Feeling Hungary?

A tiny caf? in central Tel Aviv lets customers step back in time, to a different place, while enjoying good food.

marzipan 88 248 (photo credit: Ilana Epstein )
marzipan 88 248
(photo credit: Ilana Epstein )
I find Tel Aviv's Ibn Gvirol Street slightly intimidating. I don't know if it has something to do with all the skinny people knowing the difference between mocha, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, and espresso (no one that thin should know that much about coffee). Or maybe it's an unsuspecting feeling that since I'm not supporting the latest in Bohemian chic, I'm out of touch. Nowhere is the diversity between those who have "style and class" and those who shop at Bazaar Strauss more apparent than in Gan Ha'Ir. The small shopping center is far too elegant to be called a mall. Situated behind Rabin Square, where instead of unsightly gates to keep out the riffraff, they have corrugated iron cutouts of trees. I wandered in, only because I was concerned that the guard would think I was loitering. The shiny white marble wasn't blinding enough to obscure the view of the posh Italian housewares, clothing and shoe stores. This appears to be where the thin Bohemian chic people trade in their well-earned cash for this season's must-have scarf and egg cup, while the rest of us look on and would rather feed our families for the next month (this would explain how they stay thin). In the midst of this consumer madness, I saw heaven in the form of a Hungarian dairy bakery and café. The outside is still Tel Aviv, with people drowning their concern over debts they have incurred while shopping Italian in Tel Aviv over large cups of coffee. Inside though, it is all Hungary. As I took my seat, I was engulfed by Hungarian chatter. Hungarian, you understand, is not a pretty language. Once seated, I started taking in the scene. To say that the decor was dated would be akin to saying that Liberace was "a shtickel artistic." We are talking 1920s Budapest all the way, and it is a lovely foray into the central European, art-deco café atmosphere. One good-looking man in his 80s with twinkling blue eyes and a head full of silvery hair walks in and tells his friend, "Look at all the hens coming out to play. Shall we be like roosters and stake our claim?" And one superbly dressed lady answers, "Moritz, quit cackling and sit down!" I believe all the innuendo was intentional. Let me tell you something about Hungarian grandmothers as opposed to Polish ones. The Polish one will feed you because you look too thin. The Hungarian one will feed you so there's no chance you'll look thinner than her. As I sat to have a chat with Judith Sharon, the owner of the fine establishment, I felt that I had missed out in having never met my own Hungarian grandmother. Sharon is industrious. Her restaurant, which she says is just a hobby, has been in Gan Ha'Ir for the last 20 years, and on a random Monday morning it was packed with regulars and walk-ins. Sharon is not only a brilliant restaurateur, she is also a goodwill ambassador between Hungary and Israel. The lady has two Hungarian chefs, one producing the pastries, the other the savories, and the entire waitstaff is Hungarian. I was addressed in Hungarian, not surprisingly, considering half the people at Judith's had a striking resemblance to my family members. Sharon herself was born in Beregszasz, the same town my family stems from, but her eatery is all Budapest with very little of the Carpathian Mountain region. She spent her childhood in Budapest before immigrating to Israel after the Hungarian Revolution. Now we must not dawdle on ambiance and well-dressed Hungarian women; we must address the food. Inside is a long line of glass-fronted cabinets filled with Hungarian gold - or Hungarian pastries, really, it's all a matter of perspective. Rows of Dobos torte, Esterhazy cake, Floden, and retes (strudels to the rest of us), in every flavor you could hope for. There are cheesecakes, and nut tortes, chocolate cakes, and crescents filled with nuts and poppy seeds. Sharon's Hungarian pastry chef prepares 60 varieties of cake every day, as well as many different cookies. This still does not include their marzipan figurines, a special art that Hungarian pastry chefs have to master fully to earn their stripes. I was distracted from the pastries by the savory aromas. Foil swan after foil swan left the kitchen and were placed in front of waiting customers. The urge to ask what was inside was overpowering. The only thing that kept me seated was the sight of the Floden, a layer of nut cake topped with a layer of poppy seed cake, further topped with a layer of apple cake. This is a Hungarian Jewish specialty, originally made with goose fat - but since the restaurant is kosher and dairy, one can assume that the only fowl on the premises were Moritz's ladies and the foil ones ambling past my table. I was ordered to sample the vegetarian stuffed cabbage. The true identifying mark of a Hungarian is the unhealthy draw to anything containing cabbage or cherries. The stuffed cabbage was followed by cherry soup, followed by cherry strudel. Not only had I found home, I thought I would have to move in permanently (considering that the only way to walk away from a meal in which every dish comes with a health side order of sour cream, is on all fours). Judith's is not only a step back in time, it is - like Judith herself - an Hungarian ambassador to Israel. Being Hungarian is so much more than dressed up chandeliers and very well-dressed women. Darling (or "dahlink") isn't so much a term of endearment as it is an introduction to a statement. Sharon's dairy Hungarian cuisine is so much more than paprika and poppy seeds. It is a window into the past, with flavors that will outlive Bohemian chic for many generations to come. Etzel Yehudith (At Judith's); Gan Ha'Ir, 71 Ibn Gvirol St. Tel Aviv; Tel: (03) 527-9155