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Strictly From Hungary

April 01, 1993|COLMAN ANDREWS

In 1910, Karoly Gundel bought a run-down restaurant near the Budapest Zoo and turned it into one of the grandest restaurants in Europe. Everybody went there. Joseph Wechsberg, author of "Blue Trout and Black Truffles," wrote that Gundel "did for Hungarian cuisine what Careme and Escoffier did for French. He created the modern renaissance of Hungarian cooking by raising it to the level of elegant, fine cuisine--making it lighter, yet retaining the characteristic elements of folklore."

The guestbook, wrote Wechsberg, seemed to bear the names of "every tourist, painter, banker, singer, diplomat, king, ex-king, musician, politician, and fellow restaurateur on the Continent, and many from elsewhere." The restaurant survived "two world wars (though it served briefly as a Wehrmacht stable during the latter), two inflations, two occupations, two revolutions and one counterrevolution." In 1949, however, Gundel's luck ran out: He was exiled, the restaurant was nationalized by the Communist regime and its management turned over to a state corporation.

Surprisingly, although it was hardly up to its old standards, Gundel continued to flourish. It was still probably the best restaurant in Hungary (though that wasn't necessarily saying much at the time), and at least one former employee remembers it in the 1960s as having been "a beautiful place, the site of many parties, and a very fashionable place for Hungarian families to have lunch on the weekends." In 1972, though, the government managers closed it down, supposedly for renovations. It did not reopen until 1980--in a stripped-down, clumsily "modernized" form.

I dined at Gundel for the first time in 1989. I sat on the once-glamorous terrace (now decorated with Camel cigarette umbrellas and plastic latticework dividers) and had cold strawberry soup, which tasted like frozen strawberries put through the blender with slightly sour skim milk, and the restaurant's famous preparation of fogas (in principle a delicate but flavorful freshwater fish found in the Danube and in Lake Balaton)--which turned out to be a hunk of unidentifiable frozen protein in a spongy batter, topped with frozen peas and a so-called cream sauce whose texture suggested a blend of library paste and canned applesauce.

The next time I dined at Gundel, last year, I had a table in a beautiful, freshly redesigned 3,500-square-foot dining room, paneled in glossy fruitwood, with deep-blue upholstery on the huge and comfortable chairs and crisp linen on the tables. To eat, I had wonderful fresh carp in aspic with exquisite little fogas dumplings, a superb "rich man's purse" of strudel dough stuffed with ground chicken in paprika sauce and a delicious "tycoon's gulyas"-- cubes of beef tenderloin in a sauce flavored with garlic, paprika and caraway seeds.

Clearly, something had happened between my visits. In 1991, businessman (and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria) Ronald S. Lauder, son of Budapest-born cosmetics queen Estee Lauder, decided to work on a restaurant or hotel project in Eastern Europe. He went to George Lang, author of the classic "Cuisine of Hungary," and asked him to collaborate on the project. Lang, who was born Lang Gyorgy in a town southwest of Budapest in 1924, is a restaurant consultant who has dreamed up, launched and remade literally hundreds of establishments on four or five continents. (He is also the longtime proprietor of New York's Cafe des Artistes.) It took Lauder and Lang an estimated $18 million to buy the property from the Hungarian government and to remake it. Adam Tihany designed the dining room, Milton Glaser did the graphics, Imre Roth made architectural adjustments. The make-over was accomplished in an astonishingly short time: Closed in Nov. 1991, Gundel reopened in May of last year.

Lang hired Hungary's only celebrity chef, Kalman Kalla, to run the Gundel kitchens. Kalla was chef at Budapest's Forum Hotel for seven years, during which time he almost single-handedly introduced contemporary European cooking to the city. From there, he went to Washington, as chef for the Hungarian Embassy--which, it is said, he turned into something of a culinary hot spot.

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