FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Budapest: Royal Feast

Feb 1, 2011
2011 / February 2011

Sitting in one of its seven second-floor private dining rooms, it was easy to imagine the scene as it was a century ago, before the Nazis turned Gundel into a stable for Wermacht horses and the Soviets commandeered the kitchen for the national catering ministry.

That Budapest was the fastest-growing city in Europe, a modern, class-conscious metropolis with the largest parliament building in the world and continental Europe’s first underground metro line, now a World Heritage site.

At the still-standing Café New York, built in 1894 by the New York Life Insurance Company, poets and painters, writers and musicians mingled under the Venetian chandeliers and marble columns of what was once the center of the city’s intellectual life, its eclectic-style interiors reminiscent, it was said at the time, of the palace of Ludwig II, the famously eccentric King of Bavaria.

Nowadays it’s reminiscent of Budapest’s own past. Closed in 2001, the café was restored and reopened in 2006 by the Italian Boscolo Group as part of the New York Palace, a luxury hotel. The 5-star property is located on the Grand Boulevard in Pest’s bustling 7th district, not far from the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House, one of Europe’s most ornate and accoustically advanced.

Although I didn’t catch an opera during my visit, I did see an outstanding live performance by the world-renowned Rajkó Folk Ensemble and Orchestra at the Danube Palace. Combining gypsy music with traditional dance, the colorfully clad group put on a playful, energetic show that was well worth the $27 ticket. After that, I paid a visit to Restaurant 21, a cozy new spot in the cobblestoned Castle District, for an equally traditional meal: a warm bowl of goulash and a succulent baked leg of goose.

It was at Gundel, though, that I felt truly transported, as though I’d stepped into the pages of a novel, all of it — the candlelight, the crystal, the waiters in their crisp whites — a fantastic reenactment of a bygone era. “No one deserves a good tomorrow who does not savor and preserve the past,” wrote George Lang, the New York restaurateur who, in 1992, set about restoring Gundel to its former splendor.

In his autobiography, No One Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, Lang, who was born to Jewish parents in a small town south of Budapest, chronicles the improbable chain of events that led him to survive a Nazi labor camp and emigrate to New York, where he worked for the Waldorf-Astoria, the Four Seasons and, later, as a consultant to restaurants in Hilton and Marriott hotels.

Lang also recounts the recovery and reinvention of Gundel’s classic cuisine, dishes like sauerkraut baked with catfish and fish sausage, braided and grilled pork tenderloin, carp aspic with fogas dumplings, and, of course, Hungary’s world-famous pastries. “We all agreed that we must have a dessert selection that would reduce strong men to indecisive ninnies.”

Ninny-like, I lingered over that last page for several minutes before finally making my choice. And then, like a marathoner sprinting for the finish line, I polished off an apple strudel in five big bites.

Sitting in one of its seven second-floor private dining rooms, it was easy to imagine the scene as it was a century ago, before the Nazis turned Gundel into a stable for Wermacht horses and the Soviets commandeered the kitchen for the national catering ministry.

That Budapest was the fastest-growing city in Europe, a modern, class-conscious metropolis with the largest parliament building in the world and continental Europe’s first underground metro line, now a World Heritage site.

At the still-standing Café New York, built in 1894 by the New York Life Insurance Company, poets and painters, writers and musicians mingled under the Venetian chandeliers and marble columns of what was once the center of the city’s intellectual life, its eclectic-style interiors reminiscent, it was said at the time, of the palace of Ludwig II, the famously eccentric King of Bavaria.

Nowadays it’s reminiscent of Budapest’s own past. Closed in 2001, the café was restored and reopened in 2006 by the Italian Boscolo Group as part of the New York Palace, a luxury hotel. The 5-star property is located on the Grand Boulevard in Pest’s bustling 7th district, not far from the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House, one of Europe’s most ornate and accoustically advanced.

Although I didn’t catch an opera during my visit, I did see an outstanding live performance by the world-renowned Rajkó Folk Ensemble and Orchestra at the Danube Palace. Combining gypsy music with traditional dance, the colorfully clad group put on a playful, energetic show that was well worth the $27 ticket. After that, I paid a visit to Restaurant 21, a cozy new spot in the cobblestoned Castle District, for an equally traditional meal: a warm bowl of goulash and a succulent baked leg of goose.

It was at Gundel, though, that I felt truly transported, as though I’d stepped into the pages of a novel, all of it — the candlelight, the crystal, the waiters in their crisp whites — a fantastic reenactment of a bygone era. “No one deserves a good tomorrow who does not savor and preserve the past,” wrote George Lang, the New York restaurateur who, in 1992, set about restoring Gundel to its former splendor.

In his autobiography, No One Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, Lang, who was born to Jewish parents in a small town south of Budapest, chronicles the improbable chain of events that led him to survive a Nazi labor camp and emigrate to New York, where he worked for the Waldorf-Astoria, the Four Seasons and, later, as a consultant to restaurants in Hilton and Marriott hotels.

Lang also recounts the recovery and reinvention of Gundel’s classic cuisine, dishes like sauerkraut baked with catfish and fish sausage, braided and grilled pork tenderloin, carp aspic with fogas dumplings, and, of course, Hungary’s world-famous pastries. “We all agreed that we must have a dessert selection that would reduce strong men to indecisive ninnies.”

Ninny-like, I lingered over that last page for several minutes before finally making my choice. And then, like a marathoner sprinting for the finish line, I polished off an apple strudel in five big bites.

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