Review: Nota Bene

25 June 2013,
Toronto

I have heard many good things about Nota Bene in downtown Toronto. However, I had no slot for dinner, so decided to go there for lunch. I have an averion to checking out “top” restaurants for lunch in Toronto because of their ridiculous adherance to a very, very dumbed-down menu for “business lunch” that has absolutely no connection to their dinner menu. However, I had no choice, so headed to Nota Bene for lunch.

The menu had changed from the one online and everything I really wanted was off the menu. Great start. I ended up going for the lunch special, which was salad and mackerel. I would have ordered the mackerel anyway, and the pricing made it stupid not to — even if the description of the green salad looked less inspiring than a salad from Subway.

It started poorly with a glass of wine with chunks of cork in it…and in the decanter too. I sent both back…come on. I know it’s lunch, but a little customer care? I’m not talking small, I’m talking very noticeable pieces…yes, plural. It is not nitpicking if you are paying for a good dining experience, and front of the house needs to know that — “business lunch” time or otherwise.

The salad appeared…I did not bother to waste a photo for this. It looks no different from anything you’d get in a salad store, a supermarket salad at best. No imagination. The cheapest greens with very little variety, just the cheapest lettuces you can find. I wouldn’t even waste a digital photo for this sad item… Curse of the “business lunch” special once again…

The main course of mackerel arrived, and I couldn’t wait after that bland and uninspiring salad…

NB-mackerel

Now this was a mess. First, finally some greens I would have loved to have in the salad now here… Second, the pickled vegetables were so overwhelming in taste I had to leave them alone lest my jaw locked. The mackerel itself was not bad (how can you screw up a good fish?), though the knife presented (a glorified butter knife) was utterly useless in cutting a skin-on mackerel without rendering it into a hundred pieces.

I was pretty unhappy with this lunch. I should have learned my lesson from before. I should have gone to the excellent Canoe or Pangaea, where they treat you well for lunch as any other hour. Or really, I should have walked a few steps more to the Korean Grill House for a better lunch.

Nota Bene is just awful. After this rubbish lunch, would I come back for a full dinner? Hell no. Exemplifies the worst of the “business lunch” scene in TO.

Nota Bene
180 Queen Street West
Toronto, Ontario

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Review: Yuzu No Hana

Toronto
24 June 2013

I was meeting with a friend of drinks in the evening, so I wanted to have a nice early dinner this steamy afternoon. Looking around, there were many options, but for some reason I decided to do sushi. And the most interesting one nearby was Yuzu No Hana.

I walked into the restaurant and decided to take the sushi bar instead of a table, despite many of the kitchen dishes looking quite fine. I was gonna make this sushi-centric. I relaxed and began with a house cocktail, which featured its namesake, the yuzu. The tangy, citricy drink is exactly what I needed escaping the horrible humidity outside…

Yuzu-yuzu

I then settled and ordered an initial round of sushi. Turned out they didn’t have a few things I wanted…that means one of two things — restaurant is incompetent, or they can’t get it fresh enough. And from the first round, I am sure it’s the latter, as they were excellent.

Yuzu-sushi1

The hamachi (yellowtail, on left), was excellent. The pieces were very generous, and priced very reasonably — especially compared to similar places in NYC. Two pieces per order, thank goodness. Not like the NYC single-piece, double-price nightmare… The ika (squid) was extremely good, and it also shows the chef’s like of using the blowtorch for adding to the texture of the pieces. I like the pieces of charred tentacles also. But the star was the imported giant scallops in the centre — these were monstrous, and amazingly tasty. Pricey, but they were dreamy… Excellent!

I was in a good mood now, vindicated by my choice and showing Toronto can do sushi with the best of NYC. I took a break from the sushi and had the kitchen bring me out a very nice braised pork belly starter.

Yuzu-belly

These were rich and delicious, topped with some excellently placed kimchee. A touch of wasabi also added to the appeal of this dish.

I was going to go drinking after this, so I needed a bit more food, so went for a second round of sushi before I had to run.

Yuzu-sushi2

This selection was also excellent. The unagi (eel) was pretty normal, though the pieces were very generous again. I’ve gotten used to eating eel without the eel sauce, so this was a nice “old school” treat. The ikura (roe) with quail egg was excellent, I have a tradition of closing my sushi meals with them as a pseudo-dessert. And finally, the escolar on the right, slightly torched, was just magical. Oily and just scrumptious.

And yes, I know what escolar can do, and I know my limits. For those of you not experienced in the ways of escolar (mistakenly called “white tuna” in many sushi restaurants in the US), just Google the word and type the letter “a” afterwards…you’ll know what I mean… I know my limits before my system rebels…

I headed out into the humidity for the subway to meet my friend. This was a fantastic meal, and I will definitely come back to this place for a major feast. Frankly it’s actually cheaper to fly to Toronto from NYC and dine here than to do a similar meal at Sushi Yasuda — even with the no-tip policy! A great find!

Yuzu No Hana
236 Adelaide Street West
Toronto, Ontario

Review: Sabai Sabai

Toronto,
24 June 2013

I made my way to Canada for a much-needed holiday and of course, as Sod’s Law always dictate, I brough heat and humidity to the Great White North. Horrific heat and humidity awaited me on the city by the lake…not what I wanted!

On my first full day in town I braved the 33c and humid conditions and walked across downtown to check out a Thai restaurant that has been raved about by many — Sabai Sabai. I got to the restaurant just in time…I felt I was about to start sweating through my clothes at that point…

It’s a low-key place near Ryerson University that typifies the type of ethnic restaurants I like — authentic, but not boring. I started with a much-needed Thai coffee…sweet and cold. Felt human again.

My first course was the fried garlic shrimp, a very typical south-eastern Asian starter:

Sabai-garlic_shrimp

Not bad, 4 nice sized shrimp, seasoned well enough to not need the sauce. Standard faire, but done well. At this point I enjoyed a Beerlao, a light lager from Laos. I would have loved to try the special sangria that they made with various exotic fruits, but a pitcher for lunch on such a hot day would have been bad…as I was planning to head to the gym in the afternoon (yeah, on vacation and tempting fate by using a hotel gym’s wonky equipment…).

I had a second beer when the main course arrived, the BBQ roast pork:

Sabai-BBQ_pork

Again, very typical, The pork was char-grilled nicely, sliced thin, with a generous portion of sauce on top. Maybe too much sauce over the rice, as I would have enjoyed the pork with a little less sauce. Some nice soft-y-boiled eggs too on the side. Solid.

After another Thai coffee, I headed out into the humidity satisfied. Not stunning, but a solid south-east Asian meal. Reminds me of Night+Market in Los Angeles, solid good ethnic dining that I’d come back to often if I lived nearby. Alas, I don’t.

Gym time…if I survive the humidity going back to the hotel…

Sabai Sabai
225 Church Street
Toronto, Ontario

Review: Corton

New York City
7 June 2013

I was bored back in NYC. After a lengthy trip with a lot of eating, I had been taking it easy back home. Hitting the gym again, now that my body is completely healed, it felt good. But it was Friday night, and I was bored.

In addition, the reminants of a tropical storm was rolling into the area, so during the afternoon it was already raining cats and dogs. And knowing how NYC worked on a summer Friday night, especially with bad weather, it should be a quieter-than-usual night. So I decided to go for a nice big meal.

I’ve not done a tasting menu in NYC in ages, but from a friend and fellow food blogger’s high recommendations, I decided to check out Corton. The photos from my friend’s blog, Toast to Roast, looked so good I had to give this place a shot despite the mixed reviews I’ve heard elsewhere. So I braved the storm and headed downtown.

The rain was messy and as soon as I walked up from the subway the flooding was already apparent. I walked into the restaurant and went into the restroom to dry off — only to notice the flooding is happening indoors too…looked like it was coming out of the toilet…just tried not to think about that…ugh…

I sat down and looked at the menu — which boasted 2 tasting menus, one full, one seasonal. I went for the full, and asked for a wine pairing…but they said they didn’t do it. Great… In a 2-Michelin place? I then went through the less-than-interesting-for-me and overpriced winelist for a few that worked through the evening. I am not a fan of Burgundy wines, so this was not the place for me. But let’s see if I have better luck with this 2-Michelin place than several of the last 2-Michelin places I’ve been…

I sat down and ordered a cocktail and before I had a chance to even relax, the set of 3 amuse bouche arrived…

AB1-3

The funny thing is that I saw them coming out with it earlier but turned around…but this is a little fast. Can I get my cocktail and relax first? It was pouring outside! The one on the left is a nettle financier, which didn’t do much for me. The right was some filled puff pastry, just nibbles. The middle is a crisp of sea buckthorn. Now having raved about sea buckthorn all trip, especially in at Ö in Estonia and Hix in London, it was nice to get a tail-end taste of this tangy treat. Not bad.

But really, it came too fast. It was awhile before my rhubarb negroni arrived…was a bit too sweet, none of the needed bitterness. Then the fourth amuse bouche came, a steamed egg chawanmushi

AB4

Okay, this failed badly. It had very little flavour, and it was so watery the consistency was a total mess. If they tried to replicate a Japanese dish, they failed very badly…

Even before my wine arrived — I had ordered a half bottle of good white for the veg-and-fish-centric front end of the tasting — the first course already arrived…huh? The first was based around beets, with foie gras as the key ingredient.

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Looks nice, but it was rather boring. Nothing interesting about this, especially having just been in Budapest, the liver capital of the world. Frankly the foie gras tasted like it had been in the fridge for too long. Not too impressed so far, very typical, looking more like something from a cooking school…

For the second dish the server was raving about the asparagus, telling me the asparagus is like nothing I’ve seen…erm, I was just in Central Europe during the start of asparagus season, so…yeah, I’ve seen it.

Corton-02_asparagus

Oh, this was a waste! The orangy base that cooked the asparagus just did not work at all. In fact, it killed the taste of the asparagus. Why get a beautiful spear like this just to screw with it Heston-style for no reason? Over-chef’ing 101 here. BTW the crayfish was bland (except for a chunk of oddly-fallen sea salt) and really odd, and the snails? It’s in the wasabi-ball-like thing. Another miss. Now this has to be the “bad plate of 2013” for me…

I’m not impressed at all so far. Frankly this may wow people in Peoria or Abilene, but if you’re in NYC and able to dine here you’ve probably been to some nice places in Europe. This restaurant makes me feel like I’m in Las Vegas — faux Europe, or Europe lite. Ugh… Dish three is the shimaaji, the striped jack.

Corton-03_shimaaji

Those of you sushi lovers will know this fish well. This was tasty and I’m glad Chef Liebrandt didn’t over-chef this one. Simple enough to enjoy the flavour of the fish. I completely avoided the white blob on the side. Whatever it was, it wasn’t working with the fish…

Now these 3 courses have come in about 15 minutes. I barely have a chance to rest before the next dish shows up. I also am pouring my own wine as the sommelier seemed confused about the pace also, as he was since the first course came out before the wine…

After a brief palate cleanser (a gelatinous ball) we’re on course four and we’re on a record pace here… Again we visit a beautiful fish, this time the char.

Corton-04_char

Now I love char, I love cooking it at home when I get fresh ones. Honestly, the char from my kitchen was better than this version. The temperature felt rather odd, it’s like warm-ish…not lukewarm, not hot, not even warm, but warm-ish… It didn’t complement the rich taste of the char at all, unfortunately. Looked nice, but again more visual than taste.

By now the wine is drained and I am waiting to switch to a red for the lamb. The sommerlier came by and poured the last drops of the bottle of white and said perhaps we should have done a full bottle… Huh? Tthen I told him that we’re already at the lamb. He looked utterly confused, then surprised at how fast this meal was going. Totally out of synch…

Yeah. From sitting down to finishing course four it’s been about half hour…this is nuts. And again before my red is brought, the first of the lamb dishes (they split it into two tonight) arrived — the belly.

Corton-05_lamb_belly

This was a nicely cooked belly, but I waited for a few minutes before my wine arrived. Not good. Also no knife…was I supposed to cut this with a spoon? They then brought wine and knife…geez… And as I started working on the belly, I had to do some surgery as there were rough solid inedible chunks of cartilage that I had to pull out. Who butchered this thing? Too bad, because this was a nice dish.

When they can’t get the ingredients sorted, this is what worries me about a place like Corton. No quality control it seems, which is not good for a 2-Michelin restaurant. There is NO way this place is at par with Haerlin in Hamburg or Steirereck im Stadtpark in Vienna, or especially Maaemo in Oslo.

As I pondered this and drank more red wine to drown my sorrows, the next lamb course arrived.

Corton-06_lamb

Interesting and tasty morsel of lamb, but a little too small to really enjoy. The fried slice on the side was a nice touch but a little tasteless. It’s weird, they seem to rely on other flavours and not the main ingredients — and they then fail on the seasoning… Is this just a totally off night by the kitchen in the middle of this ugly storm outside? Sigh…

As we moved into the desserts I was despondent. The next three dessert courses went by like a blur, as I ordered some rather heavy and hefty drinks to go along with each of them. I was unhappy. I finally (at the urging of my tweeps) asked them to slow things down. Sommelier was totally on my side, but when I mentioned this to the floor manager he tried to blame me for not telling them.

So it’s my fault? I perhaps should have said something earlier, but it’s the customer’s fault? Why didn’t they listen to the confused sommelier when he noticed my courses were coming out in lighting record pace and how off synch he had become for my table? By now I was pretty pissed off. If my manager did that at my old restaurant I would have sacked him on the spot.

I’m gonna just put the 3 dessert courses into one picture, as I didn’t really care about them at this point. The bonne bouche (left, 7th course) was a nice cheese but the popcorn were soggy. The blood orange (centre, 8th) was nice and had the needed tang, and the hazlenut-centric dish (right, 9th) was so-so. I was just drinking whisky and grappa by this point, so pissed off at this experience I didn’t care what the desserts were.

desserts

I left after a double expresso with a very hefty bill — highest bill I’ve paid in years by myself in the US. And this was one of the worst tasting meals I’ve ever had, if not the worst. I left in the pouring rain still really pissed off, especially with that manager’s accusatory tone. Instead of trying to make things right, he pushed the blame on the customer. Very unprofessional. And this faux-Europe or Europe-lite tasting was just not even close to a 2-Michelin experience.

If ever I was to avoid places with Michelin stars, this is the experience that did it. Shockingly bad. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Corton
239 West Broadway
New York, NY

Review: Hix Oyster & Chop House

London,
26 May 2013

I did manage a wee kip after the filling and liquid dimsum lunch I had at Pearl Liang, which was much needed after the very early morning flight back to London. But it wasn’t long as I needed to meet with a friend a few hours later for a drink and dinner afterwards.

She was in the area already so she came by my hotel. Unfortunately with the renovations at the hotel and it being Sunday (upstairs bar/restaurant closed), we had to find somewhere else to go. She suggested Sushi Samba, so we hopped on the Circle-ish Line and headed to The City.

We headed up the quick lift to the high floors overlooking The City to the chic location. It was rammed, as it should be on a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday. No tables for us, so we just stayed for a drink. The food didn’t look good, so no big miss. But the cocktails were a major disappointment. As a former restaurant/bar owner with a very well-loved bar programme, watching these bartenders work is a shame. Slow, confused, unprofessional. Overpriced drinks just for the view. Sad…

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But the view was good, which is what everyone is paying for. But this view is hard to get a seat (or standing space), and it blocks the service station at the bar. You gotta question the cretin that designed this, to waste the BEST VIEWING AREA of the entire space, as the service area. It’s like having an outhouse overviewing the vista… We went around to the other side, which had an outdoor seating area (for smokers). We got a seat out there, but the view wasn’t as good…

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I guess being outdoors nearly 40 stories up in a sunny London isn’t a bad thing, even if you’re looking at council estates… But the breeze bothered people and they started up on the fire outside…I was sweating like a madman, so this really bothered me. Pathetic…it was a sunny and warm day! And the cocktail made my friend somewhat ill, so we decided to leave. Mine was horrible but didn’t make me sick.

The quick lift down really did a number on her and she was now feeling ropey, and she said she needed something in her stomach…so after a few seconds of figuring out whither, we decided to go to Hix Oyster & Chop House — same place we had dinner last time we went out.

After some bread she felt much better… Quite funny I was the one with the vertigo and she had her head spinning after that quick lift. We were seated at the same table in the shabby restaurant. I don’t mind the low-impact style, but when the wooden floors feel like they’re about to give and send me straight down to the basement kitchen…

Despite it being Sunday my friend happily went with the oysters to start. For me, the fried sand eels looked the best.

Hix-sand_eels

These were delicious, fried well and seasoned well. I did not even touch the dipping sauce, whatever it was. Unnecessary when done well (this is something I never understood in US and UK, why dip into sauce when unnecessary?). So far so good. Then my main course arrived, the rump steak.

Hix-rump_steak

This looked awful when it arrived. Of course we had sides (she wanted chips and I don’t like starches usually, so ordered seasonal greens too), but this looked like a rather carelessly cooked piece of meat. And it was. Parts of it near the bone was fine, but the rest of it was not. Nowhere near medium-rare, just a poor dish in every way. Looked bad, tasted bad, cooked bad, cut bad, etc…

There has been criticism of the Hix empire over recent times as he’s gone into expansion mode and the quality control has come off in many places, and this is a prime example. I have not had a steak done so poorly in ages, not even from hotel room service. Ridiculous. My friend’s cod (I hate cod, as it has no intrinsic flavour value for me) was better, and that’s saying a lot…

The conversation saved the day for me, as that was more important. I reluctantly ordered a dessert for us to share, and that turned out to be better thank goodness.

Hix-aastelpaju_posset

I thought I got my fix of aastelpaju in Estonia, but the sea buckthorn posset turned out to be a real treat. I love the tanginess of the sea buckthorn, and that really saved the meal for me.

We walked all the way from Smithfield to Edgware Road, meandering through various small streets along the way. Sadly almost everything was shut on Sunday (especially in middle of a Bank Holiday weekend), so we didn’t stop at too many places. I needed the walk in any case, but was knackered by the time we parted at Edgware Road Tube.

My trip was coming to an end, and with my original plans for tomorrow cancelled, I needed to have a last food adventure before I leave in the late afternoon. I can’t have this meal be the lingering memory…sand eels and pudding were excellent, but that steak…that steak…ugh…UGH!

Hix Oyster & Chop House
36-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross Street
London, England

Review: Pearl Liang

London,
26 May 2013

I made it back to London from Budapest early Sunday morning of the bank holiday weekend…so it was pretty chaotic. As the hotels still have to kick the hungover footie fans out at check-out time (Champions League Final), my room was not ready at 11am. Not a surprise. So I decided to go have brekkie at my favourite place in the Paddington area, Core Grill…

Crap…I got there and it was shut! The fittings were ripped out. Damn, it was the best place for runny organic eggs and bacon. Now what? So I decided to go have a dimsum lunch at Pearl Liang, one of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London.

Pearl Liang is set in the back of Paddington Basin. I found it by accident one evening strolling around the Paddington canals. Not very convenient to get to, especially with Crossrail construction, but once you know it, it becomes easy to find — and enjoy.

I usually do take-aways from this place when I have a down evening, but today was a lively dimsum lunch. The place was packed at the opening, which is a very good sign. I was given a table in the bar area, which was better anyway — more relaxed and the sunlight was coming through the large bay windows.

Pearl Liang, like most places nowadays, does dimsum by the paper-and-pencil system. I don’t mind it, as I remember those old stinky (and hazardous) carts. And also, I like Pearl Liang because they are happy to pour you a very large glass of wine with your dimsum. I placed my order and was waiting to feast…ah, back in blighty…

Pearl_Liang-minced_pork_croquettes

The first to arrive were the minced pork croquettes. Not bad, a little too glutinous perhaps, but a nice little treat. Then three of my orders showed up after I finished these.

Pearl_Liang-turnip_cake_shumai_scallop_dumpling_

Now these were nice. The shumai (top) was as usual, delicious. The turnip cake (left) was also prepared very well, flavourful enough to not require the usual sticky sauce that I’ve grown to dislike with this dish. The scallop dumplings (right) were also very delicious. So far pretty average but solid and tasty. And the wine pour was very generous, always a plus in my book.

Pearl_Liang-sticky_rice

The last of my main order was the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. These two small packages were done well. Not as sticky and oily as I’m used to, which is a good thing perhaps. Generously filled, these were less filling than the “normal” ones due to its small size. However much I like it, I miss the traditional ones partly because they are easier to stuff properly with goodies.

I took a little break and enjoyed a bit more wine. I figured it may be awhile before dinner as I was meeting with a friend for drinks this afternoon, so ordered a last dish. No dessert, of course, but a cake nonetheless.

Pearl_Liang-octopus_cake

My “dessert cake” was actually an order of fried octopus cake. Roughly minced octopus fried in these delicious morsels…mmm, this was by far the dish of the day. Really tasty and interesting. Excellent!

I drained my wine and paid my bill and as I was walking out I shocked those sitting next to me — a mixed English and Polish party — when I spoke to them in Polish when their children were playing a little too crazily and, frankly, abusing the carp in the mini koi pond… I walked into the sun laughing and strolled along the smelly Paddington canal back to my hotel for the inevitable nap after so much food and 3 mega glasses of wine…

Ah, sometimes it’s good to be back in another of my “home towns” if even for 1.5 days…

Pearl Liang
8 Sheldon Square
London, England

Review: Onyx

Budapest,
24 May 2013

It was wee rough getting to Budapest this time (see my rambling entry here), but was very much looking forward to my dinner this evening at the other 1-star Michelin restaurant in Budapest, Onyx. Last time in Budapest I dined at the other Michelin restaurant, Costes, and that was excellent.

I was looking forward to seeing my dear friend, who also joined me at Costes…no guy on this planet doesn’t like walking into a fancy restaurant with a stunning and famous model half his age, right? She was a little under the weather and I was also zonked, so we did not partake in a tasting menu and went a la carte. I must come back for a proper tasting here one day.

The cozy Onyx was already a step up from Costes, both in service and opulence. It really has that Michelin feel about it, extremely attentive service and dedication to details. Perhaps a little more formal than Costes, but a wonderful place to experience a fabulous meal.

Again, as both of us were a bit on the slow side today, we just enjoyed some wine by the glass instead of anything more. After we ordered, a tremendously large bread cart arrived…wow. A rather stunning selection. Not quite the fantastic offering of Vienna’s Steiereck im Stadtpark, but quite a dazzling selection. But unfortunately I was not in a “bread mood” that night and sparingly selected some… They were good, I wish I could have enjoyed it more.

Not long after we were presented two amuse bouche simultaneously:

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The first features the cucumber, which was useful to refresh the palate. My friend did not like it very much. However, the razor clams (under the foam) we both thought were excellent. A good start.

After a short time my starter arrived (my friend did not want a starter, but kept at the bread), the roasted duck liver. Wow…

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Now if there’s something Hungarians are damn good at doing is liver. This was so utterly decadent I was nearly delirious. I don’t do liver too often as my health won’t permit it and I know I can get utterly addicted to it…and when it is as good as this one… Wow…wow…wow…

My friend hates liver (bad childhood exposure to it, like for so many others…) so she didn’t want to try it. Too bad, it was so amazingly rich and decadent… I was loving this dinner. Amazing food, awesome restaurant, attentive service, and wonderful conversation. Sometimes I do feel blessed, even when I feel out of it…

Then our main courses appeared. She ordered the seabass with lobster, but I chose the venison.

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This should be a poster of how to do venison. Cooked spectacularly well, the natural flavours of the meat accented by just enough spicing without hiding the wonderful taste of this fabulous meat. I was floored by this….awesome. I had a few nibbles of her seabass also and it was excellent.

Sadly, we were both spent and not feeling that well, so we called it a night after a lavish coffee presentation. I walked her out and put her into a cab and made the short walk back to my hotel for a quick pálinka and much-needed rest.

I really will come back to Onyx to enjoy a full experience next time in Budapest. This is such an awesome restaurant and it really deserves its Michelin star. Frankly it needs to get onto the SanPellegrino list too. The cooking is better than Costes as is the service, as good as Costes was. Onyx has risen to my personal Top 10 list after this excellent dinner. Certainly the best meal I’ve had in Central Europe, even eeks out Die Quadriga in Berlin.

Wowing me on a night I don’t feel good? That’s a hell of an accomplishment.

Onyx*
Vörösmarty tér 7-8
Budapest, Magyarország