I love reviewing restaurants. Most people would say I have the best job in the world and I would agree. I eat all over London and, increasingly, around the rest of the world, and it’s a privilege. A good choice of words, as The Gay Hussar is one of the few restaurants for which I now have a loyalty card.
The Gay Hussar has been around since 1953 and was opened by Victor Sassie who was an iconic restaurateur for 34 years; he was the son of a Swiss emigrant who arrived in Cardiff and married a local girl. They moved to the shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness where Victor was born in 1915. He had a passion for Hungarian cooking and eventually became an honorary Hungarian on account of his food.
Victor has sadly gone but the restaurant has remained very much in its original form and that, along with its superb food, is its strength. The Gay Hussar is at the “other end” of Greek Street but it has garnered loyal followers and continues to attract new ones. It has a certain and very definite charm that’s difficult to emulate. The restaurant has a timeless ambiance that has to have evolved naturally.
The Gay Hussar is set in a Georgian town house – a cosy ground floor with two additional private dining rooms above. Dark wood panels are hung with cartoons of celebrated politicians and statesmen who made this restaurant their own semi-private club. It was famed as a haunt of Labour Party grandees back in the days when there were real characters, and a smattering of outspoken eccentrics, at the helm or gracing the parliamentary back-benches.
I can understand the draw. The food here encourages relaxed and lingering meals punctuated with good conversation (politics not obligatory). The portions are famously substantial and delicious, with dishes that range from the comforting and rustic to the striking and smart. Both styles are representative of Hungarian cuisine, with roots in either the countryside or the sophisticated cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Goulash is the dish that comes to mind when one thinks of Hungarian food. Most people’s lexicon of dishes probably starts and ends with that. If you want to try the real thing then order the hearty Gulyásleves – Beef Goulash Soup – as a starter, but we wanted to taste as broad a range of starters as possible so we chose Hideg Izelito – mixed Hungarian hors d’oeuvres – which was a large plate of most of the cold collation. We shared this platter and I would advise all those other than rugby players to do the same: there will be more delights to come, so save room.
Csirkepaprikás – Chicken in Creamy Paprika Sauce – is a well-loved favourite and it has all the typical characteristics of Hungarian food: it’s rich, flavourful, with plenty of the sweet paprika for which the country is renowned. But I wanted a simple main course so I chose Brassói Ermék – Pan-Fried Pork Fillet with Diced Potatoes, Bacon and Garlic. This was moreish peasant-style fare with crispy nuggets of potatoes flecked with the aforementioned spice.
Füstölt Libamell – Smoked Breast of Goose with Sólet and Red Cabbage – took my guest’s fancy. This was a striking and cheffy presentation but the ingredients were far from nouvelle, showcasing still more of the Hungarian culinary tapestry.
Dobos Torta – Layered Gateau with Caramel Top – is a classic Hungarian dessert but even in Hungary it’s more often bought than made at home, a restaurant and coffee shop favourite. Well worth a try if you have a gap to fill.
Chestnut Puree is equally traditional and is, by contrast, very often made at home. Not a difficult process but still somehow a dessert more enjoyable when made by the fair hands of a chef. It’s difficult to make a pile of chestnut puree look appealing, at least to those who are unfamiliar with the confection. Here it is served in classic fashion as soft puree noodles surrounding sweet cream. A liberal lacing of dark rum is the key to success here: there should be enough for the diner to suspect that there might be a dash or two of alcohol on the ingredient list, but not enough to make standing by a naked flame a fire hazard.
The restaurant manager, John Wrobel, is a warm and genial host. Yes, another well-chosen word: one feels more like a guest in a private home. John ensures that everything runs like clockwork but finds time to exchange a few words with his regulars. The Gay Hussar is warm, friendly and intimate, and the food is rather good as well.
The Gay Hussar
2 Greek Street, London W1D 4NB
Phone: 020 7437 0973
Visit The Gay Hussar here