Hungary, a land of fertile soil where the first written records of gastronomy date back to the 15th century and wines have historically been favoured by Royal Courts and Popes. A country where it’s food has had an intriguing double identity – cleverly blending mystic flavours from the East with traditions of the West – as its predecessors have come and gone and left their flavours behind. The perfect place to visit and have the ultimate Food Affair.
For years I have wanted to visit Budapest, and decided that while living Berlin I would take the opportunity to venture out on a long train journey, passing through 3 countries and discover what Hungary has to offer. Along with trying the nationally known dishes, I wanted to taste the ‘new’ creative scene that is evolving. So what better place to do this than a Michelin Star restaurant! After researching I found that there are 2 restaurants with Michelin Stars in Budapest, but Onyx immediately won me over with their philosophy being exactly what I was looking for; “the freshest, highest-quality domestic ingredients and new technologies are used in the preparation and presentation of renewed and updated versions of traditional Hungarian cuisine”. (Onyx Restaurant)
As we step into the restaurant from the snow covered streets, the warm air hits my checks, my eyes adjust to the lightly lit room and the aromatic smell of Michelin quality food fills my nostrils; I’m so excited that I can’t hide my ear to ear smile as we give our name to the maître d’.
Our coats, scarves, beanies and gloves are swiftly taken from our hands and we are lead to our table. The room is rather small and intimate; decorated with elegance, style and a modern neo-baroque feel. As I take in the ambiance I am equally taking in what is on the plates of the people that have already began their dining experience. And then I spot something that almost has me trip over a bag stool (yes, a stool for your handbag).
Before I explain what it is that has me stopped in my tracks, you should know that bread is my Mecca (equally with cheese). And one of the things I look forward to when eating out at quality restaurants is their housemade breads.
There before me is an entire silver handled trolley, filled with the largest selection of housemade breads I’ve ever seen – from classic sourdoughs and beautiful dark ryes to biscuity pastry looking morsels of goodness – being pushed by a fine looking man wearing stark white gloves and delivering it to the diners plates with eye-catching shiny tongs. This is going to be a dining experience to remember.
As usual before I go to a restaurant that I’m particularly excited about, I have studied the menu and know exactly what is on it. Perhaps this takes some element of the surprise away, but for me, it’s like watching the trailer before the film- a little something to get me even more excited. It has me imagining all the different tastes and a feel for the chef’s style. So before I had even arrived in Budapest, I knew that Onyx had an al la cart and two types of tasting menu; one of them more ‘Hungarian’ than the other. We decided to get the 8 course Hungarian Evolution Tasting Menu (the more Hungarian) with a selection of sommelier recommended local wines to accompany it.
Each dish was exquisitely presented with deep intense flavours and perfectly matched wines. The breads were as luxurious as I expected them to be. Each was incredibly fresh and some were warm straight from the oven. It took all my will not to try all of them and fill my tummy with bread! My favourite was their sourdough. It had the perfect balance of char, mixed with sourness and was beautifully bubbly. It was incredibly moist and stretchy with a yeasty and complex aroma.
One extra little treat at fine dining restaurants that I love is the amuse-bouche (a small complimentary appetizer to please the mouth). Tonight this was marinated salmon, herb salad and fennel mousse. The silk-like sliver of salmon was complimented perfectly with the fresh herb flavours through the salad and balanced out by sipping away at the fennel mouse served in a soup shooter. I adore these little soup glasses. They make me feel like I should appreciate every drop of the contents because when it’s this size, it is without doubt special!
The course started with Hungarian sturgeon caviar, with cauliflower puree, vegetables, quail egg, and ‘black soil’. It was immaculately presented with each element perfectly placed with the intention of representing the Hungarian earth and its edible offerings (at least that was my interpretation). The ‘soil’ was made of burnt breadcrumbs, lentil, mushroom, cashew nuts and of course black sturgeon caviar – the ‘real-deal’ caviar. Black food is not usually something that draws me in, but this was incredibly enticing, especially as I plunged my knife into the quail egg and it’s bright yellow yolk spilt out over it. The vegetables were bold in colour and flavour and some tasted like they had been dehydrated to increase the intensity of their flavours.
I love thinking about the time and energy that goes into these perfectly crafted dishes…imagining the chef carefully placing the last of the micro herbs on with tweezers and standing back and admiring his work with great satisfaction. I want to tell him it was all worth it and congratulate him.
The next dish was marinated goose liver with plum textures. The liver was sliced and dusted with almond, plum jam, goose liver torte with apricot jelly and brioche. Goose liver is slightly milder than duck and a little sweeter. I know, foie gras. Love it or hate it…or should I say hate the method. I get it. But after a number of years of living a stone’s throw from France, it’s become a luxurious and guilty Food Affair for me. And Onyx sure knows how to do it right! My, oh my! The textures and flavours were so perfect in my mouth! The sweetness of the plum and apricot jelly, the creamy textured liver, matched with the rich and tender crumb of the brioche, along with hints of almond was heavenly! It was the perfect size to feel perfectly satisfied with the dish, but at the same time wanting more. Mmmm, mmmh.
There were two larger dishes in the tasting menu. The first being Danube salmon, luke warm potato salad and crispy veal. The mighty Danube, a river that flows through 10 countries carries one tasty fish in it! Salmon is my favourite fish. I love its versatility and the way the flavour can vary significantly depending on where it’s been caught and how it’s been prepared. So I was particularly excited about this dish. The salmon was seared, with a small piece of crumbed veal on top, which was, as you’d expect, golden and crunchy. This added an element of surprising taste I didn’t expect, but delicious all the same. The warm potato salad was more as I would describe as potato rosti; perhaps at risk of offending the chef. It had been prepared in pumpkin seed oil which gave it a distinct flavour. The dish also had some potato purée, which added creaminess to the dish.
By the time the final main came out I was getting rather full! But still in anticipation of what would come out. The last main was mangalitza (pork) marmalade with lentil foam, and charbroiled mangalitza loin with lentils. It sounds like pork and lentils done two different ways, which it ultimately was, but the way it was prepared tasted like there were four totally different elements in the dish, all of which were divine.
I am a savoury girl over sweet any day of the week, but this dessert was one of my favourite parts of the menu. It was a 21st century Somló sponge cake: spectacular in presentation and taste. Deep, rich, moreish and oh so filling! But I scraped the elegant glass bowl clean and as I finished my last mouthful of wine, felt overwhelming satisfied.
The entire experience from beginning to end was one of the best I’ve ever had in every aspect and was, as I’d hoped the ultimate Food Affair. The service was outstanding and the staff were knowledgeable. You could see that they were truly passionate about the food, wines and their country. Onyx’s two Michelin Stars are well deserved and no doubt will hold onto them for a long time coming. A Michelin Star or 3 Chefs Hat restaurant is something for everyone to try at least once in their life. It really is an ultimate sensory overload experience!
As a parting gift we were given a little ribbon wrapped box, which after peeking inside, discovered it contained two handmade chocolates. I decided that I was going to save them until we arrived at our next destination the following day. But as the train pulled out of Budapest with the snow still falling, I looked back at the beautiful romantic city and couldn’t resist but to untie the ribbon and gobble up the chocolates as I watched Budapest disappear into the distance…wondering how my next meal could ever compare to the memory of Onyx…
– By Amy Wilson