Monday, March 26, 2007

Baraka Restaurant Budapest

Andrássy Hotel ©FourBees travel pic March 2007

Best of Budapest - the new Baraka restaurant

The Andrássy Hotel was designed in the 1930s by Olympic swimmer and architect Alfréd Hajós (1878-1955).
It was originally intended as an orphanage for Jewish boys.
A new plaque, in both Hungarian and English, placed on the hotel wall by the Alfréd Hajós Society (HAT), reveals that Hajós was Hungary's first Olympic champion, a great achievement.
He won gold in the 100-metre and 1,200-metre swimming events at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1986.
Hajós also designed the Nemzeti Sport swimming pool on Margit-sziget.
The Andrássy Hotel building is a Bauhaus design, with elegantly curved corners and smooth lines.
This is the new venue for Baraka restaurant which takes over the ground floor from previous inhabitants, Zebrano and prior to that, the Mosaic Cafe.Baraka leaves the narrow, claustrophobic Magyar utca in District V and moves up a number.
It also gains a fabulous terrace and garden dining area which will be wonderful this steamy summer.

STOP PRESS It appears that the chef Tzadok Levi, who delighted us so much with his creations on the last evening of Baraka in Magyar utca, is no longer the kitchen supremo.
That honour now goes to Shani Prusman, a USA-qualified chef with Irish-Israelic roots and interesting inspirations and influences.

All the more reason to revisit Baraka and try out the latest culinary creations.Baraka moves to District VII recently had the good fortune to dine at Budapest's very best restaurant, Baraka, on the last occasion it offered sublime cuisine and expertly chosen wine on Magyar utca, before David, Leora and sommelier Sándor closed up shop and moved up in the world to the swanky premises of the ground floor of the Andrássy Hotel, near Hôsök tere (Heroes' Square).
That final evening was too much of a gorge-fest for yours truly to sit there with the notebook secreted under the table.
Link to Baraka menu from the last evening in Magyar utca.
We were wowed with such delights as self-trained wizard of the kitchen Tzadok Lavi's seared foie gras accompanied by Sándor Papp's choice of a wonderfully syrupy Tokaj, and some sensitively prepared sea bass and delicate slivers of duck.
So that you don't feel neglected, here is a review I compiled for a dreary local paper in 2002.Of course, I will return to review the new look Baraka once they have settled in.Especially as I have to check out details for a New York magazine and restaurant guide, who appreciate such sophisticated delights, unlike the afore-mentioned dullard rag.

Essence of Life
Sublime cuisine, expertly selected wines and personal service make this the best dining experience in Budapest

A FourBees review
For many years, I had an apartment in the centre of Budapest just behind the Astoria Hotel, on the narrow and dingy Magyar utca.
I ventured into the uninspiring Talk Talk café only once, despite it being only two paces away from my front door.
On that depressing occasion, my friend and I went in, sat down, were studiously ignored for 20 minutes, then stood up and left in a communal huff.
How ironic then that soon after I moved away, that same premises should change hands and transform into one of the best restaurants in town.
Baraka had been recommended to me, enthused over and raved about on so many occasions, that I felt deeply sorry - and also stupid - to have left it so late before trying it out. Anyway, I’ve put that right now, and will doubtlessly return again and again.
Baraka has a solid fan base and those who enjoy healthy, taste-filled dishes with imaginative combinations - it’s called 'fusion' cuisine these days - come back time after time.
Co-owner Leora Levi moves about the room, greeting guests like old friends, suggesting dishes and wines.
She even advises against some dishes, with refreshing honesty, when she feels that the ingredients aren’t up to scratch.
Decorations in the tiny room are sparse and stylish.Gorgeous white lamps hang down from the upper balcony and the plum-colored walls recall the warmth of the Middle East.
Leora said, however, that she had not quite captured the atmosphere she wanted, so she will redecorate in March.
The menu is a tasteful square containing just the right number of dishes.The entrées and main dishes were all described in such a mouth-watering manner, and the taste combinations so unusual and tempting, that we spent a long time deliberating.
Then Leora advised and we had to start all over again! I chose a mixed salad (Ft850) which was an inspired and artistically arranged mix of lollo rosso curls, sharp spikes of carrot, raw mushroom slices, toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds and a tangy dressing involving Balsamic vinegar.
My carnivorous companion selected a vegetable quiche (Ft1,500) from the daily specials chalked up on the blackboard by our side.
This appeared as an individual baby quiche, served upside down with a light, fluffy, cheesy egg and vegetable blend inside an unusual almost cakey-spongey pastry crust.
The wine list contained a good selection of quality reds and whites.Leora advised on the best wine - an Etyek Sauvignon (Ft2,590) to accompany the selected dishes.We sipped from huge four-deci red wine goblets balancing on elegant thin stems.
For her main course, my companion selected veal in a sun-dried tomato and coriander sauce (Ft2,350). The tomatoes were full of flavour and she remarked on how delicious and tender the meat was.
This was served with three ice-cream scoops of excellent mashed potatoes, dense and comforting with a liberal swathe of Dijon mustard whirling through.
I tried a fascinating salmon filet in a piquant coconut cream sauce and vodka lemon risotto (Ft2,850). I had never imagined salmon with coconut, but it worked extremely well.The risotto was perfection, served in wafer-thin courgette tubes.
The vodka was not immediately apparent but added a hot after-taste.Leora’s partner David Seboek is a trained pastry chef from New York so we just had to try the desserts, listed on a separate menu.
The chocolate volcano (Ft900) is something of a favourite at Baraka and I can see why.
Another upside-down casing of chocolate sponge lets out a thick, gooey lava when attacked viciously with a spoon. Scoops of vanilla ice cream cool the passions down a little and the dish is covered with grated Sumac, a dried berry spice from the Middle East with a lemony tang.
My companion demolished the cranberry, almond and caramel tart (Ft850) in record time, only slowed by the fact that she hit the jackpot and actually got two puddings; a divine snail of lemon meringue pie appeared first and then received a second, bonus dessert when the mistake was noticed by our ever-attentive but never-intrusive host.Baraka is a Sufi word meaning 'breath' or 'essence of life'. Eating food prepared with care, attention, love, imagination and inspiration is one of the pleasures of existence, and Baraka has found the key.

Budapest - District VI (1063)
Andrássy Hotel
Andrássy út 111
Getting there: Metro 1(little underground - kis földalatti) to Bajza utca
Tel: (+36 1) 483-1355
Open daily noon-3pm & Mon-Sat 6pm-11pm
Baraka website

Décor 9/10
Cuisine 10/10
Service 9/10
Wine List 9/10
Ambience 9/10
The Bees' Knees 10/10

POZOR! Baraka is the first - and I can confidently predict - the only Budapest restaurant to receive a Bees' Knees 10/10 rating.
Restaurants of Baraka's calibre appear in Central Europe with the frequency of Haley's Comet, so I recommend a visit to Budapest includes this venue - or regret it forever...

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Budapest garden of the dead

©FourBees digital pic (March 10 2007, overcast and gloomy) of the Kilián family mausoleum in the arcade. My favourite.
A moving, sensitive portrayal of the passing from one world to the other.

Budapest's Kerepesi cemetery is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Kerepesi Cemetery by ©FourBees

In the warm spring sunshine, plum and nut trees burst into blossom and the grass grows long and lush in verdant green meadows. A striking lime green woodpecker with a crimson head searches for ants. He potters, undisturbed across the lawn.
Fifty-four hectares of beautiful park land are criss-crossed by paths, running on compass lines. Geometrically ordered in the style of a French garden, there are also 400 different types of trees, dotted all over, in the haphazard English style.
One-hundred year old chestnut avenues offer a silent haven and the crisp April morning becomes suddenly cold and dark.
A Transylvanian long-eared owl awakes from his doze in the branches overhead and directs one eye at the people below, dressed in black and moving slowly in procession.
We are only 600 meters away from the polluted bustle of Budapest's Keleti station but we could be on the other side of the world.
Kerepesi cemetery is a nature reserve, a botanical garden and a history museum - the perfect place to escape for a moment of peace and reflection when the city hysteria becomes overwhelming.
In 1841, Count István Széchenyi decided that there should be a Hungarian national pantheon. Eight years later, burial began in Kerepesi.
Until then several smaller cemeteries had been used to bury the dead. In 1885, it was declared a decorative cemetery and Rákoskeresztúr public cemetery was opened to relieve the burden. Antal Sinka is now retired, but worked for many years as a guide and knows the stories behind every grave. Acrid smoke comes from Fiumei út over the high surrounding wall.
We go down into a crypt while a stone mason examines the damage. Images spring to mind of spirits lurking in the shadows or vampires waiting to pounce, but in broad daylight no self-respecting vampire would leap forth, only three stone sarcophagi sit in a state of dust and decay. Grave robbers, like pollution, continually threaten the tombs.
Sinka says, "Lajos Batthány was executed in the revolution in 1849 with three bullets. His body was hidden in the church on Rákóczi út and he could not rest in peace until 1867.
He was disturbed again in 1993, when grave robbers stole his Ft 22 million sword. They overlooked his wife's Ft 11 million earrings, which have now been placed in the National Museum for safekeeping".
This cemetery has witnessed many funerals of historic importance.
On 6 October 1956, the reburial of László Rajk took place. Rajk (1909 -1949) was an underground communist leader in the 1930's who fought in the Spanish Civil war.
After World War II he was Hungary's Minister of the Interior, and later foreign minister. Falsely accused of "Titoism", he was arrested and executed in 1949, becoming the most famous victim of the Hungarian purges.
In the thaw that followed Stalin's death, he was posthumously rehabilitated and re-interred in Kerepesi cemetery.
The reburial became a mass demonstration, giving a hint of the Uprising which would break out 17 days later.
The most recent major burial in Kerepesi was that of Democratic Forum (MDF) Prime Minister József Antal who died in office in 1993.
His funeral took place on a bitterly cold Saturday evening in December 1993, thousands holding candles and singing mournful hymns in the floodlit dusk.
The grave looks different now, alone in the middle of a bright, sunny meadow.
A modest wooden cross, covered in flower tributes, contrasts with the resting place nearby of a statesman of another time, Ferenc Deák, honored by an ostentatious mausoleum.
The greatest statesman, Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894) has an immense mausoleum currently being restored.
Fenced off, the bronze statues of Genius, the Hungarian crest and several white marble lions by the architect and designer Alajos Strobl sit in the grass, instead of on the roof.
Situated in a corner, away from the statesmen and nobility is the workers' pantheon, designed by József Körner in 1958, and fast becoming a museum piece.
It is one of the few places in Budapest where you can see the word "Communism" written out in bold letters.
The slogan "A KOMMUNIZMUSÉRT A NÉPÉRT ÉLTEK" (They lived for Communism and for the people") dominates the spacious white stone piazza.
Giant statues of two young men and a woman holding hands in Socialist Realist style gaze out boldly into the future.
Six massive white blocks of stone bear reliefs of workers in the field or at war, and remembrance plaques testify to the bravery of socialist workers.
The cavernous two-level crypt underneath can be visited if the unpredictable attendants are on duty.
Here, the ashes of politicians and artists find eternal peace. Leo Frankel, Gyula Derkovits and Ferenc Rózsa are just some of many names, recognizable from Budapest street names.
Black ceramic urns stand on shelves carved from Austrian red limestone.
One of the urns contains the ashes of a certain Éva Braun. Sinka says, "It was often pointed out to visiting officials to test if they were paying attention.
She really lived and, ironically, was a young Jewish member of the partisans.
The name and dates, 1917-1945 are identical to Hitler's mistress".
Behind the Worker's Pantheon is a plot for the heroes of the 1956 uprising.
The plot for the "upholders of the system" in 1956 - the secret police or ÁVO - is also in Kerepesi, but Sinka explains, "The two groups were buried on opposite sides because if there was a memorial service for both groups on the same day, there would be fights."In the workers' movement plot, crimson rose bushes grow on black marble tombs decorated with a gold star. Former Hungarian President János Kádár and his wife, Mária Tamáska, share a modest red marble gravestone in the middle.
Kádár and Antal represented diametrically opposed political systems, but they both share equal amounts of floral tributes and are the two most visited graves in Kerepesi.
Fossilized ammonites can be seen in the polished stone on Kádár's grave.Nearby are some unusual tombstones from the baroque period 1600-1700, featuring skulls and crossbones.
Many of the stones have bullet holes where, "Our Russian brothers" as Sinka adds ironically, were taking pot shots from the steps of Deák's mausoleum, or trying to destroy landmarks to make it difficult for German troops to parachute in.
Poet Endre Ady has what looks like a bandage around his arm but it is a stone plaster, covering a real bullet wound from a Russian gun.
The Arcade is two walls of elaborate graves and statues bought for posterity by wealthy families. One such resident of this eternal avenue of Hungarian elite is the Gundel family, "The kocsma (pub) brothers," as Sinka calls them.
At the four corners are stunning frescos on the ceilings, depicting Biblical scenes interwoven with Transylvanian -style buildings.
Russian soldiers are fenced off in a separate plot. Those who died in 1945, "Saving Hungary from the German fascists," and those who were killed in 1956, "Saving our land from the attacking anti-revolution" as the plaques say.
It is one of the few places in Budapest where you can still see a red star. Two tiny black wild kittens play on the graves, showing a healthy disrespect for death.
Poet János Arany worked under an oak tree on Margit Island and wanted to be buried there, but the authorities forbade it. Instead, he lies on an island of grass.
In 1886, the gardener Emil Fuchs planted two acorns from Margit Island next to Arany's grave.
The writer Albert Pákh had a star above his name. This does not always mean a communist worker, Sinka says it also signifies the Hungarian symbol for death.
Gyula Baghy, an Esperanto poet, has an "E" in a star on his headstone.
The sculpture Géza Maroti (1875-1941) designed his own gravestone, which is unique in Hungary. A white marble slab depicts the back view of a naked woman, surrounded by lots of cavorting and canoodling folk and was considered very brazen at the time.
The grave site is situated in the undergrowth, the untended wild land towards the top right-hand corner of the cemetery.
The neighbouring Jewish cemetery (entrance 600 meters down Salgótarjáni út) has some very old but impressive large tombs, it has suffered from neglect for many years and is currently undergoing restoration.
It is not possible to enter, two giant black dogs as terrifying as Cerberus, guard the gates. People are warned against going down toward the wall dividing the main cemetery with the Jewish cemetery.
In the top right hand corner the grave yard is overgrown, and neglected graves crumble. Dodgy types lurk in the bushes, so women would be best advised to avoid this part.
The writer Mór Jókai (1825-1904) lies in a very simple grave, as he wished, surrounded by a circular colonnade, covered in ivy.
On the inside of the ring, sculptures of doves sit as if in the rafters, and round the outside run Jókai's words, "The spirit within me goes with you, it will e there among you all, you will always find me among your flowers, when they wither, you will find me in the leaves, when they fall down, you will hear me in the evening peal of bells, when they die away and when you remember me, I will always be standing by you face to face."
A pair of adult owls live in the tree nearby, keeping watch over the colony of poets. Endre Ady (1877-1919) has a simple stone in the shade of chestnut trees opposite Jókai. Actress Lujza Blaha (1850-1926) lies just across the way.
A crowd of mourning cherubs and a balladeer surround her death bed.Mihály Károly, the first president of the Hungarian republic in 1918, is sheltered by a tent-like structure with incredible acoustics.
Like an open whispering gallery, you can send secret messages from one corner to the other. Sinka says, "Károly's daughter, an aged countess came to visit the grave but left in a huff, saying she would only return when all the cobwebs have been removed".
Poet Attila József (1905-1937) lies in a modest grave with his mother and sister, not far from statesman Ferenc Deák's imposing mausoleum.
The authorities said it was suicide, and Hungarian law states that a body must be buried in the same town or area as the death. However, the Kisfaludy Society saved money and brought the body to Budapest.
In 1955, József was first buried in the Workers' Pantheon section then moved to his present resting place, where a simple white stone marks what is, hopefully, the final resting place of Hungary's best-loved poets.
Near the Russian memorial is the grave of teenager Mária Csizmarovits who died in the 1849 revolution. She disguised herself as a man to get into the army.
The prima donna Mari Jászai bought stone form the first Hungarian theater when it was demolished, to use as her grave stone. The theater stood on the corner of Múzeum körút and Rákóczi út where there is now a business center.
Adam Clark, the Scottish supervisor of the Lánchíd construction is buried in a family tomb.
He married the widow Aldasy from a German family. The wording on the tomb is in German. Nearby is a grave that just says 'Léda' She was Adél Brüll, 'Léda' in reverse, a married woman who was poet Ady's lover and muse.
Their love affair was public knowledge and caused a scandal. When they split up in 1913, Ady wrote a famous farewell letter. She died of syphilis in 1934.
The artists' plot is full of imaginative graves, pianos, theatrical masks and handwritten signatures. Writer Zsigmond Móricz is buried with one of his daughters, the other is about ten meters away.
They quarreled and now remain forever not on speaking terms.
Weeping willows hang over the grave of Vilma Hugonai who became the first female doctor in 1903. János Pásztor , a sculptor, used his wife as a model. You can see her likeness in statues on his and many other graves.
She had a particularly beautiful naked figure with rounded buttocks. An important man was to be buried in the same plot, just behind, but his widow threw a tantrum, complaining that the grave could not face such a peach-like bum.
She would not allow his body to share the same graveyard and he was moved to Rákoskeresztúr cemetery in the 17th district.
Coming out of the main gates, you are hit by a blast of smoke and fumes from the lorries thundering along Fiumei út.
It is quite a contrast from the quiet, cool green seclusion of the graveyard. Kerepesi is a peaceful sanctuary in the heart of the city and one of the best parks for walking and quiet contemplation in Budapest.
It is a good place to spend an afternoon or maybe eternity.

[Originally published in 1994 in Budapest Week]

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