Hungarian Mishmash

Hunger affects people differently. Some exhibit such physical symptoms as vertigo; for many, speech becomes an impossibility, the need to eat obliterating the desire to communicate -- this accounts for the silence, as thick as glass, that often precedes the service of a meal. Others become mentally distressed, the fall in blood sugar disrupting the blood-brain barrier until one is overwhelmed by confusion. I exhibit my own unusual variation on this behavior, actions that only my family recognize as the side effect of serious hunger. Denied food too long, I lose the ability to make decisions. I disdain the familiar menus, dodge familiar faces, and take an inordinately long time to select a place to eat.

This past January, for instance, my indecision caused my family and me to take a Walk of Culinary Death that led to a curious discovery. I had planned to cover Cafe Couscous, a Moroccan-Kosher establishment that has since gone out of business. The restaurant had assured me I didn't need a reservation. Upon arrival, however, we discovered that the waiting area was filled. After rocking on our heels for more than 30 minutes, we blinked and nodded and disappeared into the warm winter night. We faced a dilemma: I had no backup on the agenda for a review dinner. An ordinary meal would have to do. But Kane Concourse, the neighborhood in which we were attempting to dine, is better known for daytime businesses and upscale shops than it is for restaurants. We covered the block twice on foot, as I rejected one restaurant (B.C. Chong) as too expensive and another (Cafe Chauveron) as too formal. By then "grumpy" would have been a kind description of me; "tolerant" would have been apt for my parents.

Finally, after reading its internationally influenced menu several times and peering anxiously through the plate glass for other customers, we settled on a new neighborhood eatery, Cafe Gisela. Though the place was empty, the manager, a young man with a ponytail, assured us the restaurant was open and happy to serve. Still, we were pleased when another party entered after us, relieving us of the burden of being the only -- and last -- customers. Keeping kitchen staff chained to the grill long after clean-up is a special horror of mine, having worked for many years in customer-accommodating kitchens. Our host assured us the restaurant was scheduled to stay open late anyway.

All seemed normal as the manager, apparently the only floor staff in the restaurant, waited on our table. At his suggestion we began with a bottle of German wine the cafe offered as a promotion; fortunately, Gisela features a lovely little German/Hungarian beer-and-wine list to complement its largely Eastern bloc menu: goulash, bratwurst, and cevapcici (Yugoslavian beef sausage). My father ordered the catch of the day, a plainly grilled bluefish; my mother tried the house specialty of peppery Hungarian goulash, served with a choice of egg noodles or Bavarian bread dumplings. My husband requested the crisp, crackly cevapcici; and for some ethnic diversity, I decided to try Oriental stir-fry chicken and vegetables that turned out to be mediocre. Each of these entrees was accompanied by a house salad or a choice of soup.

During the clearing of the first course, we noticed the manager-waiter had broken into a slight sweat. A forthcoming individual, he immediately informed us that the overworked chef( the cafe's only one) had just quit, storming out the back door in a rage prior to cooking our meal. But if we would be patient, he said, he would find a way to serve us dinner, even if he had to cook it himself. Normally, no customers in their right minds would stay, let alone pay for such a dubious privilege. But since my family members are hardly ever in their right minds, or perhaps because our culinary adventure had already been too arduous, we took the news with good humor; we laughed and drank our wine. And we did eventually receive our food A the manager called in a favor from another chef. In fact, we found so much amusement in this nothing-can-go-right evening, we enjoyed, if not a completely appealing meal, at least an emotionally uplifting experience.

If only I could say the same for our second meal at Cafe Gisela. I was surprised earlier this summer to find the restaurant still in operation. Gisela, I had learned back in March, changed management that month, a few months after our first visit. Petra Scipio, a friend of German-born owner Gisela Ullrich, was now managing the place. Well, managers may change, but homestyle remains the same. At a recent meal, Ms. Scipio donned more than a managerial hat; like her predecessor, she played hostess, waitress, and cashier as well.

Some sequined-dressed Bal Harbourites were seated at the tables, but once again the restaurant was by no means busy. (Lunchtime looks better for Cafe Gisela, due to area businessfolk who seem to have developed a fondness for Hungarian, particularly in the absence of many other restaurants in the immediate vicinity.) Still, the dinner menu features a complete listing, including salads, sandwiches, and grilled meats and fish. And now that the nearby Budapest Continental Restaurant has gone out of business, Cafe Gisela may also be one of the few North Beach places in which to savor international specialties such as goulash and bread dumplings.

Several intriguing European items are on the menu. These include the sausages, representing a variety of nations: the aforementioned cevapcici; the Bavarian special, a platter of smoked turkey sausage garnished with gherkins, onions, and mustard vinaigrette; and "the wieners," a choice of one or two slim Kosher foot-long hot dogs. This time we tried one of the sausages, a mild bratwurst, nestled in a tangle of sauerkraut and grilled onions, garnished with juniper berries (a spice commonly added to sauerkraut and a favorite of northern European countries). A basket of fresh rye bread accompanied this dish, the caraway seeds providing another strong note to rival the juniper berries.

Other entrees weren't nearly as lively in either description or execution. The "Bay Harbor Boid," a half chicken supposedly marinated in the juices of citrus and garlic and then char-grilled, lacked their sweet and pungent influences. In addition, the skin, initially crisp and promising, acted instead as a mere subterfuge for an incredibly dry bird. Steamed vegetables and brown rice, a menu substitution for Long Branch fries and coleslaw, gave the illusion of a light meal; however, the melange of summer squashes and peppers had been bathed in butter.

We were surprised by an odd plate of grilled grouper, the catch of the day. Though moist and juicy, the fish had been described as a fillet -- but prepared as a steak. This piece looked like swordfish, sliced and chewed like a tender steak. Indeed, to cut it into bite-size pieces, my guest used a steak knife -- a remarkable utensil to use with fish.

First courses also merited a mixed review. An unappetizing, weak mustard vinaigrette, salty like bouillon, dressed the house salad, a casual, insipid toss. The mozzarella sticks seemed as if they were frozen, uninspiring deep-fried sticks of semi-elastic cheese. However, the split pea soup, pleasantly nutty and accented with ham, proved that this cafe has some positive Eastern European leanings that can be given greater emphasis than the mediocre American dishes that clog the menu.

We finished with the house dessert, the advertised oven-fresh apple strudel. Served cold, the pieces of apple were outnumbered two-to-one by raisins and tasted largely of lemon zest, an ingredient that should be only one of several in apple strudel, not the dominant flavor. Not exactly a dessert upon which to base a reputation, however "old country" it is; I've had flakier strudel in Italian restaurants. Weakened by hunger, it might have once satisfied me. But a second time? I'd rather make like a chef and walk.


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