The day: 26th August 2007, Dinner.
The place: Hess Andras Ter 49, 1014 Budapest, Hungary (375 68 57 – both telephone and fax)
The venue: Fortuna Closest airports: Budapest (British Airways)
The food: Fine Hungarian Dining
The drinks: Careful list of Hungarian wines, prices in line with the very elegant decor
Let’s have a change for tonight, let’s dine in Budapest (we are that kind of people, you know…). Where best to start than in the tourist trap district of Buda Castle? You have to be careful when choosing in this area, but we had heard good things about Fortuna, so in we go.
The interior is vast, impressive and lusciously elegant, a triumph of velvet, damasqued thick fabrics, and decorations from Medieval times onwards.
The mise en place on the table is impeccable and very pleasant looking.
The menu is rather on the expensive side by Budapest standards; but very reasonable by UK standards, and certainly far cheaper than any similarly attired establishment in London. There are starters including the famous Hungarian goose liver pate (here served with sparkling wine jelly) at 3,500 HUF (a little shy of £10) and Asparagus gratine with Mangalica ham, also at 3,500 HUF. Of course there are soups (more on this story later…). Mains go from the 3,000 HUF of the grilled breast of chicken with strawberry strudel and melissa sauce to the 6,500 HUF of venison. In between we find a good number of interesting dishes of beef, veal, fish, pork, duck, and game. There are also two set menus, a smaller three course one at 5300 HUF and a five course one at 11000 HUF.
The Hungarian one is not the lightest of cuisines, so we decided to structure our meal around a soup, a main and a dessert, leaving the tempting goose liver for another day, thus gaining a few days of life.
Our order of soups included a wild duck soup, but by mistake a different one was brought instead. We decided to have it, in order not to delay and spoil the sequencing, and we only pointed out the mishap after we had finished. But at this point the extremely nice person in charge of our table, looking literally shocked by his mistake (indeed he was most professional and we are sure errors do not happen often!), ‘politely but firmly’ insisted that we also tried, on the house, the duck soup. We are not the ones to refuse an offer that cannot be refused (another one had been made to us just before – more on this story later…). So we ended up having three soups:
– Soup of wild duck with saffron, botrytised grape and smoked quail egg (HUF 1250, about £3.50)
– Kohlrabi (turnip) puree soup with pheasant mousse dumpling (HUF 1000)
– Asparagus cream soup with asparagus cream ravioli and ‘cheese’ (HUF 1000)
The best of these was the duck soup, truly exceptional. The grape had a sweet-tangy flavour that went along very well with the duck, the saffron providing a fresh background, and the fantastic smoked eggs adding another dimension to the dish.
The asparagus soup was the least interesting – but after all we hadn’t asked for it so we’ll pretend not to have had it.
The turnip soup, quite thin and delicate, was also good, with the thyme in it elevating the plain turnip flavour considerably. The dumplings were really intriguing, with a strange but pleasant flavour and consistency that we can only describe in words by saying that they reminded us of Ras Malai (the Indian curd sweet)!
For mains we had:
– Fillet of pike-perch Karpatian style with assorted with dill flavoured ragout of shrimps (HUF 4500, about £12)
– Loin of venison with juniper served with thyme flavoured game sauce, sour cherry ragout and potato croquette (HUF 6300, less than £20)
The pike one was a nice looking and delicate dish, interpreting in a modern way one of the few fish specialities of this land-locked country. The dill provided a decisive mark, being there in copious quantity, and the shrimp ragout was good (interesting the presence of mushrooms). But what was an aubergine doing in the dish, we wondered? The ensemble was finished off by some tangy taste, maybe lime.
The venison was a sumptuous piece (and the most expensive main on the menu), showing once again the liking of the chef for ‘vertical’ presentations. It was good and cooked appropriately, but we were expecting something even better in terms of intensity of flavour (a bit like the one here), given the reputation of Hungarian venison and the skill shown so far by the chef. The accompanying sauce provided an interesting caleidoscope of flavours.
For desserts we opted for:
– Crepe Fortuna with caramel sauce
– Fresh cheese mousse with white chocolate and sparkling wine sorbet.
The caramel sauce in the crepe was very rich, a tad too much, the cinnamon flavoured apple slices were crunchy, bitable, in nice contrast to the soft crepe. A parfait (vanilla) rounded off the dish.
The cheesy mousse was gratifying, definitely helped by the freshness and clear-flavouredness of the sorbet.
For wine, we had asked for an Egri Bikaver Thummerer 2003 at HUF 9500, but the waiter was so nice as to offer us the Reserve 1999 version at the same price (as usual, we had to smile very hard to obtain such an effect) . As we said, we don’t refuse offers that can’t be refused (but we always tell you, dear reader)…
This was the best Bikaver we had during our stay in Budapest, where we tried several expressions of the famous ‘bull’s blood’ wine from the Eger region. Together with water and taxes, this took our bill to 26000 HUF/ 104 Euros (prices are almost always quoted in Euros here).
The service is a real asset of Fortuna, the best we have encountered here, and even more impressive in a city in which a certain frequent carelessness and aloofness in restaurants and cafes often makes you feel an intruder rather than a welcome customer. At Fortuna, the front room staff strike the perfect balance between formality and friendliness. The cuisine, as should be evident from the description of the dishes, is ambitious, trying to weave together and recombine in an elegant way the rich flavours and ingredients of Hungarian cuisine, itself a product of several influences. This is not an easy feat and we would say that the chef is on an exciting and advanced path to progress towards the standards lucky Londoners are used to in top restaurants (albeit at far higher prices!). In one dish we found absolute excellence, others may be improved in terms of flavour and balance, we think, but they were always good and well presented. Overall, we had a very comfortable and pleasant experience at Fortuna, our best in a city where fine cuisine is still on the learning and discovery path, and where you risk some serious letdowns even in pricey estabilshments. If you want to avoid disappointment in other far more pretentious or less authentic places, we would recommend that you try Fortuna if visting Budapest. You’ll be charmed by the elegance of the environment and intrigued by the cuisine.