When snow turns to slush, it’s a sad sad day. The drizzly weather and dark grey fog overcast Budapest, the misery of the dirty snow, turned icy mess, proliferated. We spent the afternoon walking from Corvin to the Great Market Hall, winding up and down roads and alleys, arriving at a wall of fog at Liberty bridge; the white clouds engulfed the bridge, leaving just a little in sight for cars and trams to drive on to. Still unfamiliar with the city, it was impossible to tell where we were from looking out across the river – there was nothing to be seen, just a wall of white swallowing the landscape.
My hair dampened as I took photos, walking up and down the river around the bridge entrance to catch the light of Budapest’s yellow trams snaking through the fog. Clearly, about thirty others had the same idea, photographers and iPhone-bearers swarming around the area promptly.
Night began to fall and the spookiness of the fog grew, and we dawdled away down to Vaci street and into the Jewish Quarter of the city. Neon lights were prominent along the streets, illuminating shop windows and restaurants, luring in unexpected pedestrians. More untouched areas glowed an amber-gold from traditional street lamps – all you needed was a film crew and the setting was complete.
Further through the quarter, we entered a kind of what can only be described as a perhaps “alternative” area; hip, yet trying hard NOT to be hip, bars emerged, street art plastered broken walls and trendy shops proliferated. Passing by, we headed straight to KönyvBar & Restaurant down an eerily quiet and fog-engulfed road. Inside one may mistake this small restaurant to be a mini library, the walls covered with shelves full of books. You’re greeted by the warm staff and shown to your table, although we got lucky without a reservation (booking is a must). Once seated, you have in front of you an A3 sheet of paper with details of their chosen book – today, it was “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrick Backman. The menu’s concept then becomes clear; the menu at KönyvBar is always based on a book and its narrative, alongside their set menu in case you prefer the regular grub. But nonetheless, the cuisine can be described as modern Hungarian; twists on classic ingredients, borrowing from other cultures yet remaining true to local ingredients. Although comparatively pricier than standard street-food and common bistro menus, the food won’t set you back too much. For fine dining, you most definitely get your money’s worth, and with an extremely friendly and relaxed atmosphere too. Grab a book, order a drink and cosy up.
An appetiser was served, free of charge, to get the palette going/salivating. A small white plate, not more than 10cm in diameter, arrived. Upon it, a thin slice of beef carpaccio lay, peppered, with a thumbnail-sized “rice cake” and a strand of watercress. On consumption, I felt like a giant eating a human-sized portion.
For starters, “Exhaust Gas” was served, and if you’ve seen Chef’s Table on Netflix then you can only imagine what was to be delivered; that sensation when your food is arriving at your table at a restaurant was heightened to a whole new level, as the waiter carefully walked over with a glass cloche cover. What was underneath was yet to be discovered as, much like the fog over the Danube, the food was covered with white fog (/smoke). Placed gently in front of us, the cover was lifted, and out billowed the smoke, white tendrils twirling around the dish, exposing a small high-walled black dish placed on a large white plate. Inside the black dish lay a bed of couscous, topped with thinly sliced delicate ox tongue, neon-red pepper jelly and a halved smoked quail egg. If the presentation wasn’t exquisite enough, the taste was to die for; the smoke under the cloche cover penetrate the ingredients, giving the nutty couscous and unimaginably delicious flavour, the salty-sweet ox tongue delicately balanced against the fruity jelly and soft creamy egg. If there was a downside to this dish it would be that it could have been ten times larger, but that’s probably my stomach (and greediness) talking.
The main meals soon followed; “Ove and Sonja”, calamari, shrimp, green pea puree and a citrusy potato puree. From the regular menu, I sampled the Hungarian Pike-Perch, a traditional river fish found in Hungary, served with a creamy sun choke puree and beetroot. With a texture similar to cod or haddock, the pike-perch had a salty coating, having been lightly fried. The salty fish combined with the sweet al-dente beetroot slices and creamy puree was simplicity at its finest.
Back out into the cold, we strolled through the fog and to the famous Szimpla ruin-bar. Filled with bric-a-brac, graffiti, art, designer items, and anything else you can possibly imagine, this bar is a firm choice for drinkers. On the inside, multicoloured lights fill the ceiling, glowing multicolour neon upon everyone and everything. Multiple bars mark as checkpoints in the crevices of the multi-faceted building, filled with random, and slightly broken, objects and furniture. The outdoors drinking area at the back of the building is for those who like to brave the cold, also hosting the cocktail bar. Above, a rectangular of walkway guides you to a bar serving up grub perfect for hungry drinkers and a more cosy seating area, its walls scrawled on from top to bottom with pen or scratched into with wobbly hands and decorated with some local artist’s framed artwork. As the night grew later, a whole host of visitors arrived from all walks of life. The music grew louder and multicoloured lights grew more vibrant. Szimpla Kert, although ideal for mainly tourists, accommodates all. From those who fancy a bite to eat, to the more introverted couple, to hardcore drinkers and party-goers; a great place to visit if you find yourself in Budapest and fancy a night out on the town.