing this: honouring Hungarian flavours and showcasing excellent local ingredients, but adding their own ingenuity and technical skills.

Northeast from Budapest, chef János Macsinka in Eger sources ingredients from producers in the area, like cheese from dairy farms in the Bükk hills and trout from streams around the nearby town of Szilvásvárad. His dishes are colourful re-creations of the Hungarian classics, which match the wines from Eger’s vineyards, known for the spicy 'Bull’s Blood' blend and the newer white blend called Egri Csillag. Farther northeast, the Tokaj region is a hotbed of culinary creativity. In Mád, a village lined with some of Tokaj’s most storied wineries and surrounded by grand cru vineyards, chef Gábor Horváth uses the terroir as inspiration, creating dishes that utilise the area’s bounty of raw materials and pairing them with its remarkable food-friendly wines. In the village of Tokaj, for which the region is named, chef József Mátyás honours Hungary’s best local products with dishes such as lentil soup with foie gras ice cream, duck carpaccio, and black truffle oil, pairing them with Tokaj’s renowned crisp white wines. Brothers Szabolcs and Szilárd Dudás honed their culinary skills in Italy and New York before returning to their hometown, the sleepy village of Encs in the Zemplén Mountains, to open a restaurant that’s become a destination in itself. The Dudás brothers serve perhaps the best pizza in the country, and are known for their skillful preparations of Mangalica pork, a native Hungarian pig that has come back from the brink of extinction in recent years.

Chef Gábor Horváth brought a contemporary take on Hungarian cuisine to the village of Mád, in the heart of the Tokaj region. He opened Gusteau restaurant in 2010, and builds his dishes around the area’s astounding wines.
Photograph by Stephen Álvarez

The hills, vineyards, and charming villages surrounding nearly 50-mile-long Lake Balaton have been the muse for many local chefs. The area around the lake is so diverse that it includes five separate wine regions, created by several micro-climates that produce hyper-local wines ranging from fruity reds to stony volcanic whites. In Balatonszemes, on the southern side of the lake, Balázs Csapody’s menu draws inspiration from the district’s natural abundance, featuring fish from the lake and venison. On the northern side, the Káli Basin is a fairytale place with a number of delightful restaurants. In Köveskál, husband-and-wife team György Mészáros and Kata Zakar design a daily menu, scrawled on chalkboards, which offers dishes like beef cheeks with bread pudding, pike perch with sage and squash gnocchi, and Angus beef tartare with marinated vegetables. Their dining room is decked out in sparse black and white decor with a mix of textures, and wine is almost exclusively from the neighbouring villages. Savouring the sunset from a terrace above the lake, glass of wine in hand, is a can’t-miss classic Balaton experience. And throughout Hungary, there’s never a worry that a food-loving traveller will run out of new things to try.

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