Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Gay Hussar

I'd heard many a story about the Gay Hussar before entering the red-fronted restaurant last Friday – tales of pink soup and whisperings of political plotting. There's even a yarn still doing the rounds that a concealed video camera resides in a window opposite the front door, which is beamed directly into 10 Downing Street.

Founded on London's Greek Street in 1953 by vivacious Victor Sassie (half Swiss, half Welsh), The Gay Hussar has a rich political history. Named after the high spirited Hungarian light cavalrymen renowned for turning up at taverns and asking for buckets of wine for their horses, by the mid '50s, The Gay Hussar was attracting the attention of politicians, publishers and even T.S Eliot, who became a regular.

Story has it that Tony Blair was first persuaded to run for Prime Minister at the restaurant in 1983. His party were serendipitously seated at table 10. Today, the tiny restaurant, no bigger than a train carriage, is wall-to-wall with political cartoons by Martin Rowson of the Hussar's loyal Labour partrons, who beam and gawp at you while you eat. From Michael Foot and Andrew Neil to Peter Mandelson, whose biography, The Third Man, takes pride of place on the bookshelf, heaving with political tomes. Mandelson shares shelf space with Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and... Karl Marx. 'Many of the books are signed first editions', says Polish manager John Wrobel – the face of the Gay Hussar for almost 30 years. The walls are peppered with the odd non-politico: I spot Jeremy Paxman making eyes at the late John Mortimer.

The carriage-like interior is accentuated by the wooden pews lining the central aisle. On my visit, the place is packed and buzzing with animated banter. It feels like I've stepped back in time and am on a train journey from Vienna to Budapest. The food would certainly suggest so. My menu is emblazoned with a happy Hussar in royal blue, putting an affectionate arm around his huge horse. The table is already furnished with a pair of fire engine red chilies, laying languidly in a white dish beside a salt and pepper pot with a twee floral design.

My Hungarian dining companion starts with the chilled wild cherry soup, while I opt for the chicken pancake at his suggestion. Candy floss pink, the soup recalls a fruity gazpacho, and tastes like liquid cherry yoghurt. Made with sour cream and white wine, it's incredibly refreshing, but slightly too summery on this wintry night. Swimming in the soup are de-stoned cherries, which reminds my companion, almost wistfully, of the cherry soup his mother used to make him back in Budapest from the cherry trees in their garden. My pancake meanwhile, is wrapped like a borrito, and has impressive girth. Finished with a dollop of sour cream, pinch of paprika and sprinkling of red and green peppers, it's hearty, comforting, and ideal for the cold snap.

Before moving on to the main, a tattily-dressed rose seller walks in, trying to flog his flowers from a black bucket, which seems to enhance the feeling that we're dining in another era. The main event for me is a veal Wiener schnitzel so big, it probably has its own post code. The menu suggests it is served with sautéed potatoes and a pepper salad, which I eventually find underneath the cloud-shaped schnitzel that fills the entirety of the plate. Despite its off-putting size, it's well cooked, and surprisingly refreshing when doused with lemon. The accompanying cucumber salad is the culinary highlight. Drenched in garlicky sour cream and paprika (are you noticing a theme here?), the crunchy cucumber strips are light, cooling and moreish, while my guest's vegetarian goulash with egg galuska is hailed a success.

From the 20-strong wine list, we opt against traditional Tokay, and instead go for a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Blaufrankisch blend from upcoming Hungarian producer St Andrea. The playful pastel label is misleading – this is a serious wine. Tart with cherry, raspberry and red currants, it has attractive notes of peppery spice and clove. The smooth palate echoes the red fruited nose, and refreshing acidity coupled with low tannins make it incredibly approachable, though I'm sure it will age gracefully. After a pre-pudding liqueur: pear brandy for me, bitter Unicum for my guest, I somehow find room after my gargantuan schnitzel for walnut pancakes, recommended by Wrobel.

Folded over into a fan shape and covered with warm chocolate sauce, the pancakes are childlike and indulgent, while my companion's rum cream and walnut dessert is too cream heavy and rum light. Despite my misgivings about the food, I had a memorable evening at the Gay Hussar. In our fickle, easily-bored city there's a reason why the restaurant has endured: it radiates character. From its tiny, train-carriage interior, to the cartoons on the walls and books poised precariously above diners' heads, a night at the Gay Hussar is like taking a holiday into the past.

The food may be rustic, anachronistic even, but it adds to the charm. I'm certain the restaurant's loyal clientele have little desire to see the menu modernized, for food is only part of the reason why people come to the Gay Hussar. And they clearly keep coming back. The place is more than a restaurant; it's an institution, and I urge you, dear reader, to go at least once for the experience.


  1. Nice one! Perhaps the very best way to explain the purpose of this place, for Haut-Continenetal Michelinised Suppers you should go somewhere else but for a cute little dinner..... it was really nice indeed even not being the biggest fan of the local folk dishes. Cheers again! and the wine was cracking good, as well as the write up, splendid!

  2. "Story has it that Tony Blair was first persuaded to run for Prime Minister at the restaurant in 1983. His party were serendipitously seated at table 10."

    Um...maybe not :) It was 1982 and Blair was considering becoming an MP, not a PM.