Tuesday, May 22, 2018

MARKETS: Santiago's Mercado Central




Chile's capital city is a bustling metropolis, a modern Southern hemisphere hub featuring the juxtaposition of an ancient, dramatic mountainscape alongside glass-and-steel skyscrapers. The modern and efficient city planning leaves room for lots of wonderful green space as well. This is fitting for the city that represents this South American nation on the Pacific coast -- one that boasts a bounty of agricultural wonders and an amazing assortment of seafood to fill a grand market space like the Mercado Central in SantiagoThe market's neoclassical structure was inaugurated in 1872, and is today a protected Historical Monument of the city.


This vast covered market offers food sellers of all stripes, but is overwhelmingly known as the fish market for its exhaustive selection of Pacific "fruits of the sea". There are all kinds of fish in the categories of white flaky fish, there are darker-fleshed oily fish high in Omega 3s. And you can find every kind of shellfish and cephalopod imaginable in this market. Just be careful to keep an eye on where you're walking, as the market floor tends to get a bit hazardous from the constant hosing-down of the seafood stalls. (It would be no fun landing in a puddle of seafood-scented saline sludge!)


One item that I'd never seen in any market before, in all of my travels, was the Pacific giant squid. In the photo here, those crab claws are not baby-sized. They're normal-to-large as far as crab claws go (another local treat). Those rectangular-shaped pieces of what are calamari steaks are essentially sliced rings of the giant squid. They're enormous! The squid are monstrous in size and can grow to be as large as 45 feet long and weigh as much as 600 pounds! These squid sold here may not technically be THE giant squid, but they're really large and are at the very least related to them. And despite what you might think about these large creatures -- my initial thought was that they may be incredibly tough or rubbery when cooked -- they're actually delicious and tender.

No market would be complete without meat for the landlubbers among us. Chile is more of a seafood nation compared to its beef-consuming neighbor, Argentina. But there are still plenty of carnivorous Chileans keeping the meat markets frenetic and literally filled to the rim (of the refrigerator cases) with the king of meats in these parts: beef. The stalls I checked out had impressive displays of all types of bovine cuts, and they were all ruby-red and seemed to be as fresh as they were plentiful.

The Mercado Central of course has lots of fruit and vegetable vendors inside and outside of the market building. When I was there, stone fruits and tropical fruits alike were flooding the bins at the mercado. Gorgeous, brilliantly-colored cherries and tomatoes sat next to pineapples and mandarins. 
I was probably most impressed, however, by two items, not only because of their outrageously good flavor everywhere I ate them while dining out, but also because they were so inexpensive while being so flavorful: avocados (paltas in Chilean Spanish) and strawberries -- big, juicy, magenta strawberries called frutillas in Chilean Spanish. I consumed both in whatever form I could, wherever and whenever I could. 

Besides boasting all of the magnificent market stalls in the Mercado Central, the market is also home to 22 restaurants within the market space where shoppers can dine on -- what else? -- market-fresh foods ranging from snacks and fruity drinks to multi-course seafood and meat feasts. 
It was here that I finally got to indulge in the local dish that Pablo Neruda made famous: Caldillo de Congrio, or conger eel stew. He actually wrote a poem called Oda al Caldillo de Congrio! I must admit, it was tasty enough to make anyone wax poetic.
What else? well, the palmito salad was pretty much worth the price of admission as well. It's a common ingredient in these parts of South America, but in the U.S. it's rare to find a hearts of palm salad. 
Another treat for all the other seafood lovers out there: scallops pil-pil. These are succulent medium-sized scallops with the roe sacks still attached, sautéed in a generous amount of garlic-and herb-infused butter and olive oil. This, people, is why we prepare good seafood simply. Period.


So, when heading to Santiago's Mercado Central, you can shop for a little while, and then be sure to time it so you can check out the teeny but charming restaurants around the perimeter of the market building. Try to go for authentic, less touristy-looking places. You will be rewarded with delicious food, cooked to order, so you have a full belly to go along with your full shopping bags.

MERCADO CENTRAL San Pablo 967, Santiago
Sunday - Thursday 6 am - 5 pm
Friday 6 am - 8 pm
Saturday 6 am - 6 pm
https://www.mercadocentral.cl/

Friday, May 4, 2018

RECIPE: Olive Oil-Citrus Cake with Cream Cheese Icing and Fresh Citrus


It's only been about a week since we were wearing winter coats and wool sweaters in New York. Winter weather seemed interminable, and temperatures lingered in the forties throughout most of April (uggghhhh). An upside to this is that our citrus supply seems to be happily lingering as well. We still find oranges and clementines and tangerines, lots of various citrus fruits in the markets. 

And so, with this abundance, and with a sunny, springy outlook now that May is here, I created an Italian-inspired (specifically Sicilian-inspired) olive oil cake with plenty of citrus zest in the batter -- even a little juice -- and of course, top-quality Italian extra virgin olive oil. The frosting is my favorite kind, of course: cream cheese. The tangy zip of this topping holds its own against the acidic zing of the citrus cake itself, and pairs wonderfully with the fresh citrus fruit I arrange on top of the cake, both for fresh citrus flavor and for gorgeous added aesthetic appeal. There's even a touch of fresh rosemary in the batter, so I've garnished the top with some sprigs as well (rosemary pairs so well with citrus).

The additional good news for the gluten-averse? I made this cake with only a touch of AP flour, which is optional, because the bulk of the dry ingredients here is comprised of almond flour. This provides for a very tender crumb and super-moist cake with a golden, almost crunchy shell. It's a pretty fabulous recipe, if I do say so myself. My husband, the healthy trainer with a sweet tooth, loved it -- and finished this one off even more quickly than usual! 

I hope this  cake brings a little Sicilian sunshine into your kitchen -- and I'd love to hear about your modifications, if you make any, in the comments section. Enjoy!


OLIVE OIL CITRUS CAKE WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING AND FRESH CITRUS 
Serves 8

For the cake:
Butter for greasing the pan
3 oranges: blood, cara cara, etc.
about 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups almond flour
1/2 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (Sicilian is best here)
2 tsp minced fresh rosemary

For the icing:
2 8-oz. packages of Philadelpha cream cheese
2 cups (or to taste) confectioner's sugar

For the citrus topping:
Various supremes or rounds of fresh citrus, rosemary sprigs for garnish

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees, butter an 8- or 9-inch springform pan
- Grate zest of 2 oranges and mix into the sugar in a bowl, with your fingers to distribute evenly.
- Supreme 2 oranges: cut off the bottom and top and run a knife along the rounded shape of the fruit to remove the peel and pith (white part). Cut the orange segments from between the connective membrane and collect with juice in a bowl. Tear segments into bite-size pieces.
- Halve the 3rd orange and squeeze the juice into a measuring cup. Add the yogurt to reach 2/3 cup total. Pour this liquid mixture in the bowl with the sugar, and mix.
- Add the 3 eggs to the sugar-liquid.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt. Whisk these dry ingredients into the bowl with the wet ingredients in 2 batches. Fold in orange segments and the diced rosemary.
- Whisk in the olive oil into the batter until it comes together and is mixed thoroughly.
- Pour batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 50 - 60 minutes, and test for doneness after 50. The top should be golden brown and almost crusty, and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.
- Cool to room temperature. Move to a cake plate.
- To make the frosting, soften the cream cheese to room temperature. Beat with a hand mixer or a stand mixer until the cream cheese is light and airy. Add the confectioner's sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until desired tangy-sweetness. You can add a touch of orange juice or zest for sweetness, if you like.
- Frost the cake and place the rounds of fresh citrus on top to decorate, along with fresh rosemary sprigs.

Buon appetito!

Friday, April 13, 2018

QUICK BITE: Churros con Chocolate


I've never been much of a breakfast person. This stems in part from my never having been a morning person. I don't drink coffee, much to the chagrin of most people I encounter. And as much as I love the lifestyle and eating habits on "The Continent", I believe a continental breakfast is best enjoyed once a week, tops. There is, however, one European morning culinary tradition I can get behind: churros con chocolate.


The churro is a fried baton or ring of deliciousness made from a kind of choux pastry (the dough used to make profiteroles or eclairs, for example). These treats originated on the Iberian peninsula, though their historical provenance is disputed. Some trace them to Spanish shepherds who may have been able to fry such a treat in pans over a fire while camping out in various countryside locations -- who supposedly named the treat after the shape of their sheep's horns. Others claim the Portuguese explorers brought an early version of the churro back from China, and modified their riff on the Ming Dynasty's youtiao to create their version. This would be further refined by the Spanish, who would extrude the pastry dough through a star-shaped die. (This shape, by the way, allows for maximum surface area, and therefore maximum crispness. Good move, Spain!)


Either way (or neither way!) the churro -- also called "calientes" or "calentitos de rueda" when fried in a continuous spiral wheel ("rueda") and cut into portions afterwards -- is a distinctly Iberian treat that has gained popularity in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies and Iberian-influenced regions the world over. Churrerías (or Xurrerias in Catalan) are both established brick-and-mortar cafes and dedicated shops, as well as carts in markets and at street festivals. You can always spot them by the line of hungry churros-eaters eagerly awaiting a freshly-fried batch. 

In Spain, you can certainly find filled churros as well as the "classic", usually filled with chocolate or nutella, or a vanilla pastry cream. I've had them in Barcelona, glazed in dark chocolate: nothing could be bad there. In Cuba, straight, filled churros are popular, stuffed with fruit like guava (sounds amaaaazing), or filled with the beloved dulce de leche in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Mexico. They're glazed with arequipe (another South American word for caramel) in Colombia and Venezuela. And in Uruguay, the churros are sometimes served as a savory snack, filled with melted cheese. 


While all of these versions sound delicious in their own ways, I would argue for the importance of the classic, as it were, served with a rich, thick hot chocolate. And so, we return to my original "exception breakfast" of the churros con chocolate. The churros, warm out of the fryer, are dusted with a cinnamon-sugar. They're usually handed over to you in a paper cone or bag. And they come with an embarrassingly indulgent cup of creamy, dense hot chocolate into which you should most definitely dip your churro. As often as possible, really. As you can see by the expression on my husband's face in the photo at right, dunking your churro in your chocolate can be a very serious matter, especially if you're trying to avoid dripping the hot chocolate down the front of your shirt. But that, too would be worth it for the amazing flavor...the crispy shell of the churro cracking and giving way to the warm, tender center...the subtle spice of the cinnamon and the granular crunch of the sugar...the bittersweet warm chocolate covering it all in a smooth pudding-like cream. It's addictive -- and certainly makes getting up in the morning feel well worth it!

Monday, March 26, 2018

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Citrus



Normally, at this time of year, the citrus season is winding down. But with the numerous nor'easters to hit us in late March, a lot of the U.S. still looks like it's in the throes of winter. The especially awful flu season this year has run unabated, too, so our need for the Vitamin C that citrus provides is still as relevant now as it was in mid-January. Sigh.

Still, the days are thankfully longer now that we've sprung forward, and at least with April's approach, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, the variety of citrus fruits available to us is a great bridge to get us from cold months and snowy storms over to budding life and milder weather. Citrus just tastes like the sun, doesn't it? And I've found that using it in unexpected ways, in both savory and sweet dishes, allows us to sprinkle a little sunshine throughout our meals, throughout our weeks.


We've long had winter access to Florida and California citrus (I'm partial to Florida, as I'm an east coast gal myself). My father occasionally sends me "care packages" of wooden crates filled with grapefruits and oranges, salve for my soul during my months of harsh hibernation in Manhattan. I eat these out of hand, or scoop out the sections of a grapefruit as a mid-morning snack. But I also use the grapefruit (ruby red, mmm) in my work, like in the homemade grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that I paired with the pine nut tart at left.
A close sibling of the grapefruit in use and flavor is the pomelo. It's more dry than the grapefruit, so the sections peel out with less mess. And the actual pieces of pulp are large and pull apart easily. Pomelo is used in a lot of southeast Asian cooking, often paired with savory and spicy dishes like the spicy grilled river prawns and pomelo salad I once ate poolside in Bangkok. Pomelos are also a part of the Vietnamese salad with shredded chicken and cabbage that I love so much -- it's often replaced by grapefruit here in the States, but the original uses pomelo. Other large citrus that we use mostly for their skin or rind or juice -- and really, above all, we often use their scent -- are the citron, bergamot, calamansi, ugly fruit, and the etrog. Since we're focusing on what we eat and drink from the citrus species, we'll skip the details on these guys. They do provide the flavor for some delicious drinks, liqueurs, and vinegars however. Another time, another post.


In Italy, I look forward to two types of citrus showing up in the markets. One is clementini, or clementines, which always signal to me the approach of the winter holidays. Christmas in Italy means that pretty much every household has a gorgeous painted ceramic bowl full of clementini on the kitchen or coffee table. The second type of citrus I pine for until winter is the Sicilian blood orange, known as arancia rossa in Italian. Their flesh ranges in color from fuchsia-tinged bright orange to deep, dark magenta. 
These sweet, barely-acidic babies become happily ubiquitous at the end of the calendar year and throughout winter. They're in salads -- particularly those of Sicilian origin, like the blood orange-fennel-olive salads I love at this time of year. They're in desserts. They go into spremute, or freshly-squeezed juices sold in bars and in markets all over Italy. They're also great paired with prosecco, for a gorgeously colored aperitivo cocktail that's better than any mimosa you've ever experienced.  
They're squeezed into vinaigrettes and made into sauces -- they happen to pair really well with steak fish to brighten a typical white wine sauce. They're an unexpected touch anywhere you'd normally use lemon or regular orange. They're delicious seared on the grill and paired with pork or duck. They're also great candied, dipped in chocolate. The possibilities are pretty endless, actually. And they're accessible now that they've become popular in the U.S.


And then we have the other categories of orange-skinned citrus. Mandarins and tangerines are often slightly sweeter versions of oranges, larger than clementines but just as delicious and versatile. They're great paired with pomegranate in a spremuta, and my vendors in Campo de' Fiori in Rome have been selling these alongside their market stall now for years. Of course, the smallest of all these orange cousins is the kumquat -- a slightly tricky fruit, but one that can actually be eaten whole, peel and all (these are thin-skinned little guys), and do really well sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup so they're softened, half way to marmalade. 
This kumquat syrup can be made into a compote with the addition of other fruits, it can be made into a chutney with spices and some savory elements, or used as a flavoring syrup with an herb or two to be used as the base for a cocktail or to be topped off with sparkling water. Kumquats also do well included in other dishes like the composed salad here, with shaved fennel, beets, wild asparagus, avocado, and sunflower seeds on a bed of Greek yogurt. Other varietals of orange-skinned citrus like the satsuma, the tangelo, and various cross-breeds have been flooding the citrus market in recent years. I try to sample these fruits when I see a variety I've not yet tasted, and I have to say I've liked just about everything I've tried.


When it comes to a delicious acidic kick in cooking, limes are probably my star ingredient. They bring ceviche to life, they cut the richness of grilled meats in Mexican tacos and fajitas, they are pivotal in Southeast Asian marinades and dips, and they're the perfect finishing agent for freshly cooked seafood and freshly grilled veggies like corn on the cob -- I love smothering corn in a miso-lime butter. Limes are a must on any cocktail bar (dark and stormy, anyone?). Lime is also a wonderful ingredient for desserts. 
A truly well-made slice of key lime pie is hard to beat. The key limes are deliciously tart and work well in tropical cuisine that matches the environment in which they're grown. Lime sorbetto is ultra-refreshing. And lime curd is delicious, and pairs well with berries, like in my raspberry-lime-ginger tart at right. We're now starting to see the availability of other varieties like finger limes in specialty markets these days. These are to regular limes what pomelos are to grapefruit, and are excellent when the pulp is used in savory preparations. Kaffir limes are amazing, particularly in southeast Asian cuisine, but they're relatively dry and so are best used for their aromatic zest and above all, for their gorgeous fresh leaves. Nothing, for me, compares to the flavor kaffir lime leaves impart to curries and stews and soups. And dried limes are a big part of the flavor profile in Persian cooking, a cuisine I love and am learning more about all the time.


And then, of course, we have the lemon. I could write an entire post alone on lemons -- and I will, at some point. Having honeymooned last year on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, we walked through a pergola of lemon trees just to get from our suite to breakfast each morning in Anacapri. My friends had luscious lemon trees in the back yard of their B+B in Puglia. Even my friends with more than a corner of terrace space in Rome have citrus trees. And I've used lemon leaves in my cooking as well - they're great for wrapping things in and grilling. The amazing Italian lemons themselves go into everything from a light salad dressing to sauces for seafood to desserts and cakes and gelato and sorbetto and mmmmm, granita. They are served alongside tea (tè al limone) as well as a bistecca alla fiorentinaBut lemons from all over the world help to add flavor to marinades and ceviches and meringue pies and tarts and candies, and anything at all that needs a little brightening of flavor.


They are a part of the sgroppino, an after-dinner drink which I've already highlighted on this blog here: http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/search?q=sgroppino -- but it's so delicious it's worth mentioning again. And the lemons of the Amalfi coast have long donated their rinds to the best cause of all: limoncello.  What lemons have added to our world of drinks alone makes them worthwhile! Limonana, the Israeli slushie drink of lemon and mint, is a refreshing glass of wonderfulness, improved upon by the addition of a little vodka. And the coccolimone drink and grattachecca sold on the streets of Rome in warm weather are a revelation.


With the creation of the meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange, we have a best-of-both-worlds situation which allows us an interesting, mellowed citrus flavor to utilize in both sweet and savory. Lemon bars are given a tweak, and meyer lemon curd adds interest to the coconut cake and chocolate tuile at left. They're great in sauces and to make an aioli ethereal. Grilled and squeezed on seafood, they lend amazing dimension. There's very little a regular lemon can do that a meyer lemon won't improve. Give them a try the next time you find them in the market. In fact, pick up as many citrus varieties as you can get your hands on, then store them in the fruit bin in your fridge, and go in search of recipes that utilize these wondrous, versatile fruits. They'll help you bring on the spring!


Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme
Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans
Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt
Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc
Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce
Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

ESCAPES: Budapest, Hungary

It had been quite a few years since my last foray into Central Europe, and though I'd previously hit many beautiful and interesting cities in this part of the world -- Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Split -- I had yet to make it to Budapest. So with a couple of my girl friends, we planned a long weekend in the heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, replete with market visits and spa indulgences for which the city is justly famous.

It was a monumental birthday for Elizabeth, and our friend Jessica (with whom I've globe-trotted before) and I wanted to celebrate somewhere new -- for all of us -- with her. We'd been aiming for Morocco, but came up short and too last-minute in the planning process, so an easy jaunt to someplace nearer to our home bases (east coast U.S. and Rome) was the ticket. We came in the full-fledged spring season. In Hungary, this meant both torrential downpour rain and glorious sunny blue skies replete with fluffy cumulus clouds, creating a cartoon-like backdrop of a sky for viewing castles and gothic architecture, bridges and spas. The city itself is divided by the Danube into Buda, the hilly landscape to the west, and Pest (pronounced "pesht"), the flat urban center of the city where most of the living and working is happening these days. And Budapest is very happening.


We stayed at the beautiful Corinthia Hotel Budapest, which is a gorgeous, grand building in the heart of Pest. Besides the standard city hotel rooms, the Corinthia also owns an adjacent building which is more of a condo complex, where mini apartments with a central courtyard are a charming alternative, offering the conveniences of a top-notch hotel with the comfort and space of an apartment rental. Ours had two bedrooms and two baths with a kitchen and living/dining room -- which turned out to be important when I came down with a nasty sinus infection. I was able to have my own space and not infect my girlfriends or keep them up at night (at least, not too badly) as I was sneezing and coughing all night long. In the main hotel, the lobby and restaurants encourage lingering, and the Royal Spa is a stunning Art Deco building, constructed in 1886, with a 15-meter pool under its stained glass roof as its centerpiece. Of course there are all of the usual spa treatments on offer (massage, facials, etc.), as well as free use of the pool and whirlpools of varying degrees of heat. On a cool rainy night, when we didn't feel like venturing out into the city streets, we took comfort in the spa bathing process, the ritual of cool to warm to hot and back again, the change in temperatures bringing a flush to our cheeks. We then scurried back to our spacious room in plush bath robes and slippers, and ordered a comforting room service dinner, and just relaxed. We had been out already, and we had more nights to spent eating and drinking our way through Budapest. That night, it was all about unwinding (and some serious catching up with the girls).

Budapest is a great city for wandering. It's got monuments and many points of interest, and Castle Hill in the Buda section, on high and overlooking the Danube, is one of its most visited sites. It's a good idea to do this part of the city on foot, so you can wander around at will, check out Buda Castle, the Fisherman's Bastion, and the beautiful Matthias Church. Gellért Hill is also on the Buda side, and overlooks the Danube with a precipitous drop downhill. Along this hill's fault line, many of the city's medicinal springs emerge, and supply Budapest's most famous, historic Gellért Spa and Rudas Baths. People from all over the world have been coming here to "take the waters" since the 13th century.

Back in Pest, you can visit the city's Museum of Fine Arts, pictured here, to view one of the greatest collections of Old Masters paintings in Europe, or the Hungarian National Museum, featuring items of historical significance to Hungary...and even Beethoven's piano. It's also in Pest that you'll find the world's third-largest parliament building, its neo-Gothic architecture dominating the riverfront. You can happily meander along the cobblestone streets, window shopping (or actual shopping). There are any number of beautiful outdoor markets that seem to pop up around every other corner. Part of my friend Jessica's mission was to find unique items in these markets to turn into or inspire jewelry, so she was up early and combing those markets on the daily. I preferred a more laid back approach, but found some interesting items, including an all-natural solid perfume which I carry in my purse with me always. I also came across something I'd never seen before: tool-shaped chocolates. I'm not sure why they exist, I just know now that they do exist. And, um, I guess I'll eat chocolate that looks like a wrench -- why not, right?

The Danube is wide and lovely, and a boat tour on the river will allow you to see many city landmarks from a different vantage point than on land. It's a great way to see Budapest's famous bridges up close (and underneath), too, like the Chain Bridge and the Elisabeth Bridge. Also worth seeking out are the Shoes on the Danube exhibit, a public art memorial commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. Sixty pairs of iron shoes form a row along the river bank, representing the Jews who were shot into the river during World War II.
A stroll around the city center will take you to St. Stephen's Cathedral, a beautiful structure set on a grand square. Construction began on the church in 1851 and took 50 years, and it is Budapest's largest church. Nearby, and certainly within strolling distance, is a serene outdoor park with modern infinity pools and lots of outdoor benches and steps and cafe tables where you can sit and bask in the sun, if you're lucky enough to enjoy nice weather in Budapest. We were, and there were countless open-air food sellers who lined this promenade-park, from traditional stalls hawking sausage with peppers, duck with purple cabbage, and all kinds of Hungarian sweet treats...to indie-style producers of organic jellies and vinegars, dips and things on sticks -- a little bit of Brooklyn in Pest.


A little further down the main boulevard from St. Stephen's and this open air mall, you wander into the Central Synagogue complex of Budapest, what is the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe, and among the largest in the world. The neo-Moorish Central Synagogue once served one of the most populous and dynamic Jewish populations of any city in the world. Inside, the soaring ceilings are hung with chandeliers that look like models of clusters of atoms, and a color theme of red and rich gold (both the yellow color and the gilded stuff) throughout. It's a very grand place, and you can imagine, while standing inside these walls, what it must have been like during shabbat services at the turn of the 20th Century.


The synagogue also has a small museum in an upstairs annex, and features various pieces of artwork to commemorate the Holocaust. The most interesting of these is the "Tree of Life" in the yard behind the synagogue, designed by Imre Varga in 1991. The tree stands over the mass graves of Holocaust victims from '44-'45, and the metal "leaves" on this tree are carefully inscribed with some of the names of the hundreds of thousands of victims.

The Dohány Street Synagogue (as it's also known) is the entree into the Jewish quarter of Budapest; like so many former Jewish ghettos of European cities, this nabe is now a trendy part of the city center boasting lots of bars and pastry shops, and restaurants both traditional and modern. In the "old school" category, you can get some great Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jewish food at Macesz Bistro. The usual suspects are there, including matzo ball soup, latkes, cholent (now that's old school!) and even hummus, as well as stick-to-your-ribs meat dishes, like leg of lamb on stewed chickpeas with paprika. They even feature light fish dishes (sea bass and the like), and to counter that, a very rich goose foie gras pate' with sun dried apricot. To satisfy a sweet tooth, you can stroll along in the Jewish quarter and stop in at any number of pastry shoppes for that central European tradition of an afternoon tea-and-cake break.

But what was the food scene like, I wondered, in a Central European capital whose glory days seemed to be behind it? As it turns out, it's a mash-up: one part Eastern European/Soviet communist nostalgia kitsch, one part former empire cafe' society; on the one hand, euro-modern, on the other, old school European. What does this all mean? Well, it means visitors have their choice. They can indulge in the comforts of babushka-made, stick-to-your-ribs goulash, duck, cabbage, and dumplings (available in restaurants and as street food, too). They can enjoy cutting-edge cuisine served with professionalism and expediency (though alas, this may be harder to find here than in most European countries). They can enjoy coffee, tea, cakes, and savory bites in grand cafes with all of the old world glory of this category of establishment. And, most particular to this part of the world, visitors can partake in ruin pubs and other Soviet-era spots that have been given new life via nostalgia

KOLOR, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch, was a funky restaurant-bistro hybrid that serves sandwiches and salads and classic dishes. Sadly, it's closed now, but the OG of ruin pubs, the first one to really open to success nearly 17 years ago, is Szimpla, now settled in the old Jewish quarter. They do the standard pub grub -- burgers, wings, salads -- plus classics like goulash. And the setting is unique. It's definitely a worthwhile venture to seek out a ruin pub at least once during a stay in Budapest, if for nothing else than the cultural relevance. The unique ambience is an added bonus.

Central Market Hall (Feny Utca) is a 19th Century covered market in the tradition of grand market halls of the past -- but it's a bustling scene nowadays as well.
You can get a hearty, casual lunch within the market, and shop for fruit and veg, meats and cheeses, sausages and pork products aplenty, and pastries and breads. The star products of Hungary, however, are its famous paprika (star ingredient of paprikash), and its Tokaji wines (known as Tocai in northern Italy). Beyond this organized market, there seem to be a preponderance of street fairs and markets all around the city, particularly on weekends, so probably finding them by happenstance is the way to go.












As for fine dining, we had some really nice experiences in Budapest. KIOSK is a funky restaurant and bar housed in a warehouse-like setting on the banks of the Danube, hard by the Elisabeth Bridge -- which looks amazing at night when it's dramatically lit and requires that you crane your neck to see it in full, looming large overhead.

Inside the space, there is a long central bar set with gorgeous, oversized floral arrangements that soar towards the super-high ceiling, and there's an upstairs level as well, in a loft-like layout. But the main dining room is at the center of the action, and the menu is a trip through updated plays on Hungarian standards. When we dined there, we enjoyed a smoked trout salad with mache and beetroot tartare, pictured here. Other "greatest hits" include chicken paprikash, roasted duck leg with red cabbage, and the fish dish I selected, which was a pike perch fillet with a barley salad and zingy green sauce. Lots of mushrooms, sunchokes, grains, and rich delicacies like foie gras pepper the menu offerings. We left full and satisfied.




Our "push the boat out" meal during our trip was at Aszú Étterem, an elegant space with arched ceilings and backlit glass walls with designs that look like amber and marble, plus detailed cut gilded wood dividers, and baroque-sputnik-style chandeliers. The design of the place, from the entrance to the bar to the bathrooms was just cool...as was the service, but in a very professional way. The wine list was amazing, offering wines exclusive to the restaurant itself. The somm recommended an interesting tokaj (their specialty, of course) for us to sample, and we were off! I began with a goose liver pate with grape jelly and must essence: simple and perfect. We also tried the beef tartare with black garlic, marinated onions, and fried crispy onions on top. Third on the starters was a wild mushroom veloute' with long-ripened cow's milk cheese, which was a big hit with my friend Jessica who can't get enough of pureed anything.


For our main courses, we selected the catch of the day, which was seared snapper fillet with a fennel-broccoli cream with apple.
We also ordered a very tasty, modernist, and sophisticated version of chicken paprikash.

And we indulged in a rich, gorgeous saddle of venison with a celery root puree, marinated mushrooms with a rich brown glace, and potato gnocchi fritters. Of course the presentation was impeccable throughout, and everything was full of flavor and tasted of the season, and of where we were in the world. It was a celebratory dinner well worth the price tag and experience. We felt well cared for, and that's ultimately the goal in fine dining. 



Our dessert choices were deservedly decadent and expertly executed, as we'd come to expect in a pastry-crazy city like Budapest. I'll simply insert the photos here and let your imagination run wild, as I didnt save a copy of the dessert menu, and so your guess is as good as mine as to what these dishes are, at this point!
I do know that this was our final evening in the Hungarian city, and that we went out with a bang. It was a pleasure heading back to our lovely apartment at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, to a good night's sleep and to the next leg of my trip, which was back to Rome. We'd finally made it to this lovely city on the Danube, and were able to experience a bit of what the old Austro-Hungarian empire must have been like...or at least, what it looked like. And we soaked in the culture and enjoyed some delicious central European fare all the while.


Corinthia Hotel Budapest
Erzsébet körút 43-49
Budapest H-1073
Tel: +36 1 479 4000
www.corinthia.com/en/hotels/budapest
budapest@corinthia.com


Macesz Bistro
Eastern European bistro in the Jewish quarter
26 DOB Street, 1072 Budapest
+36 1 787 6164
http://maceszbistro.hu

Szimpla
Kazinczy utca 7
Budapest 1075
+36 20 540 4891
http://szimpla.eu/
Ruin pub

KIOSK Budapest
1056 Budapest, Március 15. tér 4.
+36 70 311 19 69
http://kiosk-budapest.com/

Aszú Étterem

1051 Budapest, Sas utca 4
+36 1328.0360
+36 1328.0155
www.aszuetterem.hu

Feny Utca Market
Lövőház u. 12, 1024 Budapest
http://www.fenyutcaipiac.hu/
Open 6 am - 6 pm daily, closed Sunday