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Hungry Hungarians

Margaret Island Bistro
The Strand, Sliema

Food: 7/10
Service: 7/10
Ambience: 5/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 7/10

It is too hot for dumplings. And far too hot for goulash. Making matters worse is the malfunctioning air conditioning that gradually defeats our spirits, reducing us to irritable beasts that no longer possess the will to eat.

A further cause of anguish is the poor lighting. There is little natural light and the dimmed lamps have a dulling effect on the senses. The restaurant is a long line of sleepy tables and the place feels rather cheerless and characterless.

The staff are friendly, but their smiles can do little to lift the oppressive gloominess that hangs over the place. The music is deafeningly loud and absolutely awful. It tortuously echoes down this dreary dungeon of a room.

An establishment’s ambience sets the stage for the meal ahead. Experiencing unease and discomfort within the confines of a restaurant is wholly, and unnecessarily, agonising. Fortunately, there’s the food. And it is good enough to prevent the entire experience from degenerating any further.

Margaret Island is a sliver of Hungary, tucked away on the Sliema Strand. Iconic Hungarian dishes fill the menu incongruously juxtaposed with the likes of smoked salmon and mango salad, tuna steak and baked camembert.

Such inharmonious incongruity perhaps boils down to an attempt to lighten up the menu. The gastronomy of Hungary makes for a profoundly robust cuisine best suited for the cold months.

Meat-based with strong spicing going on, it is a cuisine that is heavy on dairy, hearty and hot, with deeply-flavoured meat stews and substantial soups at its heart.

We begin with some appetising hortobagyi, a Hungarian speciality. Hortobagyi are the Hungarian version of crépes. Ours are of the savoury variety;  nicely-filled rolls of thin, light pancake, slightly thicker than crepes, packed with finely minced chicken boosted by spices and fried onions. The hortobagyi make for mouth-wateringly good, satisfying mouthfuls of saucy, spicy, meaty goodness.

Cooked to a traditional recipe, these filling pancakes are served swimming in a red sauce that is fragrant and colourful, spiced with the paprika that features so heavily in Hungarian cuisine.

This thick sauce embraces the hortobagyi in one long, reassuring hug. The pancakes are garnished with a sour cream sauce that is the perfect foil for the intense richness of this traditional dish.

Reasonably well-executed fare, boasting all the comforting flavours, the abundance and the spirited big-heartedness of pub grub

It is a dish that is everything you’d expect from Eastern European cuisine – deep, hearty and soothing.

The wiener schnitzel burger is a towering bulk of burger, stacked high with two pieces of light, crisp wiener schnitzel – a  national dish in Austria but equally popular in Hungary, where the gastronomy has strong Slavic, Turkish and Austrian influences. The moist, thinly pounded escalopes of pork tenderloin had been dredged through flour, beaten eggs and fine breadcrumbs before being pan-fried.

The crumb coating resulted in the most beautiful golden brown, crinkled crust; each cutlet tasty and tender on the inside. The schnitzels sit on a bed of crisp pickled cabbage, a staple in the cuisines of Eastern Europe.

Cabbage features heavily in Hungarian cuisine where it most often surfaces as its pickled self. Pickling is a common pastime in Hungary. A vast array of preserved vegetables and fermented foods are fundamental to the Hungarian gastronomic identity; they are the nation’s pride and joy.

I like the pickled cabbage at Margaret Island; it is crunchy and deliciously tangy with a sour sweetness to it. The balance of flavours isn’t quite perfect but it is refreshingly good and makes a lovely accompaniment to the meat.

That quintessential Hungarian spice, paprika, makes an appearance once again, this time as a burger garnish. As an alternative to  ketchup, the burger bread is smothered with the fiery hot fury of a spicy red paprika sauce. 

There is an agreeable sweet-smokiness to the sauce, but it is choking the burger. There is so much sauce that I am forced to scrape away a good quantity of it with my knife.

The bread is supposedly homemade. If it is, they’ve done a shoddy job of it. It is hardly the finest quality burger bun around and its gumminess makes a tedious chore of chewing. To accompany the burger, there are hulking slabs of big, fat chips; edible but greasy and a touch too salty.

Cooked to order, the roasted fillet steak is far from being butter-tender. It is boring, it falls flat. The meat had been cooked much closer to medium than to the desired medium-rare; however, the gravest sin is that it had not been properly seared.

All the enhanced savouriness and complex depth of flavour attained from searing over high heat was thus lost, with a resulting steak that could not boast of that all-important, tantalizingly rich, brown crust of caramelised meat.

A side bowl of creamy mushroom sauce is nothing to write home about. Overly thickened, it lacks good body and texture and clings to the meat in unsightly clumps.

Culinary sensation of the 1970s, the Chicken Kiev is my last taste of things at Margaret Island. This stuffed chicken dish ushered in a new age – the age of  convenience food – making headlines as the UK’s first chilled ready meal. The history of this dish is littered with controversy, with the Kiev’s invention attributed to both Russian and French chefs.

In this vigorous debate one thing is certain – no Hungarian was involved in its inception, although the Kiev has nonetheless been adopted by Hungary, along with the rest of Eastern Europe. Margaret Island serve their Kievs with an enormous mound of fluffy mashed potato.

I take comfort in its density, but the potato is heavily under seasoned. The Kiev, on the other hand, is quite irresistible, comprising an entire fillet of succulent chicken wrapped in the crispiest crust imaginable; its hot core oozing with a heavenly combination of garlic, butter, finely chopped parsley and cheese. It is positively gushing with buttery, cheesy goodness.

Margaret Island serves Hungarian comfort food. It is reasonably well-executed fare, boasting all the comforting flavours, the abundance and the spirited big-heartedness of pub grub. The food is a solid seven but the leaden ambience leaves much to be desired. It’s enough to murder the appetite and ruin even the best of lunches.

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