Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Currently suffering from case of miss-you-Fricska blues

Somehow, the Mister found Fricska Gastropub our first week in Budapest, shortly after we began to establish rules for choosing lunch spots, such as no red-checked tablecloths, no life-size figures out front with cut-outs to stick your head through for silly selfies and no tour groups in evidence. Our recommendation for Budapest: Skip the tourist traps and seek this place out.

Tucked into a basement, Fricksa is intimate in size and huge on service, yet far from stuffy. The kitchen takes whatever is fresh in the market to create its own style of nouvelle Hungarian cuisine. Rich sauces and flavorful soups might reflect classic French techniques. Freshly made pasta would make an Italian chef proud.

We never knew what the choices on the prix-fixe lunch menu would be, but we quickly trusted the kitchen so much we tried dishes I would never have considered ordering elsewhere. Three courses ran slightly over $9 and never left us thinking of eating anything at night.

First-course offerings might include a soup, a salad, duck liver cream or a fish rollade. The seafood soups were amazingly flavorful, and a wild garlic soup featured some of that sexy garlic that only used to be found in the Soviet ‘Stans (reference to a much earlier post). Main courses led us to enjoy salmon, cod and bream. We dined on chicken, chicken livers, rabbit and veal, often accompanied by sophisticated vegetable purees and potages. My favorite, possibly, was tender rare lamb atop a pea risotto; the Mister’s was the best venison he ever has tasted. The tortellini and shrimp were wonderful, and the gnocchi with four cheeses decidedly decadent. Desserts might be parsnip cream with apples and strawberries, cinnamon crème brulee, an apricot mousse or a dark chocolate ganache playfully paired with peanuts and blueberry jam.

We often returned hoping for a repeat of our most recent lunch there, but everyday was different. We never left disappointed.

And one of our favorite features making us feel at home? Often the music track playing at Fricksa was all blues.

Definitely still experiencing a severe case of the miss-you-Fricksa blues.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Volunteering to eat at E’Cucina Leopardi everyday

At home or traveling, we tend to latch onto certain places and return to them over and over again. E’ Cucina Leopardi was our go-to place in Bologna. Our lunches there were so good, when we dined elsewhere we often wondered what the chef had dreamed up for lunch at Leopardi. And, whenever we got our checks after lunch elsewhere, we wondered why we had not eaten at Leopardi yet again.

A little off the touristy beaten path, Leopardi had a waiting line most days. Not because there are only a few tables; it is a large, cheerful, funky place with an open kitchen. Locals love it.

Okay, part of its appeal is the 10-Euro three-course lunch, with three courses meaning appetizer, first course, dessert, wine, espresso, no tax and no tip expected. Yes, there are several more expensive options and dinner is more, but we never ventured past the all-inclusive one-price-fits-us.

We’re not sure how Chef Cesare Marretti makes his magic work at this price point, but the dishes are amazingly good. A major part of it must be the limited lunch menu allowing bulk purchases of fresh seasonal ingredients. But, when it comes to flavors, there are no shortcuts taken.

While waitstaff is friendly, bear in mind there are only a few servers handling many more tables than a waiter in the United States could imagine. They have no time to linger with extensive translations and lists of ingredients. For a tourist not speaking Italian, this can make ordering challenging. There are no written menus. No choices are needed for the appetizer, but the main course requires selecting something vegetarian, maybe a meat-sauced pasta or something from the sea. We rarely understood completely what we were ordering, but we were never disappointed when the mystery was revealed on a plate in front of us.

My favorite appetizer was a light carrot flan. One day, the kitchen was cracking open major wheels of aged parmesan and placing massive chunks of it on the first-course salad. Pastas were always perfect, but the kitchen truly shines in producing intensely flavored fish stews. Liberal use of wine and olive oil obviously plays a role, as seen in the video below. Regulars clearly favored the recurring offering of a small molten chocolate cake (somehow ending up camera-shy), but, as strawberries were in season, they also figured prominently in dessert offerings.

Surprisingly, given the crowds, customers are not rushed. Often they sit and chat long after their desserts and coffee are finished.

We almost felt as though we had stumbled upon some haute-cuisine government-subsidized food program. Not only were we contentedly wining and dining for under $11, we often emerged so stuffed we did not want even a salad for dinner at home that night. We found ourselves wondering, how can we afford not to live in Bologna?

Can’t imagine if Leopardi had not been part of our month in Bologna and am very happy we did not pick the month of August to stay there: Leopardi is closed for vacation until September 4.

Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Architectural excellence heightens flavorful experience

Somehow it seems like cheating. The food offered in a restaurant inside a former industrial structure sculpturally rehabilitated by an internationally acclaimed architect seems destined to taste good. And it does.

La Purificadora Hotel and Restaurant inhabit a former purified ice factory dating from 1884. Architect Ricardo Legoretta left industrial touches intact, playing with the interactions of light, open spaces, water, recycled wood, black and white punctuated with accents of “bishop purple.”

We enjoyed two meals at La Purificadora during our month-long stay in Puebla: one to see if it was special enough for my upcoming birthday celebration and again because it was. While not expensive at all by American standards, the tab can add up because the setting makes you want to linger from cocktails through dessert. Chef Enrique Olvera created a menu that balances the traditional heavy chile poblano with some almost-spa-like dishes.

The presentation of most plates is as artistic as the surroundings. My mouth takes great pleasure in amuse-bouche openers: a bright fresh caprese and a piece of seared chile-encrusted tuna among ours. Fried zucchini blossoms filled with goat cheese are not to be missed among the appetizers, but decadent nibbles can be offset by something refreshingly light, such as the fresh watercress salad with mango and watermelon.

The only dish that did not work for us was the combination of appetizers jumbled atop a plate too small to house them. All the elements taken individually are appealing, but not in such close company with one another. Piles of meat infringing on the space of seared ahi tuna is not neighborly, particularly with fried squash blossoms thrown atop the mound.

Grilled asparagus are wonderful as a side dish for the robalo (sea bass) or salmon. Instead of chicken smothered with an overdose of mole poblano prior to serving, a generous pitcher of the rich, nun-invented sauce is provided on the side, freeing up more than enough to share with a side of roasted vegetables.

 

 

How could you possibly save room for dessert? By ordering a luscious light palette of color, a raspberry and blueberry terrine with puffs of meringue and a scoop of coconut sorbet.

Yes, this all would be order-worthy in a lesser setting, but the surroundings contribute much to the pleasurable experience.

All this makes me hungry for even a casual café right here in San Antonio in the gallery space under the shimmering Dale Chihuly sculpture in our Legoretta-designed Central Library. Imagine, taking a break from research in Texana to pleasantly partake of something delicious, flavor-enhanced by inspiring architectural surroundings….

Of course, close to home as well, I still need to experience Chef John Brand-developed restaurants of San Antonio’s Hotel Emma, adapted by Roman and Williams and opened this past week at the former Pearl Brewery.

It’s a long way until my birthday, but maybe we need to do a test-run to see if it’s good enough for the next celebration.