In Budapest, new bistro Matzah Soldier is a sign of the times

budapest, hungary  |  On a corner in the heart of the former Jewish ghetto here, David Popovits sits down for some matzah ball soup and super-sized dumplings at his newly opened kosher-style restaurant.

A 40-year-old Hungarian Jewish businessman, Popovits used to eat in the restaurant as a boy, when its former owners ran a “dirty little place that smelled like oil but had good Wiener schnitzel,” as Popovits puts it.

It wasn’t the memories but the location that convinced Popovits to gut the place and reopen it two months ago under the name Macesz Huszar, or Matzah Soldier, a gastronomic temple of Hungarian Jewish cuisine.

Located in the now fashionable 7th District, the restaurant has earned some flattering reviews, but the eatery’s budding popularity is more than good for business. At a time of mounting concern over the rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, Popovits sees the restaurant’s promising start as a testament to Hungarian Jewry’s return to normalcy after long years of communist repression.

Budapest, Popovits says, has several kosher restaurants serving the city’s small Orthodox community and kosher tourists. And there’s Rosenstein, something of an institution for Hungarian Jewry even though it serves pork.

“There was nowhere for people like me: nonreligious, kosher-conscious Jews with a bit of money, a refined taste and appreciation for tradition,” Popovits says.

Since the fall of communism, Hungary has seen a cultural revival driven by people like Popovits who are in sync with contemporary cultural trends yet still want to carry on the Jewish traditions of their grandparents. The group is key to the success of Limmud Hungary, a Jewish learning event that draws hundreds every year, and an array of other Jewish cultural and social offerings serving Budapest’s estimated 80,000 Jews.

The name Macesz Huszar — an antiquated taunt meaning something like “little Jew boy” — was chosen as a symbol of the modern Hungarian Jew.

Earlier this month, Time magazine opened an article about Hungarian Jewry with a scene from Macesz Huszar, describing it as “delicious proof of the renaissance of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish culture.” And the Nepszabadsag daily’s food critic praised the restaurant for “reinventing simple Jewish foods as delicacies.”

“[We] try to reinvent the old recipes without departing from the tradition upon which they were based,” says Popovits. “I often just buy a fresh piece of lamb, bring it to the kitchen and then we begin to experiment while consulting the old recipes until we get it just right.”

The next step for Popovits is compiling a cookbook.

“Writing this book would be making a statement, reaching a milestone that says this is where we are,” Popovits says. “I would like to stake that claim: This is the place that Jewish East European food occupies right now, in the great culinary democracy of our times.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent