When in Budapest, eat as the Parisians do

IN Warsaw, the duck restaurant is often out of duck. In Prague, fresh vegetables are almost impossible to find. Take this sausage or that sausage, advises the waiter. For the most part, dining out in Eastern Europe suffers from two fundamental problems: Lack of good products and lack of good cooks. Unless the visitor is willing to scrounge around hotels, he soon becomes desperate for a good meal.

Not so in Budapest.

Here, hundreds of high-quality restaurants compete for an increasing number of visitors. Nearly all are state owned, but more and more small places are cropping up -- places like the eight-table Vadrozsa (``Wild Rose''), a privately leased gastronomic haven in communist Hungary.

The Vadrozsa's elegant atmosphere, breezy garden, and flickering candlelight combine with a cuisine so stunning -- p^at'e de foie gras followed by wild boar with raspberries, or caviar followed by pheasant with cherries -- that you'd think you've stumbled on a gourmet restaurant in Paris.

And like the French, Hungarian chefs in places like the Vadrozsa have a rich cooking tradition to draw from.

Hungarian cuisine draws on a long culinary history, absorbing the best of Viennese, French, Slav, and Oriental traditions. Although foreigners recognize goulash, they probably identify it is as a type of beef stew. It is not. The proper gulyas is a soup filled with chunks of beef and slices of green pepper, white paprika tomatoes, onions, and special dumplings, all covered with a rich gravy. A great Hungarian meal starts with goose liver or caviar. Next comes either a variety of stews or, better yet, paprika chicken covered with sour cream or stuffed peppers. Don't forget the famous strudel at the end.

It wasn't always possible to find such delicacies. When manager Margo Vetter opened Vadrozsa 17 years ago in a villa in the Buda hills (Buda and Pest became one city in 1873), she says, eating out in Budapest was a disaster. ``Few visitors came then, and few Hungarians even would think of dining in a restaurant,'' she says. ``The few state-owned restaurants were no good.''

Food shortages and a lack of fresh produce turned off even the most eager chef. Mrs. Vetter recalls how she used to cry when shopping in local markets. ``It even was hard to get meat,'' she laments.

Then came agricultural reform, part of Hungary's ongoing economic reform. Now Vetter says she can buy all the meat she wants -- and better yet, it's of good quality. Stalls at the main Budapest market are overflowing with fresh paprika, pork, emerald melons, and carp.

Tourist promotion also helped improve standards. At the end of the 1970s, four fancy new modern hotels were built along the Danube. All boasted professional dining rooms which competed with the existing state-run restaurants. ``We have to be better than the hotels,'' explains Gabor Varga, manager of Szazeves, an exclusive, state-run restaurant in downtown Pest run by the Taverna Catering Company.

Better means introducing a gypsy orchestra to serenade diners over candlelight. It also means adding such exotic dishes as turtle soup, poached salmon, and saddle of rabbit. ``We used to just offer simple Hungarian dishes,'' Mr. Varga says. ``Now, the customers are more demanding.''

Privately-run restaurants are pushing standards higher. Although most start out as small, inexpen-sive snack bars -- when Vetter first took over the lease, she says, Vadrozsa was no more than a filthy coffee shop -- they improve and expand quickly. Managers are now free to set their own prices, hire more help, and introduce their own personal touches.

For Vetter, Paris provided the inspiration. She traveled to the French capital seven years ago, and on her return, decided that Budapest was ready for haute cuisine. In the dining room, she added chandeliers and soft piano music. In the kitchen, she began checking produce for freshness and revising the menu according to the market. She now shows diners the piece of meat they have ordered before it is cooked. ``I saw how a steak was served in Paris,'' she says, ``and I serve a steak that way.''

But the Vadrosza does not just copy. Its cuisine remains Hungarian, or more aptly, haute Hungarian. The foie gras is grilled and served in strips, Hungarian-style. Traditional stuffed meat pancakes are offered. And for dessert, there's strudel.

Fish remains a problem. Because Hungary is a landlocked country, Vetter says she can find no fresh ocean fish and must make due with pike from nearby Lake Balaton. ``You can't compare it with French fish,'' she admits.

Nonetheless, the result is a memorable meal. It is also a meal few native Hungarians can afford. A bill for caviar, pheasant, and strawberries runs around $20 a person. That may be a steal in the West, but it represents a third of the average monthly salary in Hungary.

These prices make Vadrozsa by far Budapest's most expensive restaurant. At top-flight state-restaurants such as Szazeves, the bill comes to only about $10 a person. And at other fine restaurants, a discriminating diner can eat for even less.

For this reason, most of the diners at Vadrozsa are foreigners. That clientele doesn't bother Vetter, who views her restaurant as a challenge to stereotypes about communism. She says proudly that a restaurant like hers exists nowhere else in the Soviet bloc.

``We don't compare ourselves with other communist countries,'' she says. ``Only with Paris.''

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