Aug. 03, 2005 - Issue #511: John Prine
Places don't get much more accomodating (or filling) than The Goulash
I never would have found it on my own, but far to the north and west of our usual downtown stomping grounds sits a bubbling cauldron of Hungarian hospitality. Located in an unassuming strip mall on a quiet Wellington Park side street, The Goulash Restaurant came highly recommended by a radiant young mother in my wife’s group of stay-at-home moms. Having spent time in Hungary, she and her husband fell in love with this tiny restaurant the first time they tried it and agreed to meet up with us for an introduction.
First and second impressions were a little daunting. The plain storefront held no hint of the wonders that waited inside, and I knew even without opening the door that the Eastern European kitsch factor would be cranked quite high. After a few moments, however, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Grapes and vines hung from a ceiling lattice, Hungarian flags and art festooned the walls and my eye kept moving to the antique wood stove in the corner. Thick red curtains blocked the punishing early evening sunlight that would have streamed through the front full-length windows. Each table had a different beautifully illustrated book of Hungarian culture: the full-colour pictures in ours detailed architecture over the centuries. Every touch was an authentic echo of a place that continued to live in the hearts of the owners.
The menu featured a small but ample selection of European delights. From salmon, cheese and caviar platters under $10 to the requisite goulash (half price in August), pastas and a tantalizing selection of entrées under $20, each dish was more appealing than the last. Since our guests’ barefoot 20-month-old daughter was busy chasing our shoe-stealing 15-month-old around the table, we could actually peruse, discuss and choose dishes without attending to the myriad needs of a solipsist toddler. The pair of blonde girls elicited smiles from the other diners and unruffled patience from our server, which reduced our parental guilt at their rambunctiousness.
We decided to skip appetizers to save room for what we knew would be a filling meal, plus my wife held hope for the possibility of dessert. We placed our orders with our laconic server and I requested a bottle of red wine for the table; our server recommended a Hungarian merlot called Dunavár ($17.50), which was robust, less tannic than I expected, and delivered a sensational black currant aftertaste. The wine was a definite hit around the table, though the toddlers stuck to their sippy cups of fine Edmonton tap water.
Besides the odd tourist trip to Europe, neither my bride nor I have done much traveling. We were fascinated to hear our guests’ stories of working in Asian orphanages and touring Turkey. Our entrées must have taken a while to prepare, but with kid-herding and conversation, the time flew by. I looked up suddenly and the key to Goulash Restaurant’s word-of-mouth popularity was revealed: the cuisine kicks ass.
Since the wild game for our guest’s Hunter’s Supper was unavailable, both she and my bride selected the csirke paprikas ($14.95). On a deep, square plate, the tender pieces of delicious chicken stewed in tangy goulash next to mounds of steamed vegetables and spatzle noodles. Paprika lent its colour and zing to the dish, but didn’t add unwelcome heat. The heat was reserved for my hefty lecso ($14.95). I adored the moist, spicy Hungarian sausage and enjoyed my own steamed vegetables, but I would have preferred spatzle instead of the crisp potato wedges. The real treasure of the evening was our guest’s husband’s Wood Plate ($16.95). His dish boasted an intimidating amount of food—pork loin under sauerkraut with lecso, vegetables and pan-friend potatoes served in a deep, smooth wooden bowl The dish harkened back to the culture’s agrarian roots and scored 10 out of 10 for presentation.
I wasn’t sure I could manage dessert after that staggering meal, but there was only one way to find out. I was immediately intrigued by the dobos hazelnut torte, but they were sold out. My wife and I decided to split an apple strudel with ice cream ($5.95), while our guests split a “crèpe à la Gundel” ($5.95). The desserts arrived quickly and we were trumped again. Our strudel’s hot, shredded apple laced with cinnamon inside a flaky crust was absolutely delicious, but couldn’t hold a candle to our guests’ crèpe splashed with rum and set on fire at our table. The moist walnut paste interior balanced out the chocolate and rum exterior for a sinful treat. Next time, our guests are going to order for all of us.
In this terribly arduous job, I rely heavily on recommendations. I was thrilled to find this diamond in the rough, and even more thrilled to savour a two-hour meal with wine for only $30 per adult, including tax and tip. Our server was warm and friendly while applying a slower pace to our service than I’m used to in Western cuisine. We didn’t feel at all rushed to place our orders, to finish our food, or get out of there. Even our energetic daughters were welcome: when one started to get sleepy, a clean tablecloth was laid on the floor for her. They don’t teach that stuff in restaurant management courses; that’s genuine hospitality. V
The Goulash Restaurant
13225 – 132 Street • 488-8878
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