Spending a week in an imperial city like Budapest can be stressful: there’s so much to do, see, eat and visit! Fortunately, the first visit in February covered most of the sightseeing: the Opera House, the Market Halls, the Danube cruise (I highly recommend Claudio Magris’ The Danube as a literary companion on your stay in Budapest), admiring the impressive Parliament building and crossing several bridges and pondering at the fleeting nature of life. However, I managed to miss the «Rabbit Island«, the castle and old Buda district walk, and unfortunately, also the dining.
On the bright side, I stumbled upon St. Stephen’s , which was near the hotel I was staying during my first stay, the Mercoure Korona, recommended only if you need to go into that very grey area 4-star but really mid-level hotel who will provide a solid breakfast with which to start the day. Its location is good, but Budapest is not that big and cabs are quite cheap.
On my second stay, I stayed at the Sofitel Budapest, which is ideally located near the river, with the Intercontinental by its side. The Sofitel is an amazing, new property which has been renovated several times, and although the staple colour combo (pink and chocolate) tends to produce odd disco shadows especially at night, the breakfast area is lovely, and a very clever solution. Guests eat on what is an extended hall overlooking the actual lobby, almost like an interior terrace. It is very pleasant, with natural light, and allows the hotel to save the only lateral section of the building that has natural light for the Paris Budapest restaurant and café bar on the lobby floor.
So back to eating. This time, I wanted to focus on the dining experience that Budapest offers as I knew I had missed out on it the first time. Having grown up in a city like Barcelona, with its incredible mix of modern cuisine and affordable local tapas scene (not the shameless decoys for tourists, mind you), the Hungarian pearl had a tall order to live up to. Again, I had less than four days so I had to be very restrictive. I went for the following: the classic option Gündel, a renovated XII century cloister in the historic district, the Alabardós; Spoon, a boat restaurant with a very high reputation, and Costes, an haute cuisine concept restaurant.
Gündel was everything I expected: gilded doors, magnificent décor, professional staff with high standards. I would recommend it for a special evening out and guests that value chain hotels like the Maritim or Intercontinental. This is where you need to take your client or guest if you want to impress them with European old world cuisine and service. The menu was good, with famed Hungarian liver dishes and lovely deserts, but it’s really about the ambiance that the restaurant offers rather than the food.
Spoon was surprisingly good and elegant: I say this because the access to the boat itself is through a plastic walk-on which does not look very promising, so one expects to bump into a mouldy vessel. Far from it, Spoon has chandeliers, a piano and the works: perhaps it strives to show its elegance a tad too much, but the truth is that the dishes were all perfectly cooked, with the right flavour and even an ambitious modern cuisine take. Did I like it? Yes, but I did not love it. Once inside, it did not feel like a boat at all – and why go through the trouble then?
Alabardós is a charming property located in a XIIth century cloister almost in front of the cathedral. So in that respect, romantic barely starts to scratch the surface. I can only imagine how lovely this place will be in spring or summer. The service was spotless and there were even violins but I have to say the food, although of a very high quality, was too simply cooked and in that respect, disappointing. I would expect to get a pasta dish like the one I had at home, but not at a high end restaurant. Perhaps we did not choose well from the menu, so I would still not take Alabardós out of any foodie’s list. If only for the charming walk after dinner, it is worth your while.
But Costes. Ah, Costes. The website intrigued me, but the pictures will never do justice to the gastronomic experience the tasting menu of this restaurant (any combination, there are several possibilities, all quite affordable ranging from 75 EUR to 150 EUR if you pick up the wine pairing). It has a Michelin star and I would not be surprised if they got their second one soon. Clearly inspired by the philosophy of chefs like Ferran Adrià, the dishes were works of art, beautiful presentations, which turned out to be delicious, each and every one of them. I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
Does this mean I am done with Budapest dining? Not at all. Still pending are Onyx and a few others. Will keep you posted on whether I can tick them off my list!