A few weeks back, on a somewhat rainy May morning, my mother, my sister-in-law and I took the drive down from Budapest to the Balaton to figure some things out for my upcoming nuptuals, and (more importantly) remind ourselves why all the logistics are, after all, worth it. On our densely-packed schedule for the day were hair and makeup trials, meetings with various providers and pop-ins at some of the hotels where our guests will be staying. To fill up on some much-needed fuel for the day, we decided to stop by the restaurant called Borbarátok, a recommendation from my wedding planner after our original choice turned out to be closed for low-season. So, we rolled slowly down the undulating slope of Mount Badacsony, and passed the center of Badacsonytomaj to get to this place, which doubles as an inn and winery, over 120 years old.
The restaurant and inn opened its doors in 1989, and are now operated by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Fata Istvan, originally a chimney-sweep (!!), who ended up founding the winery and being one of the pioneer winemakers of the Badacsony region. And with a name like Borbarátok (which literally translates to “friends of wine”), you better believe their wine list is extensive. The gorgeous dry whites of Balaton, graced with that touch of minerality from the volcanic soils in which they grow, are well represented here. There’s a Riesling (which was the founder’s favorite), but also Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris), Ottonel Muskotály (a dry Muscat), Olaszrizling (Welschriesling), and the wonderul Kéknyelű (a varietal only found in this small appellation of Badacsony, within the Balaton region of Hungary). Besides their own, they also feature the wines of other local producers, including Istvándy Pincészet, Elias Birtok, Laposa and Villa Sandahl. Borbarátok also produces a wide range of pálinka, a kind of must-try fruit brandy popular in Hungary. Their apple, apricot, plum pálinkák are aged in mulberry and elderberry barrels… and the list goes on.
The gastronomic side of things is just as exciting. The menu offers the must-have Hungarian classics (bécsi szelet, tyúkhúsleves), along with some inventive house creations (Hungarian steak tartare with paprika and smoked egg yolk, a Hungarian version of spaghetti carbonara). The food is polished yet authentic, without any forced and failed attempts to be “trendy” (no avocado toasts at the Balaton please…) The service is also surprisingly fast and genuinely friendly. And the food is served on a recycled paper placemat featuring a lovely map of the region, providing a talking point even before the wine arrives…
With the wide choice of delicious soups at Borbarátok, it’s impossible not to order one. And for my mom and I on this day, as on any other day spent Balaton-side, it had to be halászlé, a traditional Hungarian fisherman’s soup made with either carp or catfish (this one is with catfish) and plenty of paprika. While the cup version is a possibility for those testing new waters, we confidently ordered a cauldron-full, perfect for two to share. There are few things I love in this world more than a bowl of halászlé on a hot summer day. And this version was on-the-money correct. It was seasoned perfectly, with the slightly spicy, but mostly smoky, kick from the paprika, perfectly balanced with the freshwater brine of the muddy lake fish that we know and love. We were especially impressed by the fish itself, which came nicely sliced into meaty, tender filets rather than the amorphous chunks you get with most versions of halászlé. The broth was also the perfect consistency, not watery or too greasy at all, with just the right touch of texture from the bits of fish that thicken it. A proper halászlé.
My sister-in-law Marika ordered the braised beef cheek with a side of specli (a kind of spaetzle-type pasta), fresh peas and morel mushrooms in a reduced Cabernet wine jus. The meat was tremendously tender and juicy, having soaked up the flavors of the wine in which it was slowly cooked. This went perfectly with the slightly doughy, pillow-soft specli and fresh, tight little peas. The gummy little morels also added a fantastic layer of earthy, umami flavor to the mix. A great dish with plenty of flavor.
My mom and I shared a lamb pörkölt, a classic Hungarian preparation with paprika, onion and kápia pepper. The meat was served with a side of nudli, dusted with crunchy bits of hazelnut, and another generous dose of morel mushrooms. This dish stayed with me for a while. In fact, 2 months later I still remember every taste and texture. That smoky, slightly sweet flavor of the toasted paprika, that caramelized, nutty thing from the onions mixed in, that gamey, almost mineral flavor of the lamb… It all went so beautifully together. The nudli were great too, a potato-and-egg creation similar to gnocchi with a similar texture. They were heavenly smooth and very light, with a sexy line of crispy char from when they were sauteed just before serving. The toasted hazelnut bits added a perfect crunchy texture to contrast against the soft nudli, while the morels contributed an extra layer of indulgence.
And finally, a classic Hungarian thing consumed as a main dish or dessert, but which I definitely prefer as a dessert. Túrógombóc is a kind of cheese curd dumpling, usually boiled in water and then rolled in toasted bread crumbs. It’s traditionally served with a dollop of tejföl (sour cream, closer to the French fromage blanc) and sprinkled with a generous dose of powdered sugar. In this slightly deconstructed and lighter version, the dumplings came sprinkled with a bit of toasted crumb instead of being rolled in it. The dumplings themselves were as close to perfection as dumplings can be. The cheese curds inside made them ever-so-slightly grainy, very moist and slippery-super smooth from the egg holding them together. The taste was a bit like a very mild cheesecake, flavored with plenty of fresh lemon. The dumplings were dressed up with a few dollops of fresh whipped cream and some ripe strawberries. An absolute must-have dessert, perfect for the summertime.