Vol. 16 No. 30 - May 25, 2016
The joys of dining alone
SUBMItted | SUN
In the past few years, I've become a connoisseur of dining alone – not out of misanthropy, but rather of necessity due to work schedules and, more recently, for the simple pleasure of it. I've found that I like the experience of sitting in a bustling restaurant, listening to the sound of clattering dishes and popping corks, catching the honey smell of freshly baked bread or the buttery sweetness of a creme brûlée. I like having snippets of conversation pass through without having to focus on anything but the meal sitting before me.
It wasn't until recently, though, that I discovered the pleasures of solo fine dining. On a vacation trip to Budapest last fall, I was taking advantage of the delights of that beautiful city- long strolls along the Danube, cold beers in ruin pubs, garlicky mangos eaten under the dour stare of a Bronx Lenin in mime to park, when I stumbled upon a gourmet deli and store. Though I'm far from deprived of good food, I find that my imagination and Credit card balance run amok when faced with shelves of Sardinian fregola, Sicilian pastachio pesto, Middle Eastern baharat and Malaysian laksa paste. After lugging my treasures back to my hotel and mentally menu planning for my return home, I decided that as delicious as it was, street food just wouldn't work for that evening. And so I found myself booking a table for one for dinner at Costes, the first Michelin starred restaurant in Hungary.
I showed up at 10:30 (the only time a available at such late notice) after a long walk through the city, hungry, cold and slightly intimidated. The latter two disappeared almost immediately. Costes is a cozy and unassuming place, pretty and neat, but not the kind of atmosphere that makes you worry about your posture and use of the appropriate fork. It conveys a feeling of warmth – small rooms, soft lighting, wood and cream decor. The service is also warm and casual, attentive, but not overpowering. But the highlight, of course, is the food.
I settled in and after hearing my mothers voice in my head repeating that my eyes were often bigger than my stomach. I shied away from the seven-course tasting menu and settled for four, with the wine pairing naturally. The meal began with a crusty, rustic bread paired with four butter options – plain, olive, garlic and basil and orange – and a lovely cauliflower salad with a horseradish purée. I admit to a moment of disappointment. I remain unconvinced by the new obsession with cauliflower, but it was fresh and delicious, managing to serve simultaneously as a welcoming starter and a palate cleanser. This was followed by a single, creamy, nutty ravioli in a slightly spicy pesto – a rich, melt in your mouth first course that sets the tone for what's to come. The main course was a lesson in the power of simple, fresh ingredients that eschew embellishment- gnocchi complemented by fresh artichokes.
But the dessert – that's where the creative presentation and delicious flavors came together to reinforce that I was indeed enjoying fine dining. A layer of dry ice created the illusion of fog, slowly clearing away to reveal a small forest centered around a brittle chocolate log, smooth and sweet with a touch of bitterness. It was almost too beautiful to eat, but food that is good is meant to be eaten, not just admired, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
Costes was an exquisite and surprisingly affordable experience, and it will definitely be on my list again should I ever return to Budapest. But perhaps even more than the food itself. This dining experience was about learning that the art of fine dining and the art of enjoying one's own company complement each other, and being a chef at heart, the insight I gleaned from these experiences will fuel my passions and ambitions for years to come.
Pork osso buco
This dish can be made in a crock pot or a roasting pan.
• Pork shank
• Olive oil
• Diced garlic
• 1/2 red onion
• 1/2 bell pepper
• 2 cans diced tomatoes
• 1 bottle red wine
• 1/2 stalk celery
• 1 carrot
• Salt and pepper
• Bay leaves
Generously season 1 cup of flour with salt and pepper and mix well. Coat the shank with flour and place it in the bottom of the roasting pan after coating the bottom with olive oil. Rough chop onion, pepper, carrot, and celery and add to the pan. Add a about 2 Tbs. of garlic, a couple of bay leaves and 1 tsp. of salt to the vegetables. Pour the bottle of wine into the pan and add water until the shank is completely covered. Wrap with plastic wrap and foil and cook on high heat at 400º for 3 1/2 hours until fork tender. Remove the shank from the pan and place it on a platter. Put the remaining sauce into a blender and liquefy it. An immersion blender also may be used. Add water as needed to reach the desired consistency of gravy, then pour atop the shank.