Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The true adventures of a lost evening: a night at Baraka

Image courtesy of Budapest Times

It was to be the start of something exciting, something promising, something adventurous and new - can you hear the Love Boat theme there? Those really were my true thoughts and good intentions as I headed out for my first night of fine dining in Budapest.

But remind me again, what is it that they say about good intentions?

Sometimes I worry that A Hungry Man Travels may have the potential to turn into A Hungry Man Moans - and not with pleasure. But I made a promise to myself, that the blog will continue to accurately reflect my thoughts and feelings, and you can choose to read or ignore, but it's my words and I stand by them.

With that said, on with the show!

It began with a walk on Váci utca (pronounced 'vah'- 'see' and 'ewwt'- 'kah', utca is street in Hungarian), a popular and busy shopping street in Budapest. Christmastime on Váci, particularly at night, becomes extremely, overwhelmingly popular, so navigating your way through all the people is akin to playing Frogger. When my partner and I finally arrived at Baraka, we were slightly flustered and a bit sweaty, but were warmly greeted by the front staff and manager. We were then directed towards the back of the restaurant where the main dining room was located - a stunningly beautiful room in its simplicity and elegance. Some of the diners get to face an open kitchen where they can watch the chef and cooks work on their meal. I've always been of two minds with open kitchens as I do with open concepts in homes, I understand the appeal but it has really become overly commonplace and annoyingly popular. Sometimes I just don't want to know what's happening back there. There is something to be said for separation and surprises, you know what I mean?

It's at this point we begin "The Real Adventures of a Lost Evening".

Once seated, my partner and I were greeted by Leonora, the floor manager and co-owner of the restaurant. She patiently explained the menu and the dining concept for the evening, in which the theme was 'chaos'. All the elements on the plate represented a form of chaos that would eventually tie the start of the meal together with the end in a chaotic fashion. Ok then. After some slight confusion over our reservation (apparently we weren’t in the system), we were presented with menus by an attentive waiter and maitre'd. We decided to chose the six course tasting menu with wine pairings.

Now I should mention that Baraka is a fusion restaurant where Chef has taken French cuisine and partnered it with Asian , specifically Japanese, flavours. I absolutely love, almost worship French cuisine. I intensively studied it in cooking school and it is my go to choice for cuisine whenever and wherever I can find it. I was prepared that there would be potential hybrids of classic French dishes at Baraka, and as this was my birthday dinner and the restaurant was chosen by my partner, I purposely decided not to do any additional research about the place. This was his surprise and I was happy that he took into account my obsession with French food for our night out. My expectations were a bit high admittedly, and I could not wait to eat.

My heart sank immediately the moment I opened the menu and noticed that with the tasting menu came an Asian-inspired soup - with shrimp, along with various other seafood dishes including lobster. This for me presents the difficulty of Asian fusion cooking with other international cuisines. Asian cooking often incorporates a great deal of seafood flavours, and thanks to a recently developed seafood allergy, a real blow to a self-confessed foodie, I can no longer partake in any dish with shellfish. After seeing and reading about the soup and its description - and it looked to me to be a rather tasty dish, I could feel the rumblings of discontent begin and it wasn't from hunger.

As part of the six course tasting menu, you have the choice of ordering three starters, a main and a dessert with a cheese plate accompanying the meal. Now before you think the starters are of North American proportions, be forewarned that the dishes are amuse bouche (meaning small) portions. I do not have a problem with that - in fact, I prefer it when it comes to four or more course meals as long as the dishes are absolutely bursting with intense flavour. I chose mostly meat-based starters and not the soup because of the seafood. Now to be absolutely fair to the restaurant, they were willing to provide a vegetarian substitute of the soup, but for me that’s akin to getting less than half of a dish - by taking out the actual seafood element of a seafood flavoured soup, it's missing the point entirely of that dish. I opted out of that and instead chose a rabbit dish, a foie gras dish and a steak and scallop dish. All dishes would be accompanied by local and international wines.

As I have mentioned before, this is a fusion restaurant that experiments with and attempts to marry French and Asian cuisines together for, again, what was promoted as a ‘chaotic’ mix of flavours. The first pre course amuse bouche arrived, and it was an interesting concept. Food placed inside of a fish bowl. There were pieces of chocolate and cheese, all artfully arranged on a pile of dirt. You didn't eat the dirt but I definitely loved the cheese. Not a bad start, but then came the starters.

What I found - after I had finished the last of my three starters, was a confusing rather than chaotic mess of flavours that did not at all make me appreciate the fusion. I was really concerned after being disappointed with the third starter, which was a steak and scallop dish, that something was wrong with my mouth. I was seriously questioning whether my taste buds were compromised after having a cough drop two and a half hours earlier. But it wasn’t that - I just wasn’t enjoying the flavours of any of the dishes. Of three starters, the only one that did stood out was the rabbit terrine, and for entirely the wrong reasons. The rabbit on its own was beautifully prepared and Chef had married it with a wasabi ice. I absolutely did not enjoy the two components together. The ice was jarring compared with the soft warmth of the terrine, and when paired with the wine it just tasted bitter in my mouth.

The wines that were paired with the starters were a completely different story. Wines ranged from a fabulous sauvignon blanc from New Zealand paired with the steak and scallop starter, to a local Hungarian Tokija wine paired with the foie gras, all were expertly and enthusiastically explained to us by the wait staff and sommelier as we had our starters. I made sure to get the names of all the wines that were paired with the meal.

Back to the food. The main course arrived and my dinner featured a beautifully prepared Hungarian deer with a dark soy sweetened sauce. The plate looked stunning but once again, it felt like my taste buds were failing me somehow. I found the sauce that accompanied the perfectly cooked but bland meat was just too metallic tasting for my liking. I honestly thought at this point in the evening that I was going insane. I was asking myself what the hell is happening here? Why is this dinner going pear shaped? Is it me? My partner was absolutely raving about his individual dishes and I’m counting the minutes until we can leave. This can't be it, can it?

But then the redeeming dish came out, in the form of a cheese plate. It was a truly fantastic mix of goat cheese (as an ice cream!), blue cheese in the shape of a mushroom as well as a creamy Brie all of which were supremely and utterly fantastic. There it is , I thought, this is the dish that made my dead taste buds finally came alive and jumped for joy. But here's the thing. I know why I liked it so much - because I could FINALLY taste the complexity of pure French cooking without it being waylaid or overwhelmed by additional Asian flavours, a sad and disappointing discovery I thought.

The chocolate dessert was another big hit. I love desserts and always try to save room for it whenever I dine out. As the meal wasn't overly filling, I was eagerly looking forward to the chocolate delights that were to come my way and I wasn't disappointed. Creamy, semi sweet dark chocolate dessert that harkened back to the amuse bouche we received at the start of the meal was a pleasant and very tasty surprise in my mouth. Now do you see the overall theme of the dining experience coming through there?

As the dinner came to a close, over coffee my partner and I were discussing the food and he mentioned that maybe the reason I wasn't enjoying the meal was because I prefer a traditionalist approach when it comes to French cooking. It was a fair argument to make, but the truth is I love adventurous cooking, in any style. In fact, I recall when I was in Ha Noi, Vietnam, I found this fabulous Vietnamese /French fusion restaurant which was truly one of the most remarkable meals I ever had. It was ‘real’ fusion that I found actually worked beautifully with French cuisine. But what I despise with some fusion cooking, is that it can often feel like a fight for flavour dominance with certain dishes.

The food adventure was over and I surveyed the state of the evening. The service was absolutely incredible, the staff took their time with us and were nothing but warm and professional. Still, I hadn’t felt this badly after eating in what is considered one of the top dining establishments in the city, in a very, very long time. I left the restaurant thinking was I out of my culinary comfort zone going there? Should I be furious that a considerable amount of money was paid for a meal that I barely enjoyed? No, what I thought was that I can chalk it up to just having a seriously off night, but more importantly, accepting that it was simply a case of just not enjoying what I had eaten and knowing that there is no shame in admitting that it sadly did not appeal to me.

I wrote this review in the afternoon on Sunday, December 9th. Tonight, I’ll be dining at another Budapest restaurant called Chess, and hopefully there will be some true gastronomic retribution awaiting me!

Update: December 11 - There wasn’t, it was bafflingly awful too. Not writing a review about that but will say that despite the food, the service was absolutely wonderful!

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