The romance and cuisine of the Austro-Hungarian empire are still alive and doing beautifully at the Cafe Budapest, a restaurant where perfection pervades and the cosmopolitan ambiance is expressed in fresh flowers, crisp linens, dark oak and antique hand-paneled folklore designs.
The old-world flavor with a touch of the new adds up to the best of both worlds here where you are as likely to hear the sophisticated strains of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" as the lively tempos of Franz Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies.
After meeting the owner, Mrs. Edith Ban, it is easy to understand why this is the way it would be.
Mrs. Ban grew up in her native Hungary with the vitality and love of life that give Hungarians a special quality. As she whirled into her office, tall and slender in a white sharkskin pantsuit, her dark hair drawn back into a chignon at the nape of her neck, everything seemed to come alive.
Food and cooking are integral to the lives of Hungarians, she explained. Her parents, professional photographers, instilled in their children the importance of good food and a good education. But Mrs. Ban's education was interrupted after only a year at medical school in Prague. Edith Ban was born Edith Rosenblatt. Auschwitz and Dachau came next.
"When I think back," she said, "I can't believe it. No film or printed word has ever been able to convey anything of what it was really like. It's impossible to describe." She and her sister with their 60-year-old mother survived the year spent there. What followed seems like a fairy tale.
One day in 1958, two years after the Hungarian uprising, they were recognized on the street by a man from the American embassy who had known her husband.
Soon after, with nothing more than what they were wearing, "carrying one coat and a book" the three women closed the door of their home and their past and migrated to America.
After three months in New York, Mrs. Ban moved to Boston and worked as a medical technician until an opportunity came to open a restaurant near her place of work.
Although she knew nothing about the restaurant business, she had her own ideas about food and the way it should be prepared. With her mother's help she opened the Cafe Budapest, soon expanding and moving downtown to the present location.
At first there were only three people, including herself and her mother, working around the clock. There are now 70 people on her payroll.
Fortunately food became fashionable. As Mrs. Ban pointed out, American eating habits have changed these past 20 years.There was a time when Americans were steak and lobster people. No more. They have become interested in gourmet food -- in different types of food.
When the restaurant first opened at the present location they could seat 70 people. They can now have 180 people at one sitting.
"Americans may not know much about Hungarian cooking," Mrs. Ban said, "but try giving them something that isn't just right and they'll know it. They won't eat it."
"The most important things about a restaurant are the atmosphere and service, the quality of food, and cleanliness.
"I'm a difficult person to work for. I am also a tough customer. When I buy , I'm interested only in quality. I don't care about the price. I buy only top-quality food."
Mrs. Ban doesn't believe in serving large portions. "We serve small portions but the food is good. When plates come back with food on them I find out, immediately, what is wrong. I circulate during dinner. I walk around so that I'm able to see a plate that isn't right."
"Perfection is the goal in all we do. Nothing comes out of the kitchen that i can't do myself," she said.
Some Hungarian dishes cannot be cooked in a hurry but must be stewed or braised with low heat until the flavors are properly blended. She spoke of the care needed in sauteing unions, a crucial area in Hungarian cooking. They must be just the right color and flavor for Hungarian food.
Mrs. Ban also works in the kitchen making the sauces and soups. "When you really work in the kitchen you see things differently than when you just walk through." Mrs. Ban told me that she teaches the cooks herself and she also trains the waiters.
"The truth about people" she continued, is that they are capable of more than they do. I love to help people discover that about themselves."
A favorite Hungarian ingredient is rich, sour cream. Used in soups, sauces, and stews, it is often placed on the table for additional servings. Hungarian soups are often a main course by themselves with the most famous, gulyas, or goulash, as it is called in the United States. Cabbage dishes, especially stuffed cabbage are a staple on Hungarian dinner tables.
Hungarian strudel, the famous flaky pastry filled with either apples or sour cherries, is one of many fabulous Hungarian desserts. I can remember my grandmother rolling out dough on a huge dining room table over a cloth covered with flour, pulling the dough on the backs of her hands until it became paper thin and stretched over the table, while I watched with fascination.
Mrs. Ban grows her own basil and has a complete stock of culinary herbs. One of the fundamental ingredients used to bring out the flavor in many Hungarian dishes is paprika. A favorite is Chicken Paprikas. Mrs. Ban gave the the following recipe, a good one to start with in buildinga repertoire. Chicken Paprikas 2 chickens, approximately 1 1/2 lbs. each, cut into eights -- 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 pieces of breast from each 1 cup of chicken fat 2 medium onions, minced 2 cloves of garlic, crushed 4 cubes of chicken base 2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika 1/2 teaspoon Italian crushed hot red pepper 1 pint sour cream 1/2 pint medium cream 3 tablespoons flour 2 green peppers, sliced 2 tomatoes, peeled, diced Salt, to taste
In a big heavy pot, saute onion in fat over high heat until transparent and straw-colored. Lower heat, add crushed garlic, sliced pepper, diced tomatoes and salt. Saute until pepper is soft and golden. Add chicken pieces and saute only until chicken has softened, but not cooked through.
Add paprika, crushed red pepper, chicken base and enough water to cover -- about a pint, depending on size of pot. Simmer on very slow fire until chicken is done. When pierced with fork, natural juices will run white, show no traces of yellow. Remove chicken from sauce.
Using sour cream, medium cream, and flour, make a cold roux. Mix it into a smooth paste using a wire whip. A roux is a paste made with flour and butter, or flour and cream used as a thickening agent.
When smooth, fold the roux into sauce. Raise heat and bring sauce to a boil; allow to boil for one minute, stirring all the while. It will get heavy. Taste for salt, correct seasonings as needed.
Pour through a sieve, add chicken and keep warm until served. Serve with noodles.
The Cafe Budapest is open seven days a week and the menu includes Mixed Grill a la Hongroise, a full course dinner for two, at $46. For those not quite as adventurous in their eating habits, there is a splendid Chateaubriand at $17 per person and there are many other Continental and Hungarian dishes.