- 27 Feb 2019 7:35 AM
21 skips the typical Hungarian restaurant clichés, both in the cuisine and design, and delivers tasteful dishes lighter and healthier than the old-fashioned Magyar style of cooking.
The portion sizes do follow tradition and are on the generous side, which seemed to be appreciated by the many fellow satisfied dinners we saw while there, as we only noticed clean plates being collected by the friendly English speaking staff.
The waiters don’t wear hussar jackets here, and in fact all Hungarian restaurant design clichés have been avoided, as there are no typical checkered tablecloths nor a tacky Gypsy band. The relaxed lounge music here adds to the easy-going yet refined feeling that the stylish lighting and décor create.
The chefs work in a show kitchen and are proud to present unapologetically traditional Hungarian staples, such as Goulash soup and Chicken paprikash, along with regularly changing ‘Blackboard Specials’ .
At the time of our visit the specials included Hungarian potato soup with sour cream & pan-fried sausage, and a tempting and modern sounding Rib Eye Steak dish served with homemade fries and creamy aioli.
Slow-Roasted Piglet Knuckle with buttery potato purée & buttermilk green peas is an example of one of the other specials which takes Hungarian ingredients and elevates them into an uncomplicated yet memourable modern dining experience.
A quality Hungarian craft beer seemed like an appropriate accompaniment to our laid back selection process from the enticing menu. For each course we eventually decided to try one of the updated local favourites alongside a Blackboard Special.
When we ordered we took the opportunity to ask about the background of the house wines on show with 21 labels. The engaging conversation convinced us to try a few later, which is easy to do since they have a fair few interesting 21 branded varieties available by the glass.
As we made easy conversation with the waiter about the numerical name of the venue, located at Fortuna utca 21 in Buda’s charming Caste District , he suggested (or most probably we convinced ourselves into) beginning the meal like some locals do, with a shot of pálinka.
Fortune favours the brave as they say, and it was a lucky choice to try the 21 Pálinka Cuvee alongside a Plum Pálinka from the Árpád Prémium Range (HUF 2420), as the ‘házi pálinka’ matched up to the quality of the premier branded fire-water.
We continued to chat about this wording on the menu, "Egy ász és egy tizes az pont huszonegy", which the waiter said in English is something like "An ace with a ten card are exactly twenty-one", a winning score in Blackjack, a card game known as 21 in Hungary.
Having each got a Blackjack with the choice of local aperitif, our appetites were suitably stimulated in advance of our three course ‘Modern Magyar’ style evening meals. Well, three and a half courses actually as we had to sample a big red bowl of legendary Hungarian fish soup.
Given that a picture is worth oh so many words, here below is a visual to show each dish we enjoyed on our winning tasting journey at 21, starting with the Homemade Bread (and local spreads) prepared following 21’s own glorious recipe.
Classic Menu: Tokaj wine infused foie gras paté with freshly baked brioche (HUF 3420)
Blackboard Special: Crispy risotto dumplings
filled with slow-cooked beef (HUF 2980)
Classic Menu: Hungarian fish soup with homemade pasta (HUF 2480). Rather than following the Szeged style recipe the local fish soup here is made a la Baja with mainly carp with some catfish, served with local pasta called gyufatészta.
Classic Menu: Farm duckling breast, with pumpkin purée, beetroots & gratin potato (HUF 4680)
Blackboard Special: Rabbit thigh with carrot-mustard sauce & light bread dumplings (HUF 4860)
Classic Menu: Baked cheesecake with lime sorbet (HUF 1820)
21's Furmint is the house dry white we tasted and can highly recommend, the red we liked best was the outstanding 21 Bikavér, and the sweet wine of choice was the Tokaj Kései Szüret ’16 which paired perfectly with both our deserts.
Blackboard Special: Apple crumble with vanilla sauce & cinnamon ice cream (HUF2060).
To end we had to complete our meal with an Unicum (HUF 1540) each, taken rather than a coffee, of course for the medicinal properties of this unique herbal drink that works delightfully as a digestive following a fine Hungarian feast.
For good measure I washed that famous bitter down with a darker variety of local craft beer, as luck would have it from the good selection available at 21.
For the record, the main menu also includes light and tasty options such as Creamy parmesan risotto with roasted market mushrooms, Superfood salad with creamy goat cheese, beetroots and toasted walnuts, Crispy catfish fillet with lentil pottage and homemade sour cream.
The next three meaty dishes on offer all sound like fortunate choices for carnivores: Chicken supreme with fresh homemade tagliatelle and mushroom paprikash, Tenderloin piglet ragout with light garlic velouté, and Veal stew with creamy egg barley risotto.
Deserts we didn’t taste, but would like to try in future, range from a Somlói Sponge made 21 style (pictured above), to a Giant Chocolate Cake for couples.
Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, this place is a proven success. So I have the distinct feeling that whatever you choose, from either the classic or specials menu, you’ll be handed a winner by the waiters at 21.
Next time you have friends and family in town who want to try a local lunch, or when you fancy tasting Hungary at it's best on a date night, you're sure to get lucky at this charming venue serving authentic Hungarian dishes made with a delicious modern twist.
21 Restaurant - Hungarian Kitchen in Buda Castle
Open all year, every day from 12-24h.
1014 Budapest, Fortuna utca 21.
Tel.: +36 1 202 21 13
Words & photos by Russell Skidmore for XpatLoop.com
After an extensive career in advertising as an Art Director & Creative Director in London, Paris and Budapest for leading agencies, he transferred the skills and knowledge gained to his own photography company in Hungary. Visit his Facebook page here.