These days, Hungarian food is no longer defined as a cuisine cooked by grandmothers who go heavy on the paprika, pork fat and sour cream. And in Budapest, restaurants specializing in contemporary Hungarian cuisine are no longer a novelty, but a growing part of the city’s increasingly sophisticated dining scene. “There is a big difference between the traditional style and the newer restaurants,” says Leonardo Di Clemente, who recently took over as Executive Chef at Four Seasons hotel Gresham Palace Budapest.
Di Clemente regularly visits Budapest’s historical central Market Hall with an eye towards discovering new vendors, butchers and small producers from whom he can source ingredients for the Hotel’s Gresham Restaurant. “Our philosophy is to use the best products in town and to make traditional dishes and desserts with a modern twist or use of technology,” says Di Clemente.
Two very traditional Hungarian dishes exemplify the restaurant’s approach to rethinking Hungarian cuisine. The foie gras—which is usually cooked in its own fat and served cold—is marinated in salt, sliced thin, and served with plum jam and chestnut purée (two ubiquitous Hungarian flavours). And the chicken paprikás maintains its customary character, but is much lighter and more flavourful because Di Clemente cooks it sous vide. “We basically cook the chicken paprikás in the opposite way, because we make the sauce first and the chicken afterwards,” he says.
Gresham also prepares elegant traditional desserts, but naturally the restaurant makes them a bit differently. “Our Hungarian desserts are lighter, always with some different flavour incorporated, and they have a modern touch,” says Di Clemente. For example, you will find a Rigó Jancsi, a storied Hungarian cake, unlike any other you will encounter in Budapest. Made with chocolate from Budapest’s finest artisanal chocolate shop, it is about half the size of a regular Rigó Jancsi, but with twice as much flavour, and is embellished with a spot of gold leaf in the corner. It’s definitely not the Rigó Jancsi a grandmother would prepare. but surely she would agree that it doesn’t get any better than this. –Carolyn Bánfalvi
This article first appeared in the print version of Four Seasons Magazine.