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Budapest bistro Matzah Soldier drawing trendy clientele with a fresh take on grandma’s cooking

David Popovits, owner of the Matzah Soldier, sits down for a meal at his upscale restaurant in Budapest, March 2013.  (Cnaan Liphshiz)

David Popovits, owner of the Matzah Soldier, sits down for a meal at his upscale restaurant in Budapest, March 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — On a corner in the heart of the former Jewish ghetto here, David Popovits sits down for some matzah ball soup and super-sized dumplings at his newly opened kosher-style restaurant.

A burly, 40-year-old Hungarian Jewish businessman, Popovits used to eat in the restaurant as a boy, when its former owners ran a “dirty little place that smelled like oil but had good Wiener schnitzel,” as Popovits puts it.

It wasn’t the memories but the location that convinced Popovits to gut the place and reopen it two months ago under the name Macesz Huszar, or Matzah Soldier, a gastronomic temple of Hungarian Jewish cuisine.

Planted in the now fashionable 7th District, the area draws enough traffic to provide a clientele for this upscale establishment boasting designer chandeliers, a VIP room and an ample bronze bar.

The restaurant has earned some flattering reviews, but the eatery’s budding popularity is more than good for business. At a time of mounting concern over the rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, Popovits sees the restaurant’s promising start as a testament to Hungarian Jewry’s return to normalcy after long years of communist repression, when Jewish cooking and culture was the sole province of the elderly and the hard-core religious.

Popovits intended Matzah Soldier “to occupy a unique niche.” Budapest, he says, has several kosher restaurants that serve the city’s small Orthodox community and kosher tourists. And there’s Rosenstein, which is something of an institution for Hungarian Jewry even though it serves pork.

“There was nowhere for people like me: nonreligious, kosher-conscious Jews with a bit of money, a refined taste and appreciation for tradition,” Popovits says.

The mix of old and new is a strong element of the bistro’s aesthetic, which marries the coziness of a living room with an attentive and professional staff, wireless Internet and other features that contribute to a business-lunch atmosphere.

Since the fall of communism, Hungary has seen a cultural revival driven by people like Popovits who are in sync with contemporary cultural trends yet still want to carry on the Jewish traditions of their grandparents. The group is key to the success of Limmud Hungary, a Jewish learning event that draws hundreds every year, and a bewildering array of other Jewish cultural and social offerings serving Budapest’s estimated 80,000 Jews.

“There are five synagogues within half a mile of us,” Popovits says. “Those synagogues used to be rather empty but are now packed thanks to people like me, who are not religious but are connected to tradition. It showed me a business like Matzah Soldier could take off.”

The name Macesz Huszar — an antiquated taunt meaning something like “little Jew boy” — was chosen as a symbol of the modern Hungarian Jew.

“It has one leg planted in the Huszars, the 19th century Austro-Hungarian cavalrymen, and another in that most Jewish of foods and traditions, the matzah,” Popovits says.

Some patrons come for nostalgic reasons.

“I eat pork, no problem,” says Regina Szabo. “I came here because my brother told me the matzah ball soup tastes like our grandmother used to make it.”

Others, like Zsoltan Nagy, don’t even notice the words “Jewish bistro” emblazoned on the large window.

“Now that you mention it I see it, but I come here for business meetings cause it’s a cool place,” he told JTA.

But the Jewish element was not lost on local and even international media. Earlier this month, Time magazine opened an article about Hungarian Jewry with a scene from Macesz Huszar, which the publication described as “delicious proof of the renaissance of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish culture.” And the Nepszabadsag daily’s food critic praised the restaurant for “reinventing simple Jewish foods as delicacies.”

The daily was critiquing the stuffed goose neck, the duck breast filled with chopped liver and creamy cholent. But Popovits is most proud of the matzah ball soup and the brisket, which is smoked especially for the restaurant according to an old Eastern European Jewish recipe unavailable commercially anywhere in Hungary, according to Popovits.

“[We] try to reinvent the old recipes without departing from the tradition upon which they were based,” says Popovits, who operates two bars in addition to Matzah Soldier. “I often just buy a fresh piece of lamb, bring it to the kitchen and then we begin to experiment while consulting the old recipes until we get it just right.”

The next step for Popovits is compiling a cookbook of his own, which he says he may well name after the restaurant.

“Writing this book would be making a statement, reaching a milestone that says this is where we are,” Popovits says. “I would like to stake that claim: This is the place that Jewish East European food occupies right now, in the great culinary democracy of our times.”

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