BABEL BUDAPEST – A MEAL WITH SOUL
Recently on a forum there was a long discussion on what constitutes cooking with a soul. I said that cooking with soul is intrinsically linked to a certain time, a certain space where the meal is happening, the exact whereabouts, the scenery, and the eye of the beholder, ie. what mood the eater is in. If everything is in place, then chances are that you are in for a wonderful experience.
Babel’s new soul lies in its new chef who hails from Transylvania, or Erdély as Hungarians call the territory that once belonged to Hungary and now is part of greater Romania. Transylvania is a place full of magical beings and myths like Dracula, which probably come from the wonders of nature, the tall mountains, enchanted lakes and forests that you find there. Chef István Veres produces these wonders without fail and links them to Transylvania, to local ingredients. Babel definitely has a soul and one that runs deep.
First up is three kinds of butter with onions, with pine and another salty version with the warmest crumbliest bread imaginable. It lies on a wooden slab, like it was cut from the pines in the forest and along with the pine flavoured butter transports you immediately to the place of elves and gnomes and woodland beings.
Then as we move along the tree and the branch we find the „fruit” which is a potato and sour cabbage ball with a bit of tomato powder on top. Sour cabbage is the staple of Hungarian and Transylvanian cuisine so seeing it in the form and shape is both appealing and interesting and thankfully different than the heavy cabbage dishes. The potato ball pops in your mouth and the sour fermented juices from the cabbage squirt out.
It’s wonderful that vegetables play such a central role in all of this, yet all made in a different, interesting, yet inviting and somehow familiar way. You feel like you’ve tasted these flavours before but in a different constellation, fashion and Babel now recreates them in a unique fashion. Like the broad green beans with a crystallized lemon granita on top and a sour cream. It’s tart, it’s rich from the cream, it tastes like a classic bean potage somewhere deep down. But it’s brilliant and simple.
More veggies including paper thin sheets of kohlrabi along with kohlrabi snow. Underneath are warm and hardly heated and treated scallops and some vivid green watercress sauce. The chef has all the flavours, textures and heat elements right. It ranges from ice cold snow to warm scallops and then from crunchy kohlrabi sheets to soft scallops. Everything has a role to play and created in a very intelligent way.
The next dish is a signature of sorts. One of the most traditional Hungarian dishes reimagined and recreated – the ultimate in comfort food. Egg noodles. This dish consists of hydrated eggs, a layer of eggs hiding a mound of delightfully light spatzle flavoured with truffle. On the side lies a sheet of ice cold crunchy iceberg lettuce. Once again all the flavours and textures are in place for a stunning dish.
The only meat dish of the night is a neck of lamb cooked until it falls apart - cooked with some local fresh cheese and a rich jus. Fresh cheese from cow, ewe, are all a staple in Transylvania, but the pairing with lamb is quite unique. The sharp cheese cuts through the richness of the lamb well.
Snow White arrives as the dessert: featuring an elderflower crunchy meringue, elderflower jelly, rhubarb pieces inside like a pavlova of sorts and tomato sprinkled on top. As with all dishes the plating is a work of art. Each dish is worked on until absolute perfection is reached, yet even though the menu changes quite frequently to change with seasons and ingredients.
Consistency is also achieved by the other chef, Gabor Langer who in my interpretation represents the steady hand that is needed to run such and artistic kitchen. While chef Veres commutes between his home of Transylvania looking for inspiration in the woods and forests and lakes and meadows, chef Langer provides the skill and the backdrop to recreate these dishes day after day in a consistent fashion.
Babel used to be my number one restaurant in town when István Pesti was at the helm. He too, cooked with soul and passion and created some of the most visually stunning plates in town. The two head chefs, Veres and Langer are worthy descendants or disciples of this cuisine that manages to pull of several very difficult things at once. Firstly, it is truly local or Hungarian but also manages to draw influence from Transylvania and therefore has some sort of emotional, romantic element to it. Next up the plating is gorgeous and texturally the dishes are fantastic. But mostly, it manages to tell a story, a story that includes signature ingredients and techniques found in local cuisine and finds true balance along the way. I’m happy to say Babel is still the best restaurant in town.
1052 Budapest, Piarista köz 2.