22 June 2013

First Night

We were remarkably unfazed by the 20+ hour journey from Portland to Budapest. On previous trips, the overnight flight and mid-morning arrival in Europe has meant the prospect of a long, sleepy afternoon and an evening of trying to stay awake until a decent local bedtime. Thanks to a strategically-timed Ambien that we split somewhere over northern Canada, it actually felt like morning instead of midnight to us when we arrived in Europe.

Our hotel in Budapest is centrally-located, clean, comfortable, and completely utilitarian. It has very few frills, but it has one luxury that we didn't realize we'd need when we prepaid in April: air conditioning. We arrived in Hungary in the middle of a heat wave. Central Europe has been baking in 90-100 degree temperatures for a week, and it was 93 degrees when we landed in Budapest. After three flights and a long, hot shuttle ride into the city, all we wanted on earth were cool showers and clean clothes. By the time we felt human again, we were ready for an early (7PM) dinner at Cafe Bouchon.

Our walk was scenic but extremely hot, and we were both pretty overheated in casual dinner clothes by the time we reached the restaurant, located on a narrow side street off one of Budapest's broad boulevards. We stepped into the blissful air conditioned coolness of the cozy dining room and were cheerfully welcomed in excellent English by the waitstaff.

The host ushered us to a table and immediately brought chilled local sparkling water and homemade bread and tomato jam. Deep, utterly bright essence of a fresh sun-ripened tomato. Delicious.

We started with a fresh chilled strawberry soup and a house special salad of greens, Camembert, apples, and Tokaj grapes in a honey vinaigrette. The soup was intense and refreshing, with brilliant fresh strawberry flavor.  The salad was a pleasing combination of favors and textures, very appealing on a hot summer evening. In spite of the weather, we chose a couple of hearty, meat-and-potatoes entrees: a beef tenderloin in pepper cream sauce, and veal medallions with Hungarian ratatouille.   

We ordered two glasses of a pinot noir produced in the Eger region - most familiar to Americans as the home of the harsh Egri Bikaver "Bull's Blood" red wine. Our Pinot was considerably more refined, but with a gamy, earthy quality that made it hard to identify as Pinot. In any case, it was a good accompaniment to our meals.

For dessert we shared two generous pours of Hungary's signature fine wine: Tokaj Aszu. The wine is made from botrytis-infected grapes, as in Sauternes, and is similarly rich, unctuous, and sweetly complex. The quality and intensity of these wines are measured in "puttonyos" - an extension of the wicker baskets traditionally used to haul the grapes.  More puttonyos = more botrytis fruit, yielding a more viscous, rich wine. The owner told us that traditionally all Aszu wines were "6 puttonyos" wines, but more recently they have been produced with smaller proportions of 3 or 5 puttonyos, in addition to the traditional mix.  In addition, some producers make a sort of field blend of botrytis and non-botrytis fruit in whatever proportion nature provides - this is known as Szamorodni, and we tried a small pour of it in addition to a 5 puttonyos wine from 2004 and a 6 puttonyos wine from 2003.

The service at Cafe Bouchon was excellent: helpful, friendly, relaxed. Several of the servers came by and all spoke English well, but we spoke most with the owner, who chatted with us about the food and gave us quite a bit of background on the Tokaji Aszu wines.

It had cooled down to the high eighties outside by the time we were done. We walked back toward the hotel along Andrássy út, Budapest's answer to the Champs-ElyséesAndrássy út is lined with restaurants, bars, glitzy international boutiques, and the beautifully anachronistic Hungarian State Opera House. Really, though, the opera house is only anachronistic at ground-level. When you look up along Andrássy út, the generic luxury storefronts give way to spectacularly ornate Renaissance revival facades.

We looked up the whole way back to our air-conditioned room.

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