The defining figure of Californian cuisine, the legendary, innovative, Michelin-starred chef Wolfgang Puck, has recreated Spago, his famous Beverly Hills restaurant and epicentre of culinary and social life, in Budapest, his first such venture in Europe.
It took talent and perseverance but after a long, difficult journey, Wolfgang Puck made it from a simple Austrian family to the pinnacle of the gastronomic and social elite in Los Angeles. The fusion that is already characteristic of California cuisine – the influences of Asia, Europe and South America – is even more intertwined with Puck’s Austrian roots.
With this opening in Budapest, another twist involves the weaving in of Hungarian gastronomy. In a certain way, we can say that the Master has returned.
The restaurant opened in July on the ground floor and terrace of Matild Palace, transformed after significant investment into a grandiose hotel. Spago is at once elegant, stylish and casual, its focus not only on tourists alone. The concept of fine bistro underscores the kitchen, which means an open, fusion bistro approach led by István Szántó, former executive chef from Costes Downtown. High-quality raw ingredients are the key.
In addition to the iconic Californian signature dishes, distinct Hungarian cuisine makes an appearance, but there are also schnitzels and pizzas. A good example of this Hungarian inspiration is the baby beet salad (goats’ cheese, green apple purée, crisp sunflower seeds, HUF 2,900), in which the creaminess of the locally produced goats’ cheese, together with the earthiness of the raw beets, results in an amazingly fresh, zingy and balanced appetiser.
Goulash soup (HUF 3,400), which can often be bland and disappointing, could have been a risky venture, but at Spago, they rose to the challenge. Along with succulent beef cheek, thinly cut English celery, Szeged pepper seed oil and confit potatoes, each vegetable is cooked separately with the rich and creamy goulash juice. We may not make it like this at home, but here but the quality work put in can be felt and is worthy of celebration.
Seasonality is also symbolised by the signature dish of corn agnolotti (HUF 4,900), up until now made with green peas, the dough kneaded fresh every day and only farm-egg yolk used. A butter emulsion, parmesan, sage and chicken stock also come into play, the corn steamed with butter until crisp. It is light, rich and has a complex taste in its simplicity.
Everything so far was sensational but the main course dotted the i. The spicy, soy-like, Asian choice of steamed pike perch 'Hong Kong’ (HUF 9,500) is brought closer to home by the natural and not overplayed taste of the Hungarian fish. Also apparent are the stir-fried vegetables, steamed jasmine rice, shiitake mushrooms, pak choi, sugar pea shells, and spices including ginger, spring onions, coriander, homemade sweet soy sauce – plus a little secret extra.
The fish was not heated before steaming, so its meat melted in our mouths. Together with the soy sauce, the overall effect and the end result were simply fabulous, and worth a revisit alone.
A satisfying conclusion was provided by the chocolate soufflé, not the typical lava cake which the chocolate flows out from when cut as it has a mousse in the middle (a more creamy, foamy texture, not liquid). It comes with homemade vanilla ice cream, homemade whipped cream and Valrhona chocolate topping. Even those who don’t have a sweet tooth will find it irresistible.
The Spago approach
Spago does not represent typical fine dining, but rather a kind of sophisticated conformity focused on ingredients, diners and demand, because putting a square peg into a round hole never makes for a good dish.
There’s no dégustation, just a varied and high-quality offer for prospective regulars and tailored to them, from burgers to crispy pork knuckle. And all at an amazing location. Budapest’s gastronomic range has been expanded with a refreshing restaurant which perhaps fills a gap in the market, and which blends the already blurred boundaries of fine dining, fine bistro and bistro cuisine with innovative intent and honesty. Here, apart from the raw ingredients, it’s only the guest who really matters.