The Hungarians could teach us a thing or two about comfort food. Take turoscusza tepertovel, even if you can’t pronounce it: a towering platter of glistening egg noodles, shards of bacon, and random gobs of sour cream and farmer’s cheese. The noodles slip and slide inside your mouth, the dairy products melt and further lubricate, while the bacon explodes in the bland, buttery mass with all the power and smoke of a land mine. You’ll stumble from the table overdosed on carbs and enormously blissed-out, and live to feed another day.
Andre’s Café is an informal refectory that hides behind a Hungarian bakery on the Upper East Side, a place where all manner of luscious strudels, babkas, beiglis (poppy-seed rolls), and flodnis (layers of nuts, apples, and poppy seeds between two sheets of pastry) cavort in the front window. There’s no hint that a first-rate eatery lurks within. To make matters more confusing, while the baked goods are kosher, the rest of the vittles—containing pork products and meat-dairy combos—are emphatically not. Skip the baked goods for now, and traipse past yards of display cases to find a narrow dining room. The ceiling is bronze stamped metal, and the left wall is hung with antique kitchen implements and strings of red peppers—from which Hungary’s signature spice, paprika, is ground. The right features modern and historic views of identical scenes in Budapest. It’s like visiting the Hungarian capital today, then hopping into a time machine. Don’t forget to come back for dinner.
While the décor feels like a folk museum, the service and food is resolutely diner-style, with humongous portions of familiar foods (to Hungarians, at least), bare-bones presentations, and waitresses with spunky attitudes. One evening, our server stood tapping her foot in apparent exasperation as we fumbled with the menu, dropped it on the floor, and changed our order a couple of times. Who could blame her? As you might expect, by the end of the meal her heart of gold had been revealed. She spent extra time describing the desserts, many of which have wacky names. Apart from a couple of wraps and paninis as lunch items (which, with a Caesar salad, form the café’s sole link to modernity), the menu provides a greatest hits of starchy and fortifying Magyar cooking.
Arriving on a snow bank of fried potatoes, the wienerschnitzel ($15.95) is a magnificent piece of pounded veal, the cutlet flopping over the sides of the plate like a football player trying to fit onto a child’s sled. As you’ll discover with other entrées, too, bales of parsley lurk in the kitchen, because nearly everything comes heaped with it. Another pig-out is the stuffed cabbage—two huge leaves bursting with a mixture that’s almost all ground veal, surmounted by a heap of the café’s orange, un-sour kraut. Yes, you can make an entire meal out of cabbage here, especially if you finish up with Andre’s notorious sweet cabbage strudel ($8).
The chicken paprikash ($14.50) proved a disappointment. “This should be drowning in paprika,” my date exclaimed one evening, “but the sauce is barely pink.” The bird also had a reheated quality that found the flesh falling off the bone, but a bit dry. Other choices run to veal goulash, chicken cutlets done several ways, and peppers stuffed with the same meaty mixture as the cabbage. Also available is solent, a bean stew associated with Eastern European Jews, more often styled “cholent.” From the lean list of appetizers (which you don’t really need), most commendable are the savory crepes called palacsinta, especially the one stuffed with potatoes and smoked ham. Arrive when the bakery opens at 10 a.m., and you can call it breakfast.
For the sweet tooth, all of the foregoing has been prelude to the pastry cabinets. Wrapped in flaky sheets, the strudels are most prominent, including my favorite, plain poppy seed. But most strudels are made with canned fruit, which is something of a disappointment in our eat-fresh-or-die age. Corresponding to the savory palacsinta mentioned above are a line of sweet featherweight crepes featuring jam or nuts; these taste freshly made and are utterly delectable. Also available: pies, butter cookies, and Hungarian takes on Viennese pastries. But the most remarkable of meal endings is gesztenye pure ($7.50). A bowl of thick chestnut pudding that has been extruded into wiggly beige worms comes crowned with a cumulonimbus of whipped cream. This very strange dish is an acquired taste, but once you’ve tried it, you’ll never think of New York’s most prominent street nut the same way again.