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Over-ordering Authenticity in Budapest

David Holzer follows his nose to find a statue of a Basset Hound and Columbo. Oh, and just one more thing… 

If I hadn’t followed my nose to Bulcsú étkezde, the restaurant on Bulcsú utca recommended to me by Gábor Bánfalvi of Taste Hungary, I’d never have found the place. Despite the mouthwatering aromas, I was too early and had an hour to dispose of before Bulcsú étkezde opened at 11 a.m.  

I strolled past Lehel téri market, its faded yellow tiers looking like giant window boxes, and headed down towards the Danube.

The streets around Lehel are lined with faceless apartment blocks and dotted with tanning shops, a puzzling number of opticians and plenty of nondescript bars and cafes. I did manage to discover the funky-looking No Comment hip-hop bar, the Kenguru fitness center and Picante, a Hungarian-Portuguese fusion restaurant. That’s a combination to conjure with.

When I got closer to Pozsonyi utca, which runs parallel with the Danube, the feel of the neighborhood began to change. This area is known as Angyalföld, which means “Land of Angels” and it certainly feels strangely prelapsarian. Perhaps it’s because you can glimpse the trees of Margitsziget and the green hills above Buda between the peeling-stucco early 20th century mansion blocks.

If you’re looking for paleo cupcake shops, health food stores or organic baby clothing and darn good coffee, Pozsonyi utca is for you. I was on a mission to find something rather more authentic. Ignoring the charms of joints like The Donut Factory with its bright purple façade, I headed for Szent István utca which runs down to Margit hid.

Walking back up Szent István utca away from the river I noticed a statue of a man in a raincoat with another of a droopy-eared Basset Hound nearby, looking up at him. On much closer inspection, this was revealed to be a statue of Columbo, the famously brilliant and rumpled TV detective played by Peter Falk.

Why Columbo? 

It doesn’t take remarkable powers of deduction to establish that the statue of Peter Falk is on the corner of Falk Miksa utca because of the Falk connection. But this still doesn’t explain why it’s there.

A little way up leafy Falk Miksa utca is the MissionArt Galeria. Here, a charming Hungarian woman told me as much of the story as anyone knows.

Miksa Falk, after whom the street is named, was a 19th-century Hungarian journalist and politician. According to the organizers of a project to rejuvenate the area around the street back in 2014, Peter Falk, who apparently did have Hungarian ancestors, may have been related to Miksa, but no-one knows for sure. Although the connection is tenuous at best, the powers that be in Budapest decided it was good enough reason to spend around USD 60,000 on the statue. I assume that, at this price, the dog was thrown in too. Whether it’s deliberate or not, the statue does make Columbo look very like a Hungarian politician.

Incidentally, the Basset Hound gazing adoringly up at Columbo is based on a local dog named Franzi who, legend has it, appeared for the unveiling of his own statue.

Back to Bulcsú Étkezde 

I could smell cooking, most pungently cabbage, well before I turned the corner back into Bulcsú utca. As I arrived, the restaurant door opened. I followed a small queue headed by an old man with a dented stainless-steel soup tureen dangling from the fingers of one hand and a not quite so old dude with slicked back purple-grey hair and a booze-blossomed face inside.

The queue was a good sign. I was sure I was in for a truly authentic Hungarian culinary experience. Inside the restaurant, my sense of anticipation rose as my taste buds and stomach began to wake up. The décor was plain to the point of boring. Always a good sign. That day’s menu was chalked up on four blackboards along one wall and behind the counter.

But when I scanned the blackboards, I realized I’d made a tactical error. It was as if I was reading hieroglyphics. I couldn’t understand a single word.

In restaurants in other cities where I didn’t speak the language, I’d simply have pointed at what someone else was eating and indicated that I’d have the same. By now, the old man’s tureen had been filled and purple-hair was sitting down to a bowl brimful with gulyás but I hadn’t gone on my pilgrimage to settle for goulash. The problem was that I had nothing else to point at. This wasn’t fast food.

Feeling both foolish and desperate, I asked the queue “Does anyone speak English?”

A woman standing behind me who looked like a librarian said “I do. A little.”

“What should I eat?” I said.

“It’s all good. Very Hungarian.”

“Great. What would you recommend?”

She looked embarrassed. “Um, my English is not that good. I can’t translate. But it’s all good…”

“And very Hungarian,” I added for her.

She smiled. “Yes. Very Hungarian.”

I thought about just pointing to something on one of the blackboards and hoping for the best but what if I accidentally ordered something terrible? Some Hungarian dishes are definitely an acquired taste, especially if they involve tejföl (sour cream).

I have a theory that there’s always something about the national cuisine of a particular country its natives adore but expats turn their noses up at it. In my case, it’s tejföl. If my Hungarian partner could bathe in it, I’m sure she would.

After shifting from one foot to the other for what felt like an eternity, I decided to head for the door.

“I’ll come back another day,” I said to my new friend.

She gave me a sad smile and stepped forward to take my place in the queue.

Bulcsú étkezde is at Bulcsú utca 8. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday but closed at weekends. I’m sure the food is fantastic but if you don’t speak Hungarian, take a friend with you when you go. This is what I’ll be doing.