The creativity one can demonstrate with foodstuffs is astounding, and for once I'm not talking about cooking them. For instance, in his books Play With Your Food and How Are You Peeling?, photographer Joost Elffers exhibits the creatures he makes out of everyday fruits and vegetables. He turns okra into grasshoppers, chili peppers into snakes, and sweet potatoes into sea horses, to name a few. And he suggests that chefs and restaurateurs try their hands at this, too, perhaps even using their creations as garnishes.
Cafe Paprika's Hungarian chef-owner Zoltan Debreczeni seems to have taken a page from one of Elffers' tomes. At his six-year-old Miramar restaurant, he turns sausages into octopuses, then allows them to highlight dishes like Wiener schnitzel.
Purists might not consider a knackwurst octopus (or Elffers' photography, for that matter) to be high art. Geography buffs would argue that the sea creature doesn't especially represent the Hungarian, Austrian, German, and Transylvanian food served here, given that these cuisines developed in cultures where the waterfront pretty much begins and ends at the banks of the Danube River.
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But the bit of cleverness the garnish introduces does reflect the fanciful nature of this casual eatery: Painted shutters hanging on the walls and bedecked with faux greenery and Hungarian souvenirs transform the interior of the 85-seat restaurant into the exterior of a charming European home. The whimsy plays well against the live Magyar music that stirs the crowd of diners; the sausage itself comes from the market shelves, stocked with imported Hungarian goods, that surround the dining area. Most important the garnish testifies that Debreczeni is a restaurateur who will see to every detail of his guest's well-being.
Indeed Hungarians have a reputation for being so hospitable that they will not dine until their guests are satisfied. In leaner times that credo translated into hunger, for the food was often gone by the time the guests went home and the host felt comfortable enough to eat. At Cafe Paprika's the philosophy means that, for exceedingly reasonable prices, diners will be stuffed like, well, sausages.
The munching begins immediately with home-baked rolls and crocks of Liptó sheep's milk cheesebased spread, tinted with paprika, laced with anchovy paste, and mixed with butter. (In English a similar spread goes by its Austrian name, Liptauer.) If you order a main course, the entrée will be preceded by an all-you-can-eat salad bar featuring European preparations such as chilled peas in sour cream sauce, Savoy cabbage salad, and sweet-and-sour cucumbers. Salad will then be followed by your choice of soups, ranging from chicken broth with a matzo ball the size (and lightness) of a balloon to a somewhat oily Hungarian goulash. (Cold sour-cherry cream soup, a specialty of the house, is available only during the summer.)
Given the prodigious quantities of food that precede main courses, appetizers can seem superfluous. Order some anyway and don't be put off by mistranslations or transliterations. "Fried head of mushroom" was simply a half-dozen fried button mushroom caps. Lightly battered and grease-free, the mushrooms maintained a juicy integrity inside their crusts; a homemade mayonnaise spiked with chardonnay enhanced these tidbits.
And do take advantage of the genuine Hungarian products, especially the sausages, which can be hard to find in these parts. If you prefer them inviolate, check out the "Hungarian cold wedding platter for two," a kind of antipasto offering the famous smoked Gyulai sausage and a sensationally piquant pork sausage nearly sizzling with imported paprika. We opted for the lecsó with sausage, a hot starter. Lecsó, a sauté of chopped Italian peppers and ripe tomatoes sprinkled with paprika, is practically the national vegetable dish of Hungary (despite its Serbian origin), and Cafe Paprika's does it proud. We found the redolent mixture ideal with the crusty rolls.
We also couldn't resist sampling the crepes Hortobágy. Stuffed with minced chicken and veal, these eggy confections were coated with a sour creaminfused paprikash sauce. If you don't want to order the crepes as a separate appetizer, however, look to the entrée called "Cafe Paprika's schnitzel." The pounded veal cutlet, topped with a vibrant sautéed mushroom sauce, was accompanied by the crepes as well as homemade spaetzle (egg dumplings). Taken separately each variable was both delicious and filling; together, the dish could be overwhelming to those shy of appetite. No less impressive, the "Gypsy roast," a tender Wiener schnitzel saturated with garlic and zapped with smoky bacon, was finished with crunchy home-fried potatoes.
If you're looking for a little nosh, forgo the stuffed cabbage. The cabbage leaves were really just a cover for the restaurant to cobble together two huge meatballs from smoked pork, veal, beef, and rice. Nearly as large as softballs, the cabbage rolls were blanketed with shredded sauerkraut from the Vecses region and resounded with notes of smoky sausage and robust paprika.
Debreczeni obviously agrees with Hungarian poet József Berda, whose "In Pious Words in Praise of Wine" declares, "Only you/Quench my beastly thirst,/You cool my glowing forehead,/You aid happy digestion/By your tongue-tingling taste." To that end Debreczeni offers a comprehensive Hungarian wine list, which yields the well-known Bull's Blood ($21.95) as well as a woodsy Balatonlellei pinot gris ($19.95).
If only the desserts were up to par. The Austro-Hungarian pastry tradition is one of the most admired in the world. But a slice of Dobos torte -- chocolate-filled layer cake glazed with caramel -- was disappointingly stale. The wedge of Russian spy cake, a spongy layer cake informed with rum-flavored cream, was more approachable, but hardly what The Hungarian Cookbook author Susan Derecskey calls "a delicate, trembling temptation to the vice of gluttony." Otherwise Cafe Paprika's stands as the perfect ode to gourmandise, supplying three out of four of the ingredients prescribed for Hungarian happiness: "Wine, wheat, peace, and a beautiful wife."
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