D.C. is the land of fundraisers—on any given night, you are guaranteed to find at least one gala, silent auction or dinner cruise happening around the city. It’s hard to organize a charitable event that stands out from the pack, but the Hungarian Embassy’s new Culinary Corner by Merényi series is sure to leave a lasting impression on your guests.
The embassy plans to offer the monthly series, which is equal parts supper club, cooking class and wine tasting, to nonprofits and charities to use as fundraisers. The organizations can set the price for tickets and will receive all of the proceeds. The embassy will host the event at the ambassador’s residence and will provide wine, spirits, ingredients, cooking materials and staff.
At a sample Culinary Corner dinner for the press Thursday, Lotti Letanóczky, wife of the ambassador, said the series was a good way to “showcase Hungary’s culinary heritage.”
“We want to make it available to other cultures,” she said. The ambassador was in New York, but will attend the dinners if he is available.
Like any good event, the press dinner began with a cocktail. The aperitif of choice was pálinka, a traditional fruit brandy that’s popular in Hungary. We sampled pear, William’s pear and plum flavors, but pálinka can be made out of just about any fruit. Pálinka’s got a bite to it—it must be at least 37% alcohol—but that doesn’t stop Hungarians from making it an everyday drink. There’s even a saying: “Say good morning with a pálinka.”
The event is intimate—there’s a 10 person max—partly because everyone needs to fit in the kitchen for the cooking demonstration by embassy chef Viktor Merényi. Each course is cooked by him and his sous chef/wife Zita Merényi-Bolla, but guests do get to help out. The menu will be different for every dinner, but they all will contain elements of traditional Hungarian cooking.
Our first course, for example, was goose liver brulée served with celery chutney and pogácsa, a savory biscuit that’s a favorite Hungarian appetizer or snack. Ours were garnished with cheese, although you can also top them with caraway seeds. The liver brulée was Merényi’s own creation, and he prepared it just like you would a typical creme brulée. The look and even the texture was the same, but the caramelized sugar on top provided a delicate contrast to the rich, slightly smoky taste of the foie gras puree.
Other dishes included quail soup, phyllo-wrapped rack of lamb with homemade pasta and cauliflower puree, and an apple-based dessert that was an adventurous take on apple pie.
Merényi is soft spoken, but he is clearly knowledgeable about Hungarian food and haute cuisine in general. He’s been with the embassy since 2009, and was the winner of the Judge’s Choice award at this year’s Embassy Chef Challenge. He has also worked in world-class restaurants in New York City, Hungary and Ireland.
Each course was paired with a Hungarian wine, and we received a brief overview of the wine’s region and background from Anna Stumpf, the embassy’s congressional liaison. Stumpf’s family owns a small vineyard in Hungary, which inspired her to learn more about the country’s wine-making industry. She said that Hungarian wines are not widely available in the U.S., but the embassy’s goal is to have small, boutique vendors begin carrying them.
One of the most famous Hungarian wine regions is Tokaj, and it is particularly well known for its dessert wines. During a blind taste test after dinner, we had to choose which of the three wines was the Tokaji, or a wine from this region. Winners took home a Hungarian cookbook, but everyone left happy, full and just a little bit tipsy.