Food & Drink

Review: Hungarian Rhapsody is a downriver stalwart

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(Find more photos of Hungarian Rhapsody dishes and charming interior here.)
Phenomenally popular after 24 years downriver, Hungarian Rhapsody is for those seeking prodigious plates of comfort food. It's the type of place where servers are still called waitresses, and where those knowledgeable and enthusiastic servers have been there forever and seem to know everything.

Named after the composition by Franz Liszt (you'd likely recognize it as cartoon music, if nothing else), the restaurant was founded by Steve and Darlene Szatmari and their daughter Jennifer Sullivan. Steve immigrated from Hungary in 1971, and Darlene's family had owned Danko's bar in Delray. Clearly, they're delighting the Delray diaspora.

Oddly, I tended to prefer the dishes that weren't particularly Hungarian — fish, pork chops — but perhaps that's because I wasn't born to the cuisine. We went with a friend whose mother was from a Hungarian-speaking region of Romania and brought her up on kosher-style Hungarian dishes, and she was enthusiastic.

When the server recites your salad dressing choices, it feels like a different decade: "ranch, Thousand Island, blue cheese, Italian, oil and vinegar, French" (the orange kind). The anomaly is the house dressing: vinegar, water, and sugar, which is as weak as it sounds. But it's best to skip the assertively ordinary salad anyway; you don't need anything to fill up on before the giant platters arrive.

Wines include six kinds of Tokay, a Hungarian sweet white made from grapes intentionally infected with "noble rot," a gray fungus that concentrates the sweetness. The iconic Hungarian red is Bull's Blood. (The menu assures the wary: "The wine has nothing to do with bulls or blood.") Prices have been kept low, $5 or $6 for a big glass. I found the Blood not bad but preferred an Apothic red blend from the Soft and Supple list — wine descriptions are one area where the Rhapsody has kept up with the times, and I actually thought I tasted black cherries among its subtleties, if not "brown spice." Other reds are "More Tense."

For appetizers, the Mixed Hungarian Hors d'oeuvres are salami, kolbasz (like kielbasa), and korozott (a spreadable mix of cream cheese, feta, and paprika), served with Ritz crackers. I liked the meats but found the cheese missable. Another starter is Hortobágyi palacsinta, shredded veal stew stuffed into crepes and topped with a mild paprika sour cream sauce — too much food for an appetizer. For me, the veal got lost among the other anodyne flavors. This was not true of cream of green bean soup, which tasted strongly of green beans despite the generous amounts of sour cream and dumplings.

I was an adult before I knew that "dumpling" didn't always mean the big fluffy mounds, made with baking powder, that my mom cooked on a chicken stew. The Hungarian version, nokedli, are smaller and simpler squiggles of flour-and-egg dough that add body without a lot of flavor — like a lot of comfort food, if we're honest. The Rhapsody serves them with chicken paprikash — three meaty pieces in a mild sauce. This national dish is simple — a roux made with paprika and sour cream. If you can finish this, you are not taking advantage of any of the other dishes on the menu.

A companion ordered breaded pork chops and found them exquisitely tender and moist. They were served with lesco, a tomato-pepper-onion stew with paprika that comes mild or spicy; the mild still packed enough punch to make it one of the more interesting tastes here.

Beef goulash is served in a metal kettle over an open flame, the flavor redolent of carrots. Pickerel was supposed to be "pan fried Hungarian style" and served with túrós tészta — homemade noodles with cottage cheese and bacon — but they were out of the latter, which happened with several of the dishes we wanted. The fish was excellent, in any case, light and buttery, though the káposztás tészta (cabbage and broad housemade noodles) that came as a substitute tasted pretty much just like noodles.

I didn't grow up eating stuffed cabbage, but I can see how it's a go-to comfort food. The Rhapsody's tasty version includes both a looser beef-and-rice mixture wrapped in cabbage, topped with more cabbage, and a kolbasz on the side, plus excellent buttery mashed potatoes. The Rhapsody also serves "International Broiled Dishes," and steaks with or without Budapest sauce.

For traditional dessert are palacsinta ("palachinka"), crepes stuffed with apricot preserves or sweetened cottage cheese with cinnamon. I found the crepes themselves rubbery and the innards nothing to enthuse about. But a dessert tray is brought for your inspection, with a half dozen housemade cakes and strudel from the Hungarian Strudel Shop in Allen Park. I can recommend krémes ("creamy"), an ethereal concoction of vanilla, sugar, and eggs between flaky pastry — a quintessential comfort sweet — as well as a robust rum cake. As with the wine, there was no shirking on the quantity of alcohol.

Be prepared for a longish wait for your food, and perhaps use it to peruse crafts from the old country, dolls dressed in the national costume, and embroidered tablecloths and runners. The tables are set with the lovely cloths, too, luckily protected under glass. Herendi and Kalocsa hand-painted porcelain is on display.


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