Dining: Hungarian Rhapsody

  • Jessica Tudzin

Like a beautifully executed musical improvisation, chef Miguel Vieira’s eight-course tasting menu at Costes Restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, delights the senses with harmonious notes and striking contrasts.

"In small ways and in some techniques, what I learned from Ferran Adrià informs my cooking," says the 32-year-old Vieira, who worked as the sous-chef at El Bulli, Spain’s renowned temple of molecular gastronomy, in 2006 and 2007. "I like to have fun with the starters and change the presentation a little bit, where maybe you see something like a marshmallow that appears sweet but tastes salty."

He is referring to the salted peanut–encrusted marshmallow that he serves as part of a three-dish prelude to the main course. Other starters include black caviar ladled atop a dainty dollop of green foam made from fresh asparagus; as this delicacy enters the mouth, the briny pearls of caviar seem to float on an asparagus-scented cloud, until the thin sliver of asparagus hidden within produces an unexpected crunch.

These whimsical overtures prepare the palate for more substantial dishes, such as milk-fed veal chops served with arabica-coffee sauce and Provençal lamb shoulder cooked sous vide and served with tagine spice, stewed apricots, and roasted baby potatoes. "I like to keep food close to its natural state and not play with it too much," says Vieira. "That’s the direction I’ve been going in." 

Interestingly only about 40 percent of the ingredients that Vieira works with actually come from Hungary. The rest are from Paris. This practice has drawn criticism from some locals, who pride themselves on their country’s agricultural bounty. However, Vieira contends that the seasonal extremes and old-world techniques employed by many Hungarian farmers result in unpredictable quality. "I go to the open market and, yes, sure, I see good things, but it’s hard to get that day in and day out, every day," he says.

Another reason Vieira relies so heavily on shipments from France is the fact that, even in the post-Communist era, the market for these gourmet foodstuffs has been slow to develop. Change is occurring, but not fast enough for the staff at Costes, which opened in its current iteration in mid-2008 with a Michelin star in mind. The staff’s commitment has been rewarded: Costes received the coveted honor earlier this year, making it the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Hungary and only the second one in Central Europe.

"Quality products that you don’t have to do much to is the golden rule," says Vieira. "I’ve worked in London, France, and Spain. I’m Portuguese, and now I’m in Budapest, so my cooking is definitely a reflection of all that. But at the end of the day, we can’t forget that we are in Budapest."

To that end, Vieira’s menu includes such Hungarian-influenced dishes as pike perch, from Hungary’s Lake Balaton, served with tomato jelly; a Hungarian cheese sorbet called tejföl; and an interpretation of a noodle dish dating back to the Magyar tribes that is served with truffles, Tokaji-wine foam, and a soft-cooked egg in its shell.

This fall guests of Costes can look forward to dishes made with truffles, mushrooms, and game, including a pork dish prepared five ways. When asked if the pork dish will include Mangalitsa ham made from Hungary’s rare curly-haired pig or ham imported from Spain, Vieira merely smiles and says that he is still composing the menu.

Costes Restaurant, www.costes.hu

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