Restaurant: Going Hungary

Lunch with comedian Frank Skinner at one of Old Labour's last bastions
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the first week of the New Labour government, it seemed appropriate to revisit that most Old Labour of restaurants, the Gay Hussar in Soho, where politicians and left-wing journalists have gathered since the Fifties to plan the revolution over comforting Hungarian nursery food. In the past few years, Soho has gone through a different kind of revolution to become Britain's most lively gay neighbourhood but, despite its name, there is nothing remotely gay about the Hussar, which remains a byword for sturdy masculinity.

I arrived to find my lunch date, the comedian Frank Skinner, already cosily ensconced at a corner table, beneath a framed cover of Tribune signed by Michael Foot. This was Frank's first visit and he was most impressed to learn from a promotional leaflet that the Gay Hussar had recently been voted the best Hungarian restaurant in Europe. "Do you think that includes Hungary?" he wondered. We agreed that the dark, wood-panelled room was like a snug gentleman's club, but with the red plush banquettes, bordello- size mirrors and Hungarian nick-nacks on the walls adding a rather louche note to the atmosphere - "It's the kind of place a man would bring his mistress," is how Frank put it.

At one end of the room, shelves of heavyweight books written by the Gay Hussar's illustrious patrons look like they have actually been read, rather than bought by the yard by an interior designer.

Given the Gay Hussar's reputation for robust and meaty food, I thought I had made a wise decision in taking a red-blooded male like Frank, rather than a girlfriend who would try and order mineral water and a rocket salad. But, as we studied a menu, rich in dishes such as pressed boar's head and minced breast of goose, he dropped the bombshell that he has recently stopped eating meat. As he doesn't drink, either, I began to wonder if he was the ideal companion, but he threw himself into the occasion by starting with chilled, wild cherry soup, probably the restaurant's most famous dish.

I went for Hungarian fish terrine, a tasty jellied cube of pike and finely chopped egg accompanied by beetroot salad and sliced cucumber. Frank's soup was pink and creamy, like melted raspberry ice-cream and he was pleasantly surprised by its unusual taste - sharp but not too sweet. He was lapping it up greedily until he realised that it contained lashings of white wine, so rather than risk the possibility he might fall sensationally off the wagon and order pint after pint of it, we decided to swap starters, or, as Frank put it, "change our hors d'oeuvres in mid-stream".

Our drinks, menus and first course had all arrived in such quick succession that we'd barely had time to study our fellow diners. In fact, it was the first time I can remember being in a restaurant when I've wanted to complain that the service was too quick. On a rainy Friday lunchtime, the room was full and, although Frank was the only man in the place not wearing a suit and tie, the other customers were, on average, surprisingly young, including at least as many Peter Mandelson types as Lord Goodmans. There were family groups, too, perhaps reflecting the fact that, though the surroundings feel opulent, the set-lunch price is, at pounds 16 for three courses, fairly competitive in the spanking new world of Soho.

Frank's main course, fish dumplings, turned out to be not so much dumplings as bullet-shaped patties of minced carp and salmon, served in a dill and mushroom sauce, on a bed of buttery rice. Despite their overwhelming fishiness, Frank loved them, though I found their mousse-like texture unpleasantly pre-chewed. My chicken paprika was fine but no more - two bland joints of chicken in a creamy sauce which didn't betray any of the expected tang of paprika. But I liked the thimble egg dumplings which accompanied it: free-form nuggets of noodle which reminded Frank of the polystyrene nodules used as a packing material - "It looks like the chicken arrived by post in a cardboard box and the chef just emptied the contents onto a plate."

We shared a side dish of juicy, shredded marrow which was surprisingly tasty, for marrow, and agreed that the main courses were good, but not exceptionally so - "The kind of food your auntie, who's a very good cook, might make," said Frank.

This lunch was something of a healing process for both of us. For me, it was an attempt to exorcise the memory of a romantically disastrous trip to Budapest I had recently experienced, when the emotional Sturm und Drang was heightened by the fact that all the restaurants seemed to feature gypsy bands which wandered from table to table serenading the diners, meaning we'd had to endure a succession of gulpy "where do we go from here?" conversations while violinists in beribboned waistcoats fiddled away two inches from our noses. For Frank, the Hungarian hurt was less personal but no less bitter, being grounded in the belief that England first began to falter as a footballing nation in 1953 when they were humbled in a 6-3 thrashing by the Magyars at Wembley, their first home defeat by overseas opposition.

When we later learned from our waiter that 1953 was the year in which the Gay Hussar first opened, we wondered whether it was mere coincidence, though as both of us were by now feeling thoroughly immobilised, it seemed unlikely that the winning team could have dined at the Gay Hussar before their Wembley triumph. As we slumped exhausted in our banquette, our waiter mercifully kept a discreet distance and didn't try and hustle us through to the next stage of the meal, although, if we'd been in Budapest, a gypsy band would doubtless have chosen that moment to erupt at our side with a wild Transylvanian lament.

By the time we were ready to order puddings, Frank had put aside his resentment about the whole 1953 business and was getting on famously with the head waiter, who had recognised him and given him royal attention throughout the meal, no doubt with a view to obtaining a signed copy of the 1996 Fantasy Football League Diary to add to the bookshelves. Suddenly, fearing that I was going to do a hatchet job and the friendly staff would feel he had betrayed them, Frank began to panic - "You've trapped me here under false pretences - I'm a prisoner in the Goulash Archipelago..."

He finished with raspberries, which he felt were all that raspberries should be. "I'd be happy to put them into a time capsule to show future generations what raspberries were like." My sweet, cheese pancakes were robust to rubbery, with a pleasantly melting, cheesecakey filling containing plump sultanas. By starting with a sweet soup and ending with a cheesy pudding, my meal had followed a kind of Time's Arrow-style reverse trajectory, but given the time- travelling atmosphere of the Gay Hussar, it seemed entirely appropriate.

Our bill came to pounds 44, including mineral water and coffees, and while we paid, our waiter told us that, though the restaurant is still patronised by members of the Labour old guard such as Lord Callaghan, Tony Blair has been there, too, and they are very much hoping he will return now that he is prime minister. "It will be very good for business," he said, revealing himself to be completely in tune with the spirit of New Labour. As we stepped back out into Soho and the new world of Granita socialism, it was reassuring to think that it still holds room for a delightful throwback like the Gay Hussar.

The Gay Hussar, 2 Greek Street, London W1 (0171-437 0973). Lunch 12.15pm- 2.30pm. Dinner 5.30pm-10.45pm Mon-Sat. Set lunch pounds 16 three courses, dinner pounds 25-pounds 30. House wine pounds 10 per bottle. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair access, but not to toilets. Private dining room available

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