“No?” our server let out with a whimper, her eyebrows stitched. It sounded like the response of a kid after telling them they wouldn’t, in fact, be going to Disneyland after all. “But… why?” she frowned.
Jonny and I stared up at her from our table at Tanti, just as shocked by her confusion as she was by our denial. I guess it’s not every day guests pass on wine in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“We’re just really hung over,” I blurted. It was true. Though we were on a food and schnapps fueled “research” expedition through Europe, our B-sides tour involved seeking karaoke in every city we visited (as if schnapps tasting wasn’t enough of an impetus to overdrink). Karaoke had an uncanny ability to make even the foreign seem familiar; the strangeness of travel and barriers between languages were always alleviated on karaoke nights. This was our third day in Budapest, and the find of the previous night proved to be the best yet.
Our host Beni had recently moved to the city from Germany to study medicine, and while he wasn’t yet too familiar with hip underground there, he knew one thing for sure – each Thursday night, every German college student in a ten mile radius swarmed to the subterranean labyrinth of a local bar to take advantage of the two-for-one Heinekens, the sweaty dance party, and the karaoke.
We arrived at the club around ten at night, unfashionably early by European standards. Descending the stone staircase, we snaked our way through the narrow corridors, using the muted thump of the bass to locate the belly of the bar. The L-shaped room was already packed full of dancing silhouettes. Carrying two to four Heine’s per person, we pushed through the sticky throng to the adjacent room where karaoke was promised. We took a seat at an abandoned table but for a dozen empty green bottles.
“Well, you gonna sing tonight Jonny?” I inquired, skeptically eyeing the scene.
The karaoke party began where the dance party ended, at the crook of the room. This resulted in a barely audible soundtrack against an overwhelming backdrop of strobe lights and nts nts nts echoing from the space beyond. The singers, if you could spot them, were in the doorframe separating the parties, swallowed by the traffic of drunken college kids and annoyed servers.
“Nah,” he shrugged. It looked like more energy than it was worth.
As we were admitting our defeat, a group of about ten guys entered the room, each wearing matching black turtlenecks tucked into tight pants, with thick black-rimmed glasses dwarfing their faces and slicked back hair accentuating their foreheads. Lacking both tempo and pitch, they stormed the karaoke floor with the vigor of men completely devoid of ego (or, perhaps, completely influenced by two-for-one Heinekens). Their rendition of John Denver’s Country Roads renewed our faith in the power of karaoke. Perhaps we had found our alter after all.
When the song ended, Jonny approached their table. He sat down, introduced himself, and asked, “So, what’s with the turtlenecks?”.
Without missing a beat, one guy turned and, in a thick German accent, responded with, “Where’s your turtleneck? You’re slipping, bro!”
For the rest of the night, we played a game with the turtleneck guys called, Who Can Buy Each Other The Most Rounds. (Everybody won, and subsequently, everybody lost.) Needless to say, Jonny and I quickly broke the karaoke seal; even Beni – who “never” sings karaoke – got up there for Don’t Stop Believing. As the dance crowd thinned and quieted, our karaoke presence became all encompassing. I’ve never sung so much in my life.
Our final song was Time of My Life, a duet from Dirty Dancing. When the sax solo eventually kicked in I backed up to the wall, bent my knees, and sprinted towards Jonny who was sitting high on his knees with his arms outstretched towards me, anticipating that iconic lift. Turns out all of that practicing that Baby and Johnny do in the movie wasn’t for nothing…
And now sixteen hours later, here we were dining in one of the fanciest restaurant Buda had to offer. We were soaking wet due to the two-hour walk through the rain to get there, inflicted with a serious case of the hangover giggles, and had just offended our server because we denied alcohol.
“Well, okay, maybe a little champagne,” I let out, surrendering.
Over the next four hours, we dined on eight courses, each more impressive than the next. The food was incredible, the plating inspiring, the service impeccable, but the most enjoyable part of all was the equally-hungover company.
roasted romanesco and pickled cauliflower with blanched purple broccolini and arugula, on top of a caramelized onion cauliflower purée
This dish was inspired by my second course at the restaurant, Tanti. Due to the multiple steps and unique ingredients of this dish, I don’t expect anyone to fully recreate this to a tee. But, if you are faced with a rainy day, a killer farmer’s market and an abundance of ambition, all of the steps are listed below. At the very least, my hope is that you get inspired to use a few of these elements and create a Budapest-inspired brassica dish of your own.
(Musically) pairs well with The Dirty Dancing Soundtrack, because why not
2 cups caramelized onion and cauliflower purée (recipe follows)
2 cups quick pickled and roasted cauliflower (recipe follows)
2 cups roasted romanesco (recipe follows)
2 cups blanched broccolini and arugula raab (recipe follows)
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup rehydrated sultanas
Spread 1/2 cup of purée onto four warmed plates. Divide remaining ingredients and arrange artfully atop purée. Garnish with salt and serve immediately.
Caramelized Onion and Cauliflower Purée
Yield: About 4 cups
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped into 1/4 inch half-moons
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
1 head cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for brushing
1 1/4 cup vegetable broth
To caramelize onions:
Heat a medium sized skillet (anything but non-stick) over medium heat. Add butter and melt until it just begins to bubble. Toss in onions and salt and stir to coat. Turn heat down to medium-low. Now here comes the tricky part. Garner all of the patience you can muster and resist the temptation to stir your onions. Wait until you cannot wait any longer. Then wait just a little bit longer. If you cave in and stir them and they slide easily across the pan, translucent and monocolored, you have failed at patience (for the record, I failed three times this time around).
Use your eyes and your ears – when you can see browning around the edges of the onions and hear a sound akin to pop rocks (loud, sharp cracks), you know those suckers are getting caramelized (usually around the 30 minute mark, or sooner if your heat is higher). Give the onions a good stir, being sure to scrape up all of the brown bits, and continue cooking another 15 minutes or so, stirring more regularly (once every few minutes). Add the nutmeg, stir and cook for a minute to toast the spice. Add the vermouth to deglaze the pan, stir, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Your onions should be a deep golden brown in color and sweet and salty in flavor when finished.
To roast cauliflower:
Preheat the oven to 400. Toss the cauliflower with oil and sea salt. Brush a parchment lined baking sheet with a little oil, and spread out the cauliflower out, being sure to maximize the space in between florets for deeper caramelization. Roast for about 20 minutes, until one side is dark brown.
To make puree:
Combine onions, cauliflower, and broth in a blender and blend on high until very smooth, at least five minutes. Check for salt, and add more liquid if you foresee wanting a thinner puree. Pass through a fine mesh strainer if you want it as smooth as can be.
Quick Pickled and Roasted Cauliflower
Yield: 2 cups
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: about 35 minutes
1 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
1 pod star anise
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
1/4 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
2 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into medium sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 400.
Bring all ingredients except cauliflower to a boil in a sauce pot. Dump in the cauliflower, cut the heat, and cover with a lid. Let steep for at least 20 minutes, up to an hour. If your cauliflower aren’t completely submerged, give the pot a stir every 10 minutes or so. Drain cauliflower, drizzle with olive oil, and spread out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Roast in oven for about 15 minutes until tender and nicely caramelized on one side.
Yield: 2 cups
Cook time: 20 minutes
1/2 head romanesco, cut into medium sized florets
2 tablespoons olive oil + more for brushing
Preheat the oven to 400. Toss the romanesco with oil and sea salt. Brush a parchment lined baking sheet with a little oil, and spread the romanesco out, being sure to maximize the space in between florets for deeper caramelization. Roast for about 20 minutes, until one side is dark brown.
Blanched Broccolini and Arugula Raab
Yield: 2 cups
Cook time: 1 minute
1 bunch broccolini, stems trimmed
1 cup of arugula raab, cut into 4” pieces
Heat a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Drop in broccolini and cook for 30 seconds. Add arugula raab and cook an additional 30 seconds. Drain and spread out on a large baking sheet to cool.