An unexpected recommendation from a Kauai friend for traditional Hungarian Jewish food, Fülemüle was his favorite restaurant in Budapest. Now it’s ours.
On our second full day in Budapest, we still felt rather disoriented in the city. Coming from Vienna, whose luxurious ways had been intimidating and intoxicating at the same time, Budapest at first seemed like a shabby lady past her prime. Ensconced in a disappointing hotel, and confused by the unfamiliar Hungarian language, we looked forward to traditional Hungarian Jewish food. Even so, I hesitantly phoned Fülemüle, the restaurant our friend in Hanalei had rhapsodized from fond memories. Fortunately, my tremulous request to speak English was kindly answered in the affirmative and we obtained a reservation.
Hailing a cab from our hotel, we quickly left the brightly-lit Grand Boulevard (Terez korut). Drivers in Budapest careen through a confusing maze of one-way streets and traffic circles; they can make a hair-raising horror show out of the most mundane set of directions. On this night in early February, the side streets of Pest were dark and gloomy, adding to the sense of danger. I fantasized that we were being chased by the KGB in order to suppress the real terror that began to build. Whipping back and forth, sudden turns and slamming on the brakes, our man did the stereotype proud. Later, aboard the night train to Bucharest, we heard a fellow traveler’s tale of being hit and dragged from a pedestrian cross-walk. Fortunately, his shredded jeans were the only casualty; the driver had sped on without stopping.
Turning down a seemingly lifeless angled side street (Kofarago utca), I was filled with even more foreboding. Perhaps this was it for us. Creeping slowly along, our cabbie appeared intent on encountering something yet unseen. We stopped in front of an unassuming doorway, dimly lit, inches from the curb. Was this Fülemüle? Who knew? We were just glad to pay the maniac off and take our chances on foot. Hesitantly, we opened the door.
The warm aromas emanating from the kitchen wafted toward us, enveloping our relief in extra layers of reassurance. Ahead of us was a small bar area with caramel-toned burled wood, gleaming, and a white-aproned host, beaming. “Welcome,” he smiled, “to Fülemüle. Please, let me show you how to sit down.”
In Hungarian, “fülemüle” translates into “nightingale.” What else could someone named Singer charmingly name his restaurant? Andras Singer, from all impressions, was larger than life. Our friend on Kauai had recalled being taken under his wing and treated as part of the family, with invitations to parties in their home. Prepared from recipes handed down through generations, the traditional Hungarian Jewish food Singer’s family loved was to be the focus of his own restaurant after a lifetime spent in the hospitality industry. Fülemüle’s atmosphere is enhanced by many family photographs with Mr. Singer at their center, numerous civic awards and memorabilia.
Lonely Planet is quoted in Local Eats as saying, “This quaint Hungarian restaurant that looks like time stood still just before WWII is quite a find in deepest Józsefváros and well worth the search.” Jozsefvaros is a neighborhood that has been home to university students since the 1700’s. The 19th century Dohaney Synagogue, the largest in Europe, and the Heroes’ Synagogue (1930) are a few streets over. The National Rabbinical Seminary is down the block. (See map of Jewish Budapest).
Was Mr. Singer available, we asked? Sadly, we were informed that he had passed away the previous year. The restaurant was empty of patrons, save for us. “Over here is his wife, Mari. Her English is not so good,” we were told. Her sad smile needed no translation. “Please, may I help you select your wine, and let me tell you about our food,” said our waiter. We took his recommendation, which was delicious, and I started with the pumpkin soup. Both took winter’s edge away.
Traditional Hungarian Jewish food is richly flavored. The menu will invariably include cholent, a dish that dates back to the 12th century, which is slow-simmered to conform with the Sabbath admonition against cooking. The result is a flavorful stew served in a skillet. The cholent beans, which are cooked for at least six hours with chopped onions, herbs and spices, are paired with meat, usually goose. That’s what I’m having, I thought. Pete opted for traditional goulash and noodles.
Jewish people have lived in what is now Hungary since Roman times, interchangeably admitted, persecuted, and readmitted alongside Slavs, Magyars, Crusaders, and Saracens. We realized that in this part of the world, history has followed a predictable pattern: invaded, conquered, ruled, persecuted, re-established. Indeed, recent elections have again raised the ugly spectre of anti-semitism, with attacks on Jews and corresponding counter-protests in Budapest. Perhaps there was a reason for Fulemule’s low profile from the street.
All too soon, we were satiated. Bellies full, yet taste buds still demanding, we were talked into (it wasn’t difficult) dessert. Here, the traditional selections met with unappreciative palates. After Vienna’s Sacher tortes and sugary confections, the desserts, although attractively presented, just didn’t seem sweet enough.