Cafe Reviews

Hungary for Love

Page 2 of 3

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.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet