In terms of the culinary lexicon, “Hungarian cuisine” is not a term that springs readily to mind. My own experiences of Hungarian food is limited to a trip to Budapest, in the old days when we could visit other countries. Remember those days? They were good… I digress. My clearest memories are an obvious love of paprika, the deep-fried bready joys of the lángos (crunchy, covered in cheese and sour cream, I mean, what’s not to like?), sitting lakeside on a gloriously sunny day eating Halászlé, a punchily spiced, pike-heavy fish stew and being shouted at by a waitress in one establishment who’d asked me if I’d had one of Hungary’s famous stews yet. “I had an excellent goulash when I arrived,” I explained. She bristled, went and little red of face and loudly admonished me that “Goulash is a SOUP!!” “But it is quite a thick, meaty soup,” I mumbled as she stormed off… And I digress again. Bottom line is, aside from goulash (which is a soup, don’t you know), and a couple of things I’ve only seen on a very brief tour of the country, Hungarian is not a cuisine I’d have opted for any time soon. And then along comes Turul Project to, basically, show me I’m an idiot.
We’ll come to the (excellent) cooking and the (excellent) wine options in a sec but there are at least two other reasons to celebrate Turul Project. First, it’s an interesting restaurant in North London and, as a resident of the area, it’s about bloody time. I’ve been staring south for ages, looking at the great little places popping up around Peckham and Dulwich and such like and wondering when Finchley and Barnet and Wood Green et al will be hit with the same creative spirit, hence Turul Project feels like a big step in the right direction. Secondly, it’s the perfect use of the beautiful Art Deco space that sits above / around Turnpike Lane station, part deli, café, wine bar and shop and then, from midday ‘til 10pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, a beautifully executed restaurant space.
The menu is, in their words, “concise”: four starters, four mains, three desserts, plus the wine bar menu for those seeking something simpler and snacky. Dive into the full menu though and you’re (probably) in for an education, doubly so on the wine list, if you all know of Hungary is their justly celebrated sweet wines. On the subject of those, Tokaji Aszù makes an early appearance on the menu, alongside goose liver, brioche, Granny Smith and cabbage. It’s a fine sounding starter but our eyes were drawn elsewhere, lured by the promise of Eastern European pickles, in the form of pork terrine, radish, peppers and onions, and the fermented cucumber velouté, with smoked trout, dill cream, and caviar. The former was a robust, simple, delicious plate of food (the accompanying, in-house sourdough is also very good), the latter, well, those flavours just screamed “me”. The coolness of the cucumber, the acid kick of fermentation, the brightness of the dill, the richness of the trout, the salty, umami of the caviar… it’s a cracker of a dish, however you spoon it.
Mains, while perhaps more suited to an autumnal evening than a sticky summer’s day, were equally fine. Hare, bread dumpling “Vadas” (hunter) style, carrots was as gamey and comforting as it sounds. Monkfish “Paprikas”, pasta, curd cheese, sour cream, chosen as a nod to that aforementioned fish stew (and also because the curd is made by my friends at Tottenham-based dairy Wildes Cheese), was a fine plate of food, all big flavours, pleasing heat and creamy contrasts.
Perhaps my favourite discovery about Hungary on that all-too-brief trip – aside from the incredible bathhouses – is that they have an impressive obsession with cakes. There’s even an annual competition to find the country’s best cake, and the winning recipe is then made by bakeries and patisseries across Hungary. Genius, huh? Accordingly, I had high hopes for the desserts (increasingly so after the bread) and my faith was well-placed. ‘Ludláb’ torte, brandied cherries, sour cherry sorbet was terrific – I mean, when doesn’t chocolate and cherry seem like a good idea? – although the admirable heartiness and no-nonsense feel of the walnut dumping, vanilla, walnut ice cream made it the kind of hearty thing that, alongside a double espresso, would make a perfect elevenses on a winter’s day.
While the slow-changing menu won’t make this the kind of restaurant you’d visit weekly – well, not for a standard three courses – there’s much to recommend Turul Project, from its resistance to goulash clichés to the warmth of welcome and quality of wine list. Come on, North London. Let’s keep this spirit going…
1, Turnpike Parade