maître d’ - Gundel, Budapest
Written by William Lower
It is fitting that the Gundel restaurant, Hungary’s culinary ambassador, is under the direction of Hungary’s former Ambassador to England, Mr Tádé Alföldy – no stranger to grace, style, and elegance.
Founded in 1910 by Karoly Gundel, the restaurant quickly established itself as the epitome of extraordinary dining and exemplary service. Gundel’s philosophy was one of harmony and balance: between sight and sound, smell and taste.
??That today Gundel restaurant has reclaimed its rightful place on the culinary landscape speaks as much to his legacy as to the spirit, integrity, and passion of Gundel’s chefs and restaurateurs, who have worked diligently to return this national jewel to its rightful stature. Head chef, Gábor Merczi, had been creating 5-star menus and dishes the world over before returning home to Hungary and Gundel in 2007. Today, each dish is named after a famous Hungarian, and guests are presented with a card following their meal, detailing both the life of the noteworthy Hungarian and the recipe for the dish, for those who wish to attempt the impossible: recreating the magic of the Gundel experience.
?We asked Mr. Merczi, “If a guest had but one visit to Gundel, what would you suggest? What could they simply not miss?” Though a difficult question for a chef who prides himself in all he offers, this was his answer:??“In Hungary, every meal begins with a soup. It’s a natural part of dining. Goulash is traditional, as well as our famous fish soup. For the main course, I would choose either the Fogash Filet (Kárpáti Style), or Veal Cutlet (Pittsburgh style).”
??As gastronomic aficionados will know, Hungary is renowned for its goose liver. At Gundel, this speciality is not merely a selection on the menu, it comprises an entire section with no less than 14 offerings to tempt diners. Classic Hungarian meat, fish, and poultry dishes have been reinvented for the contemporary palate, and vegetarian entrées are both sophisticated and numerous. Each week, Gundel hosts a Sunday brunch; an institution in Budapest with every week featuring a different theme, be it mushrooms, fish, lamb, or strawberries. The four courses culminate with a pastry selection equalled by none.
??The Gundel experience is a gestalt, or ‘whole form’ approach. From the classical to contemporary art hanging on the walls, to the concerts held there throughout the year, this is arguably the finest dining experience in Budapest.
A setting befitting an icon
It is 1896. It is the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin. The royal hunting grounds have been transformed into a vast, English-style city park. On the edge of the park a massive square has been created for the magnificent Millennium Monument. Flanking the square, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art face one another, with the spectacular Vajdahunyad Castle and the stunning Szechenyi Baths a short distance away.
??An unprecedented construction boom has metamorphosed the city into a neoclassical masterpiece.
Fourteen years later, in an exquisite 1894 building overlooking the park, Karoly Gundel opens what would become Budapest’s most enduring culinary icon: Gundel.