ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Huzzah for the Hussar!

'There's nothing new under the sun', goes the appropriately old phrase, and it oh-so-often rings true. Except when it doesn't, obviously.

But, for grumpy, prematurely-old fogeys such as I, it frequently seems like that which is new is no fucking good, and that which is any fucking good is stuff with which I am already familiar.

Music these days? Shit. TV these days? Shit. Films these days? Shit with Ben Shitting Affleck acting all shit.

OK, so I'm exaggerating just a tad. Some stuff which is technically new, though not necessarily widely promoted, is actually pretty good. Look hard enough and you'll find decent music and films and everything else made very recently indeed. And some things - like beer - are probably better and more exciting now than they've ever been. New beers are good, they're fucking, shitting good!

But my point is that, if you often struggle to see the merit in the latest stuff and are baffled by the faddishness around it, there is another path to tread which is a bit more interesting than just sticking with what you know and never expanding your horizons...



Ancient Wisdom?


And it is, quite simply, discovering things which may have actually been around for a long time but which are new to you. This great world of ours has centuries of culture behind it - there's bound to be something out there that you'll like, which you didn't already know about, and which wasn't discovered live on television by Simon Cowell yesterday evening.

For example, I recently discovered the rather innovative and experimental music of Home Service, a fairly obscure but respected mid-1980s folk-rock-brass band fusion outfit (who coincidentally reformed a couple of years ago). In particular, their album Alright Jack is an almost flawless recording and I'd have listened to it 25 years ago, if only I'd known about it.

It's not new, but yet it is newer to me than most of the identikit rubbish that will emerge from recording studios this year. And if you've never heard it before it might as well be new.

Likewise, for more than a decade I completely dismissed Family Guy as a poor man's Simpsons and never attempted to watch it. Over the last few months I've realised that while some of the gags can be hit and miss, there are some moments of absolute insane brilliance, as funny as the Simpsons during it's mid-1990s peak.

And it's quite comforting knowing that I've barely scratched the surface and there are about 150 further episodes waiting to be discovered.

It's a bounty of ancient treasure, buried in plain sight, I tells ya!

Caricatures and Cassoulet


So, while I'm on a roll, I'll stop rambling, veer back on topic and point out that this bountifulness also extends to restaurants if only we'd open our eyes. And mouths.

I know I'm often guilty of thinking 'ooh, there's a brand new restaurant just opened, let's go there', rather than 'that's been there for a long time so it must be good'. And in so doing I probably miss out on the Home Services and Family Guys of London dining.

The B-V caricature is coming soon, presumably?
I've been aware of the Gay Hussar in Greek street for quite a while and even have a strong suspicion I was taken there as a very young child (or maybe I just remember walking past it).

But it's the kind of long-established, old-fashioned sort of place that I'd walk past many times without ever seriously thinking about dining in. It was never new - it's been there since 1953! - and it has had a reputation as a hang-out for left-wing politicians, journalists and other rogues since a time when eating radical Hungarian food was seen almost as some kind of subversive gesture in support of ones Eastern Bloc comrades!

I'd not considered dining at the Gay Hussar for pretty much the same reason I don't think about going to the Hard Rock Cafe or an Aberdeen Steakhouse. It's the Gone With the Wind of London restaurants - everybody knows of it, but when was the last time anybody ever ate there? Are the walls still bugged and sending intelligence back to the Kremlin via Budapest? Is it a living museum of London's political history for American tourists?

But, late last year, and with prejudices (mostly) cast asunder, I ate there with colleagues. And was rather impressed. So impressed in fact that this week I decided this would be a good choice for our second wedding anniversary - what with us having been to Hungary on our honeymoon. Ah, Ben, you clever, relevant man, you.

It's certainly an interesting place to eat, whether the occasion be special or not.

The atmosphere is still very much that of an intimate private members room - there's a sense of history in the place amongst the old books and caricatures and one can imagine being in the Reform club, circa 1960. For decades the intellectuals of the left have feasted here, putting the world to, err, lefts and eating big platefuls of authentic Hungarian tuck.

(Food which was probably very different to the stuff on the tables of their constituents in their impoverished mining towns many miles away, I'm sure, but then before there were Champagne Socialists, there were Bull's Blood Bolsheviks.)

I'll admit that on my first visit I felt slightly insecure and subversive, as if I were eating somewhere I shouldn't. Would I be rounded up as a class enemy because of my views and made into Goulash for the workers?

I needn't have worried though. It's clear that even back in the day the realpolitik of the place was never completely one-sided - amongst the caricatures of Glenda Jackson and Roy Hattersley on the walls, I noticed a lippy Portillo and a rather fetching Kenneth Baker portrait.

(Actually, this eating room of the left has been surprisingly good news for the Tories: it was, famously, in one of the Hussar's private rooms back in 1980 that the wheels were set in motion for Michael Foot's ascension to the Labour leadership at the expense of the more moderate Denis Healey, and that ultimately resulted in the Conservatives biggest electoral success in modern times...)

On our anniversary visit the political editor of the Daily Mirror was eating on the next table, but he didn't give me any trouble. I'm sure he regrets not mustering up the courage to ask me to write a Libertarian food column in his rag though!

Take that for starters!

The list of starters is tempting, as lists of starters in good restaurants always are, and the Hungarian sausage (which I saw out of the corner of my eye because it Kevin Maguire's dining companion was having it) looked rather good.

But after some deliberation, I decide this time to go for the seared Hungarian foie gras with Caramelised onion, Tokaji and black truffle jelly.

The legendary foie gras - fish dumplings in the background
And I'm glad I did.

Ahhhhh, man. It's every bit as decadent as it sounds.

Two hefty bits of delicately-cooked foie gras, still slightly bloody, stacked up on a light, crunchy square of goose-fat fried bread, with just the right amount of sour-sweet jelly - it's a melt-in-the-mouth expolosion of unctious umami, and quite possibly even better than the very similar foie gras we had on the honeymoon.

Maybe it's at odds with the image of the place, or maybe that's just my own presumptions and prejudices? Either way, the fact that they proudly serve foie gras in London reassures me that they're not completely away with the Soviet Faeries.

(Don't feel too bleeding-hearted about eating it either - the Hussar reputedly gets the stuff from Hungary's most ethical and least cruel producer).

If that's not what you'd expect from Eastern Europe, then Mrs B-Vs starter - the rather stodgy fish dumplings - might be more up your street. These come with rice and plenty of sour creamy sauce and paprika and are also available as a main course. 

I've also tried the Goulash soup, which is thin and consomme-like, though this is typical of how I remember it in Budapest. Authentic stuff.

Another slightly quirky starter available is the cold Wild Cherry soup, which sounds fine as a palate-cleanser, but I'd be reluctant to waste my first course on it.

The main event

I rarely choose the same dish when returning to an establishment a second time, but in this case I made an exception, simply because I just couldn't quite get my head around my main course on my first visit.

It's weird, but it's bloody good
Füstölt Libamell consists of slices of smoked goose (or sometimes, when goose is out of season, smoked duck), sitting atop a sort of basket woven from paprika flavoured crisps, filled with Sólet - a beany cassoulet sort of thing - and served with spicy-sweet red cabbage. With half a hard-boiled goose or duck egg on top.

If that sounds like an eccentric plate of food, it's because it is. But, crucially, it fucking works. 

The wife goes for the Brassói Érmék - described as 'Pan-Fried Pork Fillet with Diced Potatoes, Bacon and Garlic', and it's exactly that. A tasty fry-up of good things.

We drink the 2007 Szekszárdi Bull's Blood, which is about as typically a Hungarian wine as you'll find. Fruity, unsubtle and uncomplicated, it stands up well to the salty, paprika-laden dishes.

They don't do big slabs of meat here (the closest thing you'll find is the foie gras), but they seem to sneak meat into things to add flavour, probably using pork fat for cooking.

Brassói Érmék
Consequently, the Hussar isn't a place one could recommend for ones vegetarian lefty friends - even seemingly innocuous side dishes like fried potatoes and beans carry a warning that they contain meat!

But I find that sort of thing actually rather endearing in a surprisingly politically incorrect sort of way.

Not just desserts

When dessert time comes, we're pretty full from the hefty, satisfying platefuls, but we order a couple of different pancakes - walnut- and cream cheese-filled.

These are substantial and rich, but possibly the weaker links in the Hungarian food chain - after all, they can't fry these in pork fat and dust with paprika... or can they?!? (The answer being: No. No, they can't).

The cakes of Pan
If you're in any way interested in political history, you've probably been to the Gay Hussar already, particularly if you're a fan of Hungarian food and a Labour party member. But you might not have been for a while, and if you haven't: It's still there, and it's still pretty good.

A three course meal for two with wine will likely be in the £80-100 ballpark. Not Eastern Bloc-cheap, but not excessive for the heart of London either.

It'll cost a bit more if you finish with a glass of the Tokaji dessert wine, especially if you go for a decent vintage, but it's sweet and resiny and quite delicious.

New restaurants will come and go, but the Hussar has endured for some 60 years now. Yeah, it's almost part of left-wing mythology, but then Family Guy has left-wing jokes, and I'd be very surprised if the members of Home Service were rampant Libertarian Thatcherites. Doesn't stop me enjoying any of it though.

Especially the foie gras.

As I said, there's a hell of a lot of culture waiting to be unearthed and food waiting to be consumed, so go right ahead and pick and choose the bits you like. Dichotomy be damned!




Where to find it...

The Gay Hussar
2 Greek St,
Soho, 
W1D 4NB (map)
********* 

5 comments:

  1. And there I was thinking Michael Winner had died!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think you need to write about healthy food for a change. I rest my case.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sounds great. I'll have to check it out next time I'm in Soho. Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Is there a gay cock in the gay hussar?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good to see the standard of commentary is sky-high as always...

    ReplyDelete

Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.