Cafe Reviews

Hungary for Love

There are several important things to keep in mind when dining at Peter's Budapest Café, a new Hungarian restaurant in Scottsdale.

Prepare to eat heartily, and heavily. One of the hallmarks of Hungarian food is its bulk. This means enormous platters of tender, juicy beef piled atop plump noodles; breaded, fried veal cutlets nestled alongside great hunks of buttery fried potatoes; and deep-fried mushrooms, proud of their grease and cloaked in fat suits of tartar sauce.

Prepare to eat humbly. Eastern European cuisine is classic comfort food. Favorite dishes include gently sautéed chicken livers, oven-baked pork loin, meatloaf in chubby slabs, sausage-potato-egg casserole, and obese sausage links resting on a bed of glossy tri-color peppers.

Prepare to diet the next day. Hungarian chefs don't hold back the good stuff, serving pools of rich cream sauce, lava flows of molten cheese, dollops of tangy sour cream and desserts that are more huge, sugar-entombed shrines than simply food.

But most of all, prepare to be thrilled. For while many associate Hungarian food with bland, fatty dishes involving overcooked cabbage, it's not. Thanks to creative use of distinguished spices like paprika (spicy-sweet crushed pepper powder) and poppy seeds, plus sour cream to enrich rather than overwhelm, the cuisine can exude elegance. In fact, Hungarian food can be rapturous, inspiring visions that keep us up at night, tossing and turning as our stomach rumbles in growling protest that it wants these fine things and it wants them now.

Restaurateur Peter Vamos understands our desires. He's been meeting them for three years with Peter's European Café at Fifth Avenue and Scottsdale Road, a bistro that while offering such upscale fare as spicy tuna loin with citrus-basil confit and mango purée, also sneaks in some solid comfort fare like stuffed cabbage rolls in sour cream.

Now, he's tossing any pretense of frou-frou aside, with a new restaurant that focuses squarely on the food of his heartland: hearty, humble, honest Hungarian. At Peter's Budapest Café, eating isn't about health; it's all about happiness.

Food like this is so good, so glorious, so gluttonous. Which is why we rarely allow ourselves the pleasure. Like any pure pleasure, we've been told, indulging will make us go blind (or at least get fat).

Which is wrong. Because life is much too short to spend time agonizing over fine food. Food is meant to be savored. Food is meant to be a luxury celebrated and embraced for its sensuality and vitality. If estimates are true that people between the ages of 20 and 50 spend 20,000 hours chewing and swallowing -- more than 800 days of uninterrupted eating -- then food should enhance, not torment our lives. Moderation, not abstinence, is the key.

Vamos knows something about torment. A Budapest native, he escaped his Hungarian homeland in 1970 at the age of 22, seeking escape from a life compromised by communism. It wasn't an easy defection; he had to leave behind an accomplished career as a concert pianist.

He landed on his feet in New York City. There, he trained at Julliard and performed at Carnegie Hall, then opened what would be the first of several successful restaurants. Ten years ago, he migrated to Scottsdale; seven years later he opened Peter's European Café, the Valley's first attempt at a Hungarian restaurant in about 15 years.

Unfortunately, reception at Peter's original cafe has been lukewarm. Traffic to the restaurant hasn't been what it should be, given the creative destruction of the Scottsdale/Goldwater curve, the failure of the Galleria across the street, and the Valley dining public's general ignorance about the magic of this eastern European cuisine. Adding injury, one local publication complained a year after Peter's opening that there wasn't "much particularly memorable" about its recipes.

Whether Vamos discovered overnight how to showcase his cuisine, I can't say -- it took me until this year to try it myself, when a rendezvous at another restaurant nearby failed (the place was closed for a private party). In default, we wandered across the intersection and claimed a table at the European Café.

All hail the private party. A planned evening of pizza and panini evolved into extravagance sparked with spectacular flavors, service as delicious as any dish, and a setting as colorful and playful as a Grimm's Fairy Tale.

What we ate dissolved us into bloated bliss, including a sinful, silky broth of pumpkin, potato, fresh basil and roasted almonds. There was chicken Dijonaise, the boneless breast encrusted in a crunchy envelope of shredded potatoes, roasted almonds, sesame seeds and Dijon mustard over saffron rice. The wiener schnitzel, fragrant veal pounded to svelte thinness, breaded and gently fried, glistened with paprikash sauce escorted by fluffy whipped roasted-garlic potatoes plus red cabbage, slow-cooked to a damp mass of whisky-like sweet and sour.