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.

All that, plus entrees of stuffed cabbage and goulash that were so remarkable I found myself protecting leftovers more fiercely than a mother wolf protects her cubs.

Not memorable? I can't see how. Perhaps the more mainstream fare (peppercorn salmon, porcini risotto, linguine with wild mushroom ragout) doesn't compete with the city's finest, but the strictly Hungarian dishes more than compensate. After Vamos' newest creation, Peter's Budapest Café, opened about three months ago at Scottsdale Ranch, I broke speed limits getting there.

Happily, Peter's Budapest Café is generating a bigger buzz than its sibling. Cosmopolitan eaters gather at its window-mounted menu, ogling traditional dishes like sausage lecso (sautéed green peppers, onions, tomatoes and spices), Viennese-spiced mushroom fritters, and szekely (Transylvanian goulash). Lest they not be lured by this, a server pops out to woo passersby with sincere stories of the marvels within.

Like its menu, the ambiance at Budapest Café is more homespun than the fancy Disney digs at European Café. Instead of fountains, cloud-painted ceilings and wall murals of village scenes, Budapest's interior is a calm palette of mint-green and white walls. Cherrywood molding and window blinds, red-clothed tables under glass and a few petite wall weavings add color. In the corner sits a piano where, several nights a week, Vamos showcases the skills that earned him a place on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Unlike European Café, this new bistro offers a full bar, including a selection of Hungarian wines.

While the breadbasket doesn't rise above average (soft, tasteless white with butter), a crostini spread with pork pate, chopped onion and paprika is entirely welcome.

Appetizers are limited to small-plate portions of main dishes; soups make more interesting starters. Soup broths here glow, so soul-satisfying that when my companion spills a drop on the table, she accuses me of wiping it up as an excuse to suck the liquid from my napkin.

And well I might, for the soup she's sloshed is a spectacular chilled sour cherry. With cream as its base, the velvety blend emotes subtle notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, punctuated by sharp, acidic shocks of whole tart cherries. The result is elegant, not overly sweet, capped with a snowy drift of aerosol whipped cream.

Chicken soup is high-powered and irresistible, stocked either with linguine noodles or liver dumplings, the supple little bread buds flecked with mild meat. The secret's in the stock, tasting of rich bones, fat and marrow, the liquid exquisitely herbed and expertly salted. This is powerful stuff, studded with carrots, potatoes or spaetzle, herbs and shredded poultry breast that demands slow chewing to release its incredible juices.

Goulash soup and bean soup with Hungarian sausage are he-man brews, highly perfumed with pungent paprika. Spunky, metallic-toned liquid floats with tender cubes of beef, carrots, spaetzle and potato in the goulash; al dente beans, spaetzle, herbs and thick rounds of smoky, summer-style sausage in the other.

What Vamos does with a whiff of paprika is an art. The bright-orange, finely ground sweet red pepper pod is more than just a garnish in Hungarian cooking, it's a mainstay. And while the strong spice can easily become overpowering, in Vamos' hands, it remains potent but polite.

It's everywhere -- dusted over cucumber salad, a brilliant melding of chilled, thinly sliced vegetable and sliced sweet onions moistened in a mellow tart vinaigrette. And paprika lends a woodsy, softly sweet nuance to an otherwise unremarkable chicken paprikash, the moist breast coated in an agreeably light cream sauce.

The same spiced sauce adds impact to palacsinta, Hungarian crêpes, the two sizeable bundles stuffed with gooey melted cheeses, savory mushrooms and roasted chicken crisscrossed with red and yellow bell pepper strips. The sauce, in fact, brings the somewhat ordinary dish alive.

Meatloaf is entirely unusual, the firm ground beef and sausage cake centered with a hard-boiled egg and a link of smoked sausage under a mantle of what tastes like bell pepper sauce. Unexpected, but excellent. Another captivating plate comes in the form of rakott krumpli, an enormous carving of baked casserole thickly layered with sliced potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, Hungarian sausage and cheese, topped with sour cream and paprikash sauce. It should be a mess, but it's an entirely successful supper.

Still, the real reasons for celebration at Budapest Café are its monstrous, marvelous signature dishes: wiener schnitzel, cabbage rolls and goulash, all bedded with perfect fried potatoes or homemade spaetzle (tiny, squiggly dumplings that melt in the mouth like butter).

An old German cooking magazine (Die Kuche) once wrote that proper wiener schnitzel "should have an odor like flowers, should be juicy like sherry, and should be crispy like fresh-baked bread." Vamos' Viennese version is letter perfect, enrobing pounded veal in peppered breadcrumbs and flash frying it to a crisp golden edge.

A Gypsy dish of cabbage rolls is surprisingly succulent, too, the soft leaves quietly sour and bursting with ground beef bound with bits of rice. Crowning the creation: sour cream and sauerkraut, the kraut soaked overnight and cooked for four hours to take away any trace of bitterness. No need to hide under New York-style tomato sauce here; these beauties shine on their own.

Goulash shows why, no matter how fancy contemporary cuisines can be, there will always be room for home-style cooking. Call it paprika pot roast, the ungainly, tender chunks of beef slow stewed with a tomato-infused gravy. It's even more stunning served Transylvanian "szekely" style, blended with sauerkraut and topped with paprikash sauce plus sour cream.

Desserts bring the final, fantastic denouement. All are made on site, with some unexpected touches (a whimsical addition of cantaloupe to fruit pie). Warm apple strudel arrives in a huge slab, gorged with thick-cut fruit and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Chocolate crepes are lightened a bit with strawberries and cappuccino cream -- particularly outstanding when paired with a steaming hot cup of Vamos' strong coffee.

Food trends come and go. Healthy eating is important, but homespun, hearty dishes transcend all taste and time. Diets be damned. Show up hungry for Hungary when you arrive at Budapest Café.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet