The culinary scene in central Europe has come of age, and dining in Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest is a delight. We had no trouble finding soulful, traditional fare as well as sophisticated fine dining. Food invariably tastes better when paired with a well-crafted local wine, and all three cities have thriving wine-growing regions nearby. Many of the best wines from Austria and Hungary aren’t exported, and few bottles leave Slovakia. This makes wine lists in these countries especially exciting.
The Palais Coburg’s gourmet restaurant serves exquisitely presented and memorably delicious cuisine, but what really stood out was the audacious wine pairings. The sommelier fully exploited the vast breadth of the restaurant’s cellars, matching, for example, an acidic and smoky Zierfandler (a grape found only in Austria’s Thermenregion) with a rich dish of tête de veau and liquid quail yolk topped with artichoke and shiitake mousse. And I’ll never forget the extraordinarily refined Swiss Pinot Noir paired with a dish of dove breast, cranberry, beetroot and Savoy cabbage cream.
When in Vienna, I adore tucking into plates of breaded Wiener schnitzel and tender Tafelspitz, but I didn’t miss meat for a second at vegetarian Tian. With a stylishly decorated landmark interior, this newly Michelin-starred restaurant serves creative and satisfying dishes such as white and wild asparagus spears in a savory chanterelle cream with fresh peas, al dente lentils with wild garlic-leaf rolls and puntarelle chicory, and Mimolette cheese shavings atop hazelnuts and white chocolate. This light dessert sounds simple, but it was a high-wire flavor act combining savory, sweet, aromatic and creamy components.
Himmelpfortgasse 23, Vienna. Tel. (43) 1- 890-4665.
On a cobbled street beneath Bratislava’s castle, the “Blue Star” serves traditional Slovak dishes in a bright, wood-beamed front room and in candlelit brick vaults. I tried a duck liver-stuffed pasty served atop thyme-infused caramelized spring onions and crunchy apple slices; and a remarkable dish of whole fresh trout stuffed with bacon and mushrooms, accompanied by expertly roasted potatoes. Although served whole, with head, fins and skin intact, the trout had somehow been entirely deboned (a preparation described in Miklós Bánffy’s 1934 novel, “They Were Counted”). When I attempted to add a tip to the check, the waitress firmly replied, “No. Service is already included.”
Beblavého 14, Bratislava. Tel. (421) 948-70-30-70.
I felt suspicious of the Arcadia Hotel’s recommendation to dine here, in a communist-era disk perched over a highway bridge. But inside, the restaurant displayed a chic sense of style, and the contemporary cuisine kept pace with the panoramic views of the Danube and Bratislava. Service was slow at times, but I had no complaints about dishes such as pork knuckle in gelatin with spinach salad and pickled onions, paired with a forceful Furmint from Slovakia’s section of Tokaj; nor the ballotine of rabbit loin with carrots and fresh morels, paired with a glass of plummy Slovak Hron.
Most SNP, Bratislava. Tel. (421) 2-62-52-03-00.
Budapest’s touristy Castle District has only recently acquired any restaurants of note, including Pierrot, which has an excellent wine list and an enchanting garden, and Alabárdos, which has a stronger menu. Tucked beneath its Gothic vaults in a velvet banquette, we contemplated the tasting menu selections (including a vegetarian option) as we sipped flutes of sparkling Furmint. Favorite courses included a white asparagus soup with tiny cheese dumplings and tart rhubarb, Danube carp and local crayfish in a gazpacho-like cucumber broth, and tender Mangalica pork tenderloin and jowl accompanied by falafel-like blood pudding and a fresh pea purée.
Országház Utca 2, Budapest. Tel. (36) 1-356-08-51.
Everything at Onyx is over the top, from its silvery Cubist-meets-Versailles décor to its all-too-tempting bread cart, with more than 20 varieties of baked goods (try the apple bread with some house-made pork pâté, or the squid-ink bread with some pumpkin seed oil). The “Hungarian Evolution” tasting menu seeks to elevate traditional recipes to the level of haute cuisine, and it never falters. The foie gras encased in rhubarb gelée was among the silkiest I have ever sampled; the veal tartare topped with a crispy ribbon of green apple had marvelous textural interplay; and the goulash soup tasted rich and beefy, flavored with a combination of coffee beans, lemon peel and paprika. A “21st-century Somló sponge cake” was a decadent concoction of walnut cream, chocolate and crunchy walnut “crumbs.” Generously poured all-Hungarian wine pairings rose to the occasion.
Vörösmarty Tér 7-8, Budapest. Tel. (36) 30-508-0622.