Lots of interesting things have happened in Budapest’s food scene as of late. Grandma-style classics and modest street food snacks have been reinvented and made trendy at new restaurants and gastropubs. “Locally sourced, sustainable and organic” is a thing. There’re food trucks, craft beer and foodie hashtags (like #mutimiteszel) to make sharing food finds easy. All that good stuff. One of the newest things I’ve discovered is the emergence of the New York style gourmet bagel. I followed a recommendation and ended up at Budapest Bägel on Baross Street, hungry at brunch hour.
It’s a small, grab-and-go type joint with a modest counter and a few benches arranged outside for those seeking to people-watch while enjoying their meal. Bagels are boiled and baked in house, ingredients are sourced (mostly) from local markets. The classics (smoked salmon, Parma ham) are supplemented with a short list of creative signatures, many of them involving exciting combinations of flavors and textures that make ya want to return to try them all.
And the bagels themselves? Good. The recipe comes, apparently, not from a kosher bakery in the Upper West Side but from Israel. They’re round, with a hole in the center and sprinkled with seeds, sure. And they are chewy but not quite as dense as I like them. And they’re for sure fluffier with less pull than the New York style bagel. The outer crumb is looser here, while the NY version tends to have a more elastic and firm coat that bakes to a golden brown and almost snaps when bitten into. These also come untoasted, which is fine for some of their sandwiches but maybe not as great for others, such as the classic lox with schmear that, in my opinion, really needs a crunch. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s not a bagel. It is. After all, it has most of the major characteristics. And who’s to say that the NY version is the yardstick to measure all bagels against? It’s just that these seems closer to the Hungarian breakfast roll zsemle than what I’m personally used to calling a bagel. One thing is for sure, though: the toppings are unlike anything I’ve ever had on a bagel. Onto my picks of the day…
Excess is the theme that comes to mind when I think back on my Duck Liver Pâté bagel. A thick wedge of fluffy, smooth mousse resting on a a schmear of tangy cream cheese, some slippery slices of smartly paired ripe pear and a bright salad of balsamic rubbed baby spinach stuffed between two halves of an untoasted poppyseed bagel. The mousse rubs the tongue like velvet; it’s impossibly soft and airy, melting in the mouth to leave only its mildly briny duck liver flavor. That mild brine goes perfectly with the squeaky clean flavors of cream cheese underneath, the zippy acidity of the balsamic and the sweetness of the pear. And then there’s the bright, yolky yellow duck fat that flows out from one side. It was an overwhelming hot July day in Budapest and the fat melted, making it a bit too intense in a sandwich already saturated with duck liver. I imagine if it stays solid the texture is just as enjoyable as the flavor. Perhaps if the bagel had been toasted, there would’ve been more of a crunch to stand up to the moisture and smoothness of the mousse, cheese and fat. Nevertheless, it’s a great sandwich if you’re hungry or a good one to share if you’re not.
Another fabulous pairing is smoked duck with a chutney of caramelized onion and fresh salad on top. The cool slices of duck come skin-on, adding a smooth, fatty layer to each bite. The slight smoke on the meat goes wonderfully with the natural dulzor of the brownish-blackish onions and the salad brings some freshness into the mix. While I found the topping choice creative and delicious, I do think this bagel could be improved with a layer of cream cheese on both sides of the bread to hydrate each bite more and serve as a barrier between the juicy meat and the thick dough of the bagel. The way it was it it felt a tad too dry on the palate.
I’ve always found the journey of the bagel to be an interesting culinary story. Jewish immigrants from Poland brought it to the U.S., where it received that good old American marketing treatment. It became popular, then mainstream and finally artisanal to bring it back from mediocrity as a hip “craft” item. Riding the wave of cultural exportation (along with other cool things like fair trade coffee and backyard herb gardens) the bagel made its way to countries willing to embrace foreign trends. And so the “gourmetified” version arrived to Hungary, ironically close to its place of supposed origin. Budapest Bägel fits nicely into the burgeoning eats scene, giving foodies exactly the kind of stuff they want: pâté, homemade spreads, quality cold cuts, lightly dressed microgreens. A great little lunch spot sure to be successful.