Walking into Macesz Huszár, a Hungarian Jewish restaurant in Budapest’s historic — and, more recently, ultra-fashionable — Jewish district, two distinct moods emerge. The lacy tablecloths and vintage light fixtures have all the retro-coziness of dinner at grandma’s house. But other details, from the crisply dressed waiters to the chic stemware set at each table, tell a different, more sophisticated story.
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The food shares a similar duality. An appetizer of Jewish-style eggs (creamy chopped egg salad enriched the Hungarian way — with duck schmaltz and caramelized onions) is served alongside a basket of artisan-baked bread, while a homey plate of veal and barley-stuffed cabbage comes garnished with a bright mix of fresh pea shoots and carpaccio-thin slices of beets and radishes.
Owner David Popovits, a 41-year-old Budapest native, says his restaurant’s split personality is entirely by design. On the one hand, he literally takes cues from his grandmother. “She always said, ‘The more animal varieties in a soup, the better it tastes,’” he told me recently. Fittingly, his matzo ball soup broth is enriched with both goose and beef. But the restaurateur (he also owns an upscale wine bar in the neighborhood, and is about to open a delicatessen), who has lived in the United States, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, understands the importance of imbuing tradition with a sense of the new and unexpected.
Open since late 2013, Macesz Huszár, which translates to “matzo soldier” (cheekily alluding to an outdated slur used against Jews), is one of a growing number of restaurants featuring traditional Hungarian Jewish dishes prepared with a contemporary spin. It makes sense as Budapest, after all, currently holds Central Europe’s largest Jewish population, with about 100,000 Jews, 10,000 of whom identify as religiously observant. Meanwhile, the city is experiencing a larger blossoming of Jewish culture, despite a simultaneous rise in nationalist sentiment and the increased power of the openly extremist, anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary’s National Assembly.
Unlike the few long-standing Jewish restaurants in the neighborhood, specifically Hanna and Carmel, which are both glatt kosher and cater to kosher-keeping tourists and the city’s observant Jews, these newer restaurants do not follow Jewish dietary law. But they are explicit in their desire to bring Hungary’s Jewish cuisine into the 21st century.
Around the corner from Macesz Huszár is Café Noe, one of four bakeshops run by pastry chef Ráchel Raj and her husband, Miklós Maloschik. The daughter of a rabbi father and cookbook author mother who originally opened Café Noe in the mid-1990s, Raj, 33, custom designs cakes and serves up a variety of Jewish sweets, including hamantaschen during Purim and an apple matzo cake year round.
Most notably, however, she makes flódni, a traditional Jewish tri-layered pastry filled with poppy seeds, ground walnuts and apple, slicked with homemade plum jam. The boundlessly energetic Raj, who identifies herself as a “modern Yidishe mama,” helped put the dessert on the map when she and Maloschik set a world record for baking the largest flódni at the popular Sziget music and culture festival in 2012. (The record-breaking pastry was 72 feet long.)
Diners strolling around the Jewish district will also find Koleves (which means “stone soup”), a trendy spot that opened a year and a half ago in what had been a kosher butcher shop. The menu primarily offers globally inspired fare like sweet potato risotto and grilled brie salad, but eschews pork and includes Jewish Hungarian staples like matzo ball soup and sólet, the Hungarian take on the Jewish bean stew, cholent. A short walk away, Fülemüle Étterem (or Nightingale Restaurant, in English), which opened in 2000, has become something of a sólet mecca. The restaurant offers half a dozen old school and improvisational takes on the dish, including one topped with goose leg and another spiced with chili powder.
Beyond the Jewish district, restaurateur Tibor Rosenstein has created perhaps the most well-known of these nouveau Jewish eateries: the aptly named Rosenstein. Raised by two food-loving grandmothers (he lost most of his family in the Holocaust), Rosenstein, 72, said he spent his childhood learning at his bubbes’ apron strings and, as he put it, “schechting [slaughtering] chickens instead of playing soccer like the other kids.”
He opened his namesake restaurant relatively soon after the fall of communism, in 1996, with the ahead-of-his-time plans to offer Hungarian and Jewish dishes with an elegant twist. At Rosenstein, a thin white platter might come artfully adorned with goose skin gribenes (cracklings), foie gras, edible flowers and a slab of inez — a Hungarian Jewish recipe of goose fat rolled in ruby-colored paprika. Meanwhile, he might pair a dish of stewed veal with tarhonya (a small Hungarian pasta commonly called egg barley), top his sólet with a hunk of smoked brisket and a creamy roasted egg, or slice flódni into svelte towers and dust them with confectioners’ sugar.
Not surprisingly, over the decades his restaurant has become a sought-after destination. And, along with his son Robi, Rosenstein has continued to innovate, offering a line of house-made pálinka,(plum brandy), as well as, most recently, partnering with a farm nearby to source high-quality produce and meat.
Collectively, these restaurants are changing the face of Jewish dining in Budapest. They attract plenty of locals, both Jewish and not, as well as tourists hoping to tap into the local Jewish culture. Rosenstein, meanwhile, has welcomed its fair share of celebrity guests, from Steven Spielberg to Helen Mirren.
But for Tibor Rosenstein, restaurants like his represent much more than good eats. In the decades before World War II, Budapest’s population was nearly 25% Jewish, with Jews actively participating in and contributing to mainstream Hungarian life and culture. Then came the war, which claimed 600,000 Jews across Hungary. “The Holocaust and the decades of Communist rule afterward greatly impacted the Jewish Hungarian kitchen,” Rosenstein said. “Lots of people forgot recipes and lost gems from their childhoods. Now there’s a revival of people doing research to bring some of these dishes back.”
Take Popovits of Macesz Huszár. Though his approach is unapologetically modern, he mined 100-year-old Jewish Hungarian cookbooks, along with his grandmother’s cooking, while creating his menu. Now, in addition to opening the new delicatessen, he and his team are working on a cookbook of their own. “We want to put out something that captures our perspective as an outspokenly Jewish restaurant in the early 21st century,” he said. “When people look back 100 years from now, they will see that this is what Jewish food in Hungary looks like today.”