The White Swan Hungarian Restaurant – London
Even as a rookie in the cut-throat world of restaurant reviewing I could tell that this was not beginning well.
The address on the post-it note in my hand matched the empty shell of a property in front of me. Golders Green on a biting, grey January lunchtime. I was as far north as I had ever ventured on the Northern Line. I knew exactly how polar explorers must feel. I was cold, hungry and wished I was at home.
Inside the gutted building a team of builders were banging and drilling to the beat of Bob Marley on Magic FM. I caught someone’s eye and called out to him “this isn’t a Hungarian restaurant, is it?”
To his credit the builder resisted a barrage of sarcasm and settled for, “Nah, mate. Closed down years ago. It’s going to be a chip shop now. Try the White Swan pub down the road – they’ve moved there.”
The White Swan was empty too. Or nearly empty. Apart from the usual couple of old men sipping pre-noon lagers, a barman called Terry who was definitely not Hungarian, the only life of note in the White Swan was a massive (really massive) Doberman that leaped and barked as I entered the pub, causing me to leap and yelp.
Unlikely though the surroundings were, we had at least found our Hungarian. He was a short specimen, with a bristling moustache and manner. He did not speak English. Terry the barman explained that when the main restaurant up the street had closed, the White Swan had allowed them to serve their Hungarian food here in the pub.
Much confusion followed. Through Facebook we found someone who could speak Hungarian, phoned them in Budapest and passed the phone to the grumpy, hirsute chef to explain our project. After delays galore, not relevant to you (but relevant to our guest and friend Andy who ended up having to go home before we had even ordered our food), and including but not limited to having to wait for a butcher to deliver some meat, the Hungarian boss, Peter, arrived. Peter’s English was excellent and his enthusiasm for Hungary, Hungarian food, and Australian lager was unbounded. He sat at our table and we began to chat. Things began to look up.
Peter is an unlikely-looking gastronome, though little about this day could surprise me any more. He looked more like a bouncer, with a barrel chest, shaved head, bushy moustache, leather jacket, Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt, and -predictably- a motorbike.
He talked to us for a long time about the delights of Hungary and its food. He was intelligent, knowledgeable and passionate. He accepted our invitation for him to join us for our meal.
The meal that arrived certainly helped explain Peter’s physique: big portions, heavy on cream, paprika and calories. We ate goulash and stuffed cabbage and a type of gnocchi and meatballs and chips and much else beside. By the end I was a bit too full and sleepy to remember quite what I had eaten.
I enjoyed Hungarian food. I’m not sure I agree with Peter’s claim that it is one of the four key cuisines of the world (along with French, Italian and Indian), though I wouldn’t dare say that to his face. The food was definitely enjoyable. But, not for the first time, the real pleasure of the meal and this project was discovering a new corner of London in which to discover a new corner of the world, meeting interesting new people, and enjoying an afternoon that was certainly not predictable or boring.
So here’s to huge bowls of goulash soup and stuffed cabbage, washed down with glasses of cold, crisp lager. Cheers! Egészségére! Though don’t clink glasses, as that’s what the Russians (or perhaps it was the Ottomans) used to do after executing Hungarian revolutionaries…
The White Swan, Golders Green Road
London NW11 8HR