Cafés & cukrászdak


Finding good pastry in Budapest is hard work.

And at the end of the day, something short of one’s hopes.  Or at least short of my hope of finding the ur-cukrászda in Budapest from which the bakeries of my Yorkville, New York City childhood memories sprang (sprung?). None of the New York bakeries are around any longer, the last to go having also been the best, Rigo Pastry, on East 78th Street, which folded like a puff pastry when Mrs. Nemeth (the baker’s widow) died some years back.

But my assumption had always been that because Mr. Nemeth had learned how to bake in Budapest there must be shops like his on every corner.  Or at least a handful scattered about.

No such luck.  Perhaps Rigo had grown and perfected its wares over the years, or perhaps my taste in pastry was simply imprinted by the pastry of my youth, the way baby ducklings imprint on who- or whatever they see when they come out of their shell.  But for years I was devastated by the condition of pastry in Budapest.

This cosmic disappointment was embodied by Gerbeaud, the iconic Hungarian
pastry shop that my father used to tell tales about, that survived the communist years, and that thrives now in glorious restoration, fueled by German money.  But the restoration is just about all that’s glorious (though the view of Vörösmarty ter (Square) and the tourists milling and Budapesters striding through remains wonderful, and it is an unbeatable place to meet at the center of town.  Just don’t expect much from the pastry.  It’s not bad, but it’s not great.  It seems to have an Italian unfamiliarity with the concept of using butter to make buttercream.

And speaking of restorations, the Café New York is an absolute catastrophe.  There’s a lot of foreign money pumped into Budapest, and a good deal of it goes into hotels and their attendant restaurants, but if you are interested in a bricks and mortar good news/bad news joke, compare the loving and sensitive restoration of the Gresham Palace hotel with the wretched gaucherie of the New York.  For reasons having to do with personal history, but available to all in Strictly from Hungary, I was prepared to feel that I had come home when they reopened the Café New York after many years of disuse, disrepair, and near-starts.

But it was heartbreaking.  Perhaps it was always the lobby café of a grotesquely self-important and overly ornate rococo hotel.  Perhaps there never were any quiet nooks and crannies where people could spend hours nursing a single cup of thick black coffee.  But the foreign money that restored Gerbeaud or the Café Central or the Gresham Palace had the good sense to keep its alien origins more or less understated.  At the New York the entire place screams “I AM AN ITALIAN HOTEL CHAIN!”  Not least because every waiter’s shoulder bears the logo of the Boscolo Hotels.  And the hotel itself flies the Boscolo banner outside.  They actually brought Italian craftspeople and designers in to work on this gilded brothel wannabe.  The old New York was a writers’ and artists’ hangout between the wars; people used to sit at a table day after day (it never closed) staring into a single cup of coffee.  Waiters supplied pen and ink.  Barbers and shoeshine boys made housecalls.  The current café closes between lunch and dinner and is divided into two different hotel restaurants, each of which requires reservations to assure a table.  The waiters bring only the (Italianate) food and the bill.

Enough bile, on to edes elet the sweet life:

My theory is that pastry in Budapest got flattened during the communist era, leveled
to two ubiquitous desserts, one old one new.  The kremes is a fistful of pastry kreme (in the English sense of the word kreme...sugar whipped into a froth with some indeterminate fat, probably lard, like a Hostess Twinkie), sandwiched between very thin sheets of puff pastry or strudel dough.  It’s a Hungarian pastry of long repute, but the Communists took out the butter from both the kreme and the pastry sheets, and the result was ubiquitous, and sweet, and became everyone’s idea of childhood comfort food for fifty years.  Cheap to make, easy to mass produce, kremes for the masses overwhelmed pastry of any serious pretension.  And it still brings a twinkle to the eye of any Budapest native over the age of 20.

And then they added the Somloi Galuska.  When my kids were very young they used
to beg to go into the kitchen and make a ‘mixture.’  They would take a big bowl and throw in all their very favorite, usually gooey, sweet foods, and stir them up.  Whipped cream and chocolate sauce and marshmallow fluff and nuts and ice cream and strawberries and ... well you get the picture.  Maybe it’s their mother’s English blood, they were genetically programmed for Trifle, but that didn’t explain the garnish of Froot Loops or the lagniappe of peanut butter.

A similar urge seems to have hit the dessert industry in Hungary during the communist years, and the Somloi Galuska, like a Trifle made from Twinkies and crossed with tiramisu, became the standard fancy dessert.  Instant tradition.  Better culinary scholars than I -- my friend Lajos of the Cafe Bouchon, and my father’s friend George Lang of Gundel’s in Budapest and Cafe des Artistes in New York -- have failed to dig up any pre-WW II roots for somloi galuska, though most contemporary Hungarians will swear that it’s a dish with a long and honorable history.  DId I mention artificial rum flavoring?  [I have to admit that the version at Cafe Bouchon has artificial nothing, and even after a large and satisfying meal manages to seem light despite the transparent obviousness of what went into its creation, and I would gladly eat theirs any time were it not for their simple palacsinta (crepes) with house-made apricot jam.]

I was ready to write off the entire pastry enterprise, but various exceptions to the general muddle slowly started to reveal themselves, and now dominate my sense of cukrászda:

  1. PASTRY: There is a cukrászda (pastry shop) on Ráday near the Sir Morik coffee (which, in turn, sells quite nice coffee cake slices made by Nancsi Neni in Buda), and that place is as good as many (I like their Linzer cookies especially), and their ice cream is quite good.  In spring, summer, and fall pretty much every place on Ráday has tables and chairs outdoors, even this cukrászda and Sir Morik .

  2. BUT if your quest for pastry is serious, keep walking.  There's an excellent pastry shop further away from the center of the city along Ráday, about a block or two past Kinizsi utca, past Bakats ter, on the Danube-wards side of Ráday.  Nandori Cukrászda.  [website in Hungarian] It's as good as any I've found.  REALLY good.  I like the cookies especially.

  3. If you are at the other end of town, near Falk Miksa utca (the street that has all the best antique stores in town, though not the least expensive ones), on the Szent Istvan krt there's a large good cukrászda called the Café Europa.  The Europa torta is pretty special (apples and various other things); they sell their stuff to many other cafés in town; it never seems as good elsewhere.

  4. And there's a very good cukrászda near Blaha Lujza tér) on Jozsef korut at Baross (it’s called Kristalyi). 

  5. But I’m saving the best for last, actually, the best two.  One from personal choice, right in the center of town, the other off in the Buda boonies, which everyone tells me is the best in town, but I personally wouldn't cross the river and wait on its lines when the Jeg Bufé is in the midst of everything. 

  6. My favorite -- the Jeg Bufé [stub  of a website, in Hungarian] -- sits smack at Ferenciek tere.  It’s situated in the Parizsi Udvar, which itself is one hell of a building and worth a trip to walk around its dilapidated arcade and envision what it must have been like in its prime.

  7. The Jeg lasted out the communist era and is still run in manner that is reminiscent of those times.  It’s daunting for the non-Hungarian speaker, but well worth working up one’s willingness to seem like a fool and a foreigner, and giving it a shot.  The routine is that you pay first, get a receipt, then take the receipt to the counter and the counterperson assembles your order.  Since no one seems to speak any English (almost unique in Budapest), it feels impossible the first time, but pointing and gesturing and garbled Hungarian pastry names seemed to work reasonably well for me at first and I have since committed names and pronunciations of my favorites to memory.  And they only laughed at me the time I walked in carrying a garbage can under one arm. 

  8. Otherwise, all my linguistic incompetence was taken in stride.  In any event, the petits fours (mignons) are great, as are the cheese pastries called Turos Taska which come out of the oven early in the morning (around 8:00am and are insanely good then; the only pastry in Budapest that tastes buttery to me…pronounced tu-rosh tashka; I also like the triangular 7-layer cake called Piramis (peer-ah-mish) and the marcipan (mahr-tsi-pahn; accent always on the first syllable) cake, and the dobos (do-bohsh)orte). 

  9. The place in Buda is called Daubner, and it’s off in Obuda.  Always busy, people queue up as holidays approach on lines maybe 30-50 people deep.  The last time I was there the guy in front of me was filling the back seat of his large car with box after box of cakes and pastry and cookies to drive back to his home town in the Czech Republic.  People were bringing their ailing children to the counter in the hopes they would be cured.  It's the Lourdes of sugarplum angels.  And it is good, just not as good as all that.  Not as good as the Rigo of my youth, not even any better than the best of the Jeg...

  10. The other legendary place, by Castle Hill in Buda, is the Ruszwurm (right). 
    A fabled place, going back to the early 1800s, Russwurm presses on, now owned it seems by the devoted marcipan magnate Mikló´s´Szamos.  You have to admire the dedication and attention to detail that Szamos brings to his oeuvres, I mean he has a marcipan museum in his shop in Szentendre, and take a look at the love that has gone into p-reserving the Ruszwurm.  But it's still not the grail of Hungarian pastry, and as a place to sit it's a stop on far too many tour bus itineraries to be tolerable. And, on the marcipan front, I have to  say that for my tastes there's just not enough bitter almond extract to give Szamos' candy have the kick of the late, great Elk Confectionary in New York(left)...

  11. PALACSINTA.  Now, palacsinta is simply Hungarian for crepe (or vice versa), but it is also the philosopher’s stone of my childhood.  You can lead me anywhere by
    dangling a palacsinta in front of me, apricot jam oozing from one limp, rolled end.  There are lots of places that sell palacsinta in Budapest, including many small shops devoted exclusively to them or palacsinta plus retes or langos or other fast and greasy foods.  But, the best palacsinta I’ve found are at the Cafe Bouchon, where the crepe is cooked just right (a combination of fluffy, thin, and just a bit rubbery) and the jam is home-made and exquisite.  Similarly wonderful palacsinta are to be had at the Graf Degenfeld Castle near Tokaj, but that’s a journey (worth taking for the palacsinta alone, but the crepes are far overshadowed by the opportunity to tour the Tokaji wine region).  Oddly, the in-town runners up have consistently been at an open-air stand near IKEA at the end of the Red Line metro; If you get off the metro at the last stop and head for IKEA and the mall across the street from it, across from the supermarket there’s a line of these small food kiosks, and one of them is a palacsinta place. 

  12. There are two palacsinta restaurants –– both called Nagyi Palacsintázója (Granny’s Palacsinta; website in Hungarian; the website lists a second Buda location as well), open almost all the time, maybe even 24 hours per day.  One is in the square in Buda by the Batthany tér metro station, the other on Petöfi Sandor utca just a block down from Szervita ter in Pest.  Very, cheap, cafeteria style, and the palacsinta is just fair, at best (the savory fillings verge on being unsavory).  But they’re open in the middle of the night and the crepes are fine, and the jam is decent (if a bit less in quantity than I would like), and if you’re looking for a 24 hour Internet café and palacsinta source, this is the place.

  13. STRUDEL (retes in hungarian).  Largely in my view a disappointment, though perhaps that’s because I have never been a fan of strudel in any country.  What can I say, others (like Nora Ephron) go wild for it.  Not me.  There are many strudel shops dotting the city, some that double as palacsinta shops.  None of them ring my chimes.

  14. AND THEN THERE’S THE EXCEPTION THAT PROVES THE RULE:  THE GREATEST STRUDEL SHOP IN THE WORLD.  Unfortunately, it’s in an utterly out of the way place, not near anything except gigantic downmarket furniture places that seem to have been left over from the pre-1990 era and a couple of vast and empty malls for designer household goods.  Around the corner from two of these (Kika and Domus), there’s a tiny hole in the wall off Robert Karoly korut, it’s on Lehel utca.  It’s a tiny storefront with a counter and, at lunchtime, a crowd lined up onto the street.  The sign just says Retes.  Behind the counter there’s generally one person putting the finishing touches on strudel and jamming them in an oven, while taking others out.  Another one or two people keep up with the orders, as yet another person slides new strudels onto their work area, hot, sliced, and ready to dole out.  It’s a Chaplin-esque production line like the one that makes tiny hamburgers at White Castle in NYC (or perhaps like one from a long-ago I Love Lucy episode, if memory serves), and it’s no less greasy but 100 times more tasty.  I have gone there many times and they have been inexplicably closed, but that happens sometimes in Budapest in the summer and on holidays…people just take off when the weather gets too hot and head for the beach at Balaton.  This past summer the retes place took off more or less for the entire month of August (this time they left up a sign, though it didn’t include dates or anything useful like that).  But they were back in September, and they were great.  Go for whatever is in season (Apricots in July, Plums in September...) utterly unbelievable.  Worth a taxi ride out and back.  Hell, worth walking the two miles or so.... 

  15. In the satellite Googlemap above, the big building at the bottom center is the department store Kika and the large building just above the arrowhead is the departjment store Domus; the tram runs along Róbert Károlyi körút, to the left, to Vaci ut (Vaci ut is NOT Vaci utca).

  16. By the way, the exception that proves the rule on strudel in NYC is the apple strudel at the Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.

  17. •ICE CREAM:  Summers seem to be increasingly hot in Budapest.  In a city where the average exterior wall depth is about 2 feet, the heat tends not to be unbearable until the bricks themselves heat up and the building stops being a natural insulator and becomes a natural oven.  When that happens, it’s time to look for anything even remotely cooling. 

  18. There are plenty of ice cream vendors, almost everywhere one looks, but mostly the ice cream is not that special.  Some recommend the Szamos Marcipan shop, in the city center, off Vaci utca on Parizsi utca.  I have no particular recollection of it, though I know they make their own.  There is quite a good Gelatti store, called just that – Gelatti – which seems to have a branch on Veres Palne utca and one on Raday utca across from the Soul Café, and usually there’s one on Vaci utca, though its location and complexity of offerings shift from summer to summer. 

  19. Gerbeaud makes its own ice cream and serves impressive sundaes and the like (sundaes are called kehelys in Hungarian).  And there was a very good ice cream café on Andrassy ut (#14) called Spaghetti Ice, several blocks up from the Deak ter end of the street (and it’s still listed in many guides, but I’d swear that the last time I was there the entire building was more or less shut down and being gutted and renovated...).  There is also an excellent shop on Iranyi utca I believe, about a block or two in from the Danube.

  20. But my favorites are lemon ices at the cukrászda on Raday utca (described under pastry), which in turn are eclipsed a small spot that’s almost worth a pilgrimage for their lemon (citromos) ices: the Bulldog Cukrászda on Veres Palne utca very near the Central Market.  Sadly, the pastries here don’t live up to the ice creams, but it’s an easily missed neighborhood shop almost always devoid of tourists.  The ices are made in-house, and the lemon ice is as good as any I’ve had anywhere.  If you are near the Central Market on a hot day, haul out a map, find Veres Palne, and walk a couple of blocks in from the Korut on the Danubewards side of the street.

  21. CANDY.  Off Vaci on Parizsi, Szamos Marcipan is a sort of wonderful gingerbread house of all things related to almond paste, though I find that I have to buy their plain marcipan logs and doctor them by adding bitter almond oil to meet the almond extract standards of the marzipan I grew up on from Elk Confectionary in Yorkville (now dead, not once but twice; but see photo above). 

  22. There are Mozart candy shops on Vaci and elsewhere, and they are what they are.  If you worship Mozart chocolates (and there is good reason why you might), this is nirvana.

  23. There is a chocolate shop in an alley off Semmelweiss (the entry to the alley is next to the chicken butcher, opposite Vitkovics utca; the alley, which is really a building’s courtyard with exits onto Semmelweiss and onto the Körut, is sometimes closed; there is a sign for the Aztek above the door to the alley on Semmelweiss and on Karoly Körut). It sells chocolate candy and all manner of hot chocolate. The candy is not spectacular, but it’s a seriously off-the-beaten-path-non-tourist-locals-only type place that can ad memorable color to a trip.

  24. And there is a store that sells wine and some very nice, relatively inexpensive by international standards, chocolate truffles and fancy pieces – Iz-lelo [website in Hungarian]at Arany Janos 12 utca, a bit north the Gresham Palace (photo on right). 

  25. And BEST FOR LAST: there’s a great artisanal chocolate shop on Veres Palne utca, off Iranyi. Edesseg Bolt Not quite up to Paris or New York standards, but 4/5 of the way there at 1/3 of the price. [photo on left]


Granted, the pastry is not the point in Budapest's café life, and there are dozens of wonderful places with distinctive personalities and milieus at which one can sit and nibble and sip and spend the afternoon, the day, the week, one's life, in comfort and pleasure ...but when you want a piece of good pastry, where do you go?