In Hungary there is, apparently, a saying: “Like a goose eats a noodle.” It means eating so fast your food doesn’t touch the sides. I’ve always had a certain affinity for things Hungarian – for one, my aunt Judy’s mother Amalia was Hungarian, and she was an important part of my childhood. A survivor of the Holocaust, Bubby Leah moved to Montreal from Budapest in 1952 with my then very small auntie, bringing with her a culture and tradition that would come to define my perceptions of Europe as a young adult.
Secondly, my homegirl Sydney – the Amy to my Tina – is also of Hungarian descent. When we were sixteen, I was her date to St. Stephen’s Ball at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where she was participating as a debutante. This night made a big impression on my light-purple-prom-dress-clad self.
Having made dinner reservations at The Gay Hussar on Greek Street – where British politics meets Hungarian cuisine – Sydney wrote me with some food for thought – some history and context for my evening meal, with some running commentary on the side.
1. Hungary is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It was founded in 896, before France and Germany became separate entities, and before the unification of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (Sydney says: Haha! Suck it, Europe!)
2. Hungarian language is known as Magyar. It is the direct descendant of the language spoken by the Huns, and is therefore not an Indo-European language. It has only two related languages in Europe – Finnish and Estonian. (Sydney says: It is really a beautiful language to listen to, but really very difficult to learn. Too many ‘sz.’)
3. One third of the nearly 15 million Hungarian speakers live outside of Hungary, mostly in Romania. (Sydney says: The Hungarian section of Romania is where you will find Transylvania and the vampires. We are all very suspicious of them. But I once wore a Transylvanian dress to an event and I looked adorable. I was 14 and I had green/red/white ribbons braided into my hair.)
4. Hungary was one of the first Communist-era countries to oppose the Soviet regime during the Cold War, notably with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. (Sydney says: Haha!! Suck it again, Europe!)
5. Hungary has the 5th most Summer Olympics medals. They also invented the Rubik’s cube, the ballpoint pen, and the theory behind the hydrogen bomb. They also have the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union. And a buttload of thermal baths. (Sydney chose these facts at random because she likes them. Except for the bomb part. She doesn’t like WMDs as a general rule.)
The Gay Hussar is a long-standing Soho haunt steeped in history, a well-known institution of the British left, regularly frequented by politicians and a variety of other strange people. Although traditionally a Labour hangout – it was over dinner here that Tony Blair was first encouraged to run for the leadership of the Party – rumour has it that in the eighties members of the Conservative Wets (I haven’t lived in the UK long enough to understand what this means) met here to discuss their plans to bring down Margaret Thatcher.
Mick Jagger was also once nearly charmed into standing for Labour MP at the Gay Hussar. Also, my friend Jon’s dad, who, in a previous life, was one of the bigger employers in the Tower Hamlets area, used to meet with local councillors and local politicians here to discuss things like working conditions and employment regulations.
But you don’t have to be either important or strange to eat here. Using my trusty little friend called the Internet, I booked a table for two on a Monday night with no questions asked – I thought it was only fitting to ask Jon to accompany me, although I probably would have rather asked his dad.
When we walked in the door, I immediately felt as if I were somewhere I shouldn’t be. The restaurant was already nearly half full at 7 pm, with wooden pews lining a central aisle occupied by hungry diners of various shapes and sizes, tucking in to a myriad of interesting-looking dishes and looking like they had important business to conduct.
We were seated side by side on one of the benches towards the back of the restaurant on the first floor, facing an empty chair and a very narrow space to pass. I stared at the walls, which were covered in caricatures of Labour politicians, courtesy of Martin Rowson, visual journalist extraordinaire. As fascinating as these are, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was going to be bumping elbows with my dinner companion and staring at a series of cartoons all night.
Can one of us sit on the other side? I asked our rather stern looking waiter.
We asked if we could be moved, and were shown up the stairs to a table in what I can only hope is the very same private dining room where Mick Jagger sat down with Tom Driberg, and presumably ordered a goulash. The atmosphere upstairs was more austere than the first floor dining room – I felt inclined to turn off my mobile and speak in soft whispers. At the same time, I could very well have been in my grandmother’s kitchen, with its traditional Eastern European knick-knacks and hand-painted porcelain dishes – all that was missing was the obligatory set of nesting dolls.
To start, Jon opted for the seared Hungarian foie gras, served with caramelised onion, tokaji and black truffled jelly on toasted brioche – I’m telling you, this place doesn’t mess around. Fact: 30,000 goose farmers depend on the foie gras industry in Hungary. It’s our duty to support them.
I declined to have an appetiser – I was saving room for the main event, which for me was a generous portion of chicken in a creamy paprika sauce served with galuska, which, as it turns out, is some kind of cross between a noodle and a dumpling, not unlike gnocchi, but nicer and easier on the estomac. Jon, without hesitation, opted for the venison goulash. I was also saving room for dessert – an order (or two) of sweet cheese pancakes, which I had been looking forward to all day. Other tempting options included a poppyseed strudel with vanilla ice cream, and a chestnut puree flavored with dark rum and vanilla.
True, the food at the Gay Hussar may have been secondary to the actual experience of dining there – regarded as a “national institution” by some, there is something truly special about the restaurant’s air of familiarity and unique tradition.
It’s also Eastern European comfort food at its absolute best.
But alas, the restaurant has been trading at a loss, and has been put up for auction, in a sealed bid to be held by Christie’s next week. News of the sale saddened many of London’s most prestigious food writers, and is a lesson for a novice like me, a lowly Brixton foodie wannabe with a rapacious taste for new and interesting restaurants – when it comes to your local gem – either use it, or lose it.
Need to know:
The Gay Hussar
2 Greek Street
020 7437 0973
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 12:45-2:30, 5:30-10:45