Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Gay Hussar, 2 Greek Street, London W1

March 14, 2010

The Gay Hussar, 2 Greek Street, London W1

By Reviewed by Toby Young

The left-wing intelligentsia used to plot leadership challenges at The Gay Hussar. Now it's neither liberal nor elite

If I was running BBC4, I'd commission a documentary about The Gay Hussar. It's not just that it has an interesting history in its own right, being London's first Hungarian restaurant; it would also enable you to chart the rise and fall of the liberal intelligentsia. Ever since it opened in 1953, the fate of The Gay Hussar has been intimately bound up with that of Britain's intellectual class, peaking in 1980 with the election of the late Michael Foot as Labour leader.
The restaurant was opened by the son of a ship owner, Victor Sassie, who was sent to Budapest in 1932 by the British Hotel and Restaurant Association; after training under Károly Gundel, a culinary legend in Hungary, he returned to London to open his first restaurant, Budapest on Dean Street. During the war, he served with British intelligence in Hungary, then opened a second Budapest on Frith Street before finally unveiling The Gay Hussar.
It immediately attracted the patronage of several publishers in the area, including Jonathan Cape and Rupert Hart-Davis, and it wasn't long before it could name TS Elliot among its regulars. However, it was the restaurant's discovery by the firebrand Welsh MP Aneurin Bevan that led to it becoming the unofficial headquarters of Labour's intellectual left. Several Party coups were plotted here. Fixtures at these occasions included Tom Driberg, Ian Mikardo and Barbara Castle, all Labour MPs. They were the high-living, seditious branch of the Party - not so much champagne socialists as Tokay Trotskyists.
The Gay Hussar's fame peaked in the early 1970s when The Daily Mail got hold of a bill itemising just how lavishly a Soviet delegation had been entertained by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It stuck it on the front page, causing widespread panic among Labour MPs, who became convinced there must be an enemy spy on the restaurant's staff. However, they soon returned and it wasn't long before they were plotting Foot's ascension as leader of the Opposition.
Walking through its doors today, it quickly becomes clear that its best years are behind it. I visit on a Friday night, with my wife Caroline, and Charlie, a teacher friend, and there are precious few intellectuals in evidence. On the contrary, the table next to ours is occupied by a couple of elderly American tourists and beyond them is a table of drunken office workers, some wearing party hats. The shelves are still stacked with the biographies of left-wing demigods, but their authors are long gone.
I start with the restaurant's famous chilled wild-cherry soup, while Caroline opts for the fried mushrooms with tartare sauce and Charlie has the fresh asparagus and bacon salad. They are both reasonably happy - the mushrooms are a little on the greasy side - but my soup is disappointing. It tastes like cherry-flavoured Actimel, the probiotic drinking yoghurt. I've got nothing against Actimel, but at £4.50 a bowl I was expecting something a little more special.
For mains, I have the Dutch calves' liver sautéed with onions, bacon and paprika, while Caroline goes for the vegetarian goulash with galuska and Charlie has pork medallions with bacon, onions, potatoes and paprika. Again, they've no complaints, but my dish is a shocker. Instead of the delicately fried liver I'm expecting, I receive a pile of dark brown slop. It has the texture of mashed potatoes.
We think about ordering pudding, but the descriptions are so unappetising - sweet cheese pancakes, anyone? - we ask for the bill. The total of £96.58, including a £29.95 bottle of Chablis, seems a little steep for Eastern European comfort food.
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a thrusting young journalist, I used to lunch at The Gay Hussar quite often and I remember the food being a lot better than this. What has happened? I suspect the gradual falling away of the restaurant's left wing clientele is to blame. As a general rule, the more indiscriminate a person is in their commitment to socialist dogma, the more discerning their palate.
No doubt The Gay Hussar will soldier on. And who knows, if Labour loses the election, perhaps Ed Balls and his cronies will meet here to mastermind his leadership campaign. The ghosts of 1,000 left-wing conspirators will look on approvingly.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The Gay Hussar 2 Greek Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 0973 Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. About £95 for dinner for three, including wine
More political hotspots
The Goring Hotel
15 Beeston Place, London SW1, tel: 020 7396 9000
This wonderfully old-fashioned, family-run hotel is a haven of calm near Victoria; with its splendid, airy dining-room and discreet service, it's great for business
Marsham Court, Marsham Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7834 9552
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts at this club-like Westminster stalwart, whose sound, traditional British values make it perfect for business lunches
Kennington Tandoori
313 Kennington Road, London SE11, tel: 020 7735 9247
Very popular with local yuppies as well as MPs, this reliable curry house has built up a broad following for its light and fresh-tasting fare
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.com

1 comment:

John said...

If you are familiar with real Hungarian cuisine you will be very disappointed with the Gay Hussar. Most of the dishes are poor copies of the real homemade Hungarian fare and to be honest I would feel embarrassed to bring somebody to this eatery and proclaim it as being real Hungarian restaurant.

The quality of the dishes is poor and the taste leaves allot to be desired. When I went there the other evening they had run out of Galuska (dumplings made of flour, eggs and water) that would be like a fish and chip shop running out of chips. The lame excuse from the waitress was that they had run out of eggs and they could not buy them locally as only very special organic eggs would be acceptable!! The Gulyas soup was over spiced, the gypsy pork medallions were over cooked without a hint of garlic or taste and the shredded liver was like rubber. Finally my partner decided to try and brighten up a miserable experience by ordering the Somloi Galuska, this tasty rum flavoured sponge bathing in lashings of chocolate sauce, raisins with fresh whipped cream on-top had been turned into a piece of stale dry cake with a few drops of chocolate sauce dripped over it.

The chef has apparently been there for 22 years, I think this guy has done more to destroy the identity of Hungarian food than anybody else. At £80 for two for such a disaster I would recommend that this place is avoided like the plague. Unfortunately, if you want to experience real Hungarian cuisine you have to travel to Hungary!