How time flies when you’re having fun, eh? I realised the other day that this May, Cooksister will be celebrating its fifteenth birthday! It’s a pretty significant milestone and seeing as I love a good milestone, I have already started thinking about what I want to do and say to celebrate this pretty momentous occasion. I have been thinking, for instance, about how many people I have met through this blog, how many countries I have visited, and how many restaurants I have dined in. The answer in all three cases is “more than you’d think” – and you’d imagine that by now after all these years, I might be feeling a little jaded and that no invitation would have the capacity to surprise me any more. But then I open my e-mail and there is an invitation to review “london’s only organic Hungarian restaurant” and I discover my sense of surprise and wonder anew.
Making my way along New Cross Road on a wet and windy evening, I had my head down so low that I wondered if I would accidentally walk past The Rosemary – but it turns out it’s hard to miss seeing as the entire frontage is covered in foliage, flowering window boxes and fairy lights! This Stepping into the interior could not have provided a more surprising contrast with the grimy London road I had just walked along. The restaurant has a rustic and homely feel, enhanced by the wooden booths that line the window, which were built by the owner’s son Tamas – who also built the wooden structures on the walls containing plants. Owner Mihaly Herczeg himself was on hand when I visited and explained to us that this is actually an aquaponics system which enables them both to grow plants indoors and keep their fish tank clean. In fact, Mihaly proved to be such an interesting and inspiring host that I asked him a few questions about the restaurant and his philosphy.
image © and courtesy of The Rosemary
Have you always been in the restaurant business? How did you get into it?
No, I come from a long line of Hungarian farmers and my background in Hungary was in farming. My business partner Josze studied oenology and viticulture and is a qualified grape farmer and winemaker. When we came to London, we opened Dig This nursery in 2008 and also ran an Organic Cafe & Health Food Shop in Peckham & New Cross Gate. In 2015 we opened London’s only organic Hungarian restaurant, The Rosemary, in New Cross Gate.
Why did you choose to go down the organic route?
Coming from as farming heritage, I respect nature and the environment. I had an organic farm in Hungary and believe that organic food is not only healthier for people but also environmentally friendly and empowering to local farmers. So when I came to London and opened the nursery, I obtained four acres of land in Welling, Kent where I grew the plants for the niursery and had this certified as an Organic farm. So when we opened the restaurant, we naturally started using the produce from our own organic farm as well as sourcing ingredients either organcially or locally as far as possible.
You have a really interesting aquaponics system in the restaurant – please tell us a little more?
My son Tamas (who is a carpenter) and I set up the aquaponic system because we wanted to try and grow organic plants indoors in the middle of the city without soil and manual watering. By connecting the large fish tank in the bar area to the hydropinig crowing tunnels, the system uses less water as well as recycling water and does not require compost or soil.
How it works is that water from the fish tank is pumped around the tunnels in which the plants’ roots grow, Microbes from the fish waste in the tank feed the plants and while feeding, the plants clean the water. When the water is then pumped back into the tank, it requires no cleaning. This allows for the aquarium water to have the same pH of drinking water, which means that the fish live a healthy life and contribute towards the growth of the plants. We set the system up in May 2017 and since then we have grown lettuce, tomatoes and chillies indoors – and the fish tank has not needed cleaning!
image © and courtesy of The Rosemary
You have an impressive winelist – so many organic and biodynamic wines! Where do you source them from?
We have over 76 different Hungarian wines half of which are organic and some biodynamic. My buisiness partner Joszef has even been involved with the farming and producing of some of this wine. These wines come from 20 different regions within Hungary and range from sparkling to white, rosé, red, dessert and even an orange wine. Joszef and sommelier Roland put this wine list together and tried to present a complete list of all most famous Hungarian wines, for example the Tokaj, Aszu and Eger regions (the latter being known for the famous Hungarian Bull’s Blood red blends).
Who is the chef and what are the most authentic Hungarian dishes on the menu?
Szabolcs, our chef, went to culinary college in Hungary and has over 15 years of experience in the kitchen. He has been with The Rosemary since it opened four years ago. The most authentic dishes on the menu are hortobágyi húsos palacsinta (a savoury pancake filled with pulled chicken, fried onion, and topped with a sauce made of sour cream and paprika); gulyásleves (Hungarian goulash beef stew); házi tyúkhúsleves (slow-cooked clear chicken broth with pulled chicken, chunky vegetables and home-made noodles); vörösboros marhapörkölt, galuska (beef stewed in Hungarian red wine, tomato, paprika, and onions, served with nokedli noodles); csirkepörkölt (chicken paprikash); töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage laves); and Hungarian-style ratatouille.
After we were comfortably ensconced in a booth by the window, Mihaly talked us through the menu and once we had made our choices, he also offered to match a wine with each course for us, so that we could sample a variety of wines from their list. The list is very well priced (starting from £19.00 for a bottle and featuring nothing over £50) and includes such curiosities as an orange wine and a sparkling Tokaj! We shared two appetisers, starting with bean soup, a rich broth full of carrots and organic beans (£6.60), plus we added the optional chunks of smoked pork (£2.00). We loved the way it was served, in a mini-cauldron with little bowls of sour cream and absolutely delicious paprika paste. The broth was richly flavoured and filling, with plenty of beans and pork – perfect comfort food for a wintry evening. Our other starter was the beefsteak tartare (£8.50) served with cherry tomatoes, red onions and bell peppers as well as the restaurant’s homemade crusty bread and grated butter (why is this butter not served like this more often??). This is the Hungarian version of steak tartare, rather than the French, so the vegetables are too chunky to mix into the meat and are eaten alongside the mince – but the meat was of excellent quality and perfectly seasoned. Mihaly matched this with a truly unusual wine – a Serbian 2016 Maurer Fodor orange wine (a white wine made like a red, where the juice remains in contact with the skins for 6 days). The orange refers to the rich colour rather than any citrus connection or flavour and the resulting unique unfined, unfiltered organic wine had good structure while retaining the druity quince-like characteristics of the welschelriesling grapes from which it was made. A delicious match for the robust flavours of our starters.
For our mains we asked Mihaly what the most traditional Hungarian main courses on the menu were and based on his suggestions, I ordered the Töltött káposzta or stuffed cabbage leaves filled with with minced beef and rice, cooked together with shredded cabbage, tomato, smoked sausage and bacon and topped with sour cream (£13.50). I loved everything about this dish – the flavours worked beautifully together and it was deeply fulfilling comfort food Rosana ordered the Csirkepörkölt or chicken paprikash served with galuska or nokedli (egg noodles) – chicken thighs simmered slowly in a creamy paprika sauce (£13.70) – which was richly flavoured and meltingly tender. We were also tempted by the side dishes of csemege uborka (gherkins) and csalamádé (mixed cabbage) – £2.90 each – and the tejfölös uborkasaláta (cucumber salad) at £3.30. I loved all of these – the pickles and the cabbage were not too vinegary and the creamy cucumber was great with the spicy chicken. To match our mains, Mihaly chose a Hungarian Bott Frigyes 2016 Pinot Noir, a biodynamic wine, partly trod by foot, fermented spontaneously and aged in wood barrels for 7 months. The resulting wine is packed with ripe red fruits and has a great colour – the care and attention that has gone into its manufacture is evident in the quality.
“Dessert is compulsory at The Rosemary!” said Mihaly as he put the dessert menus down in front of us – and who was I to argue?? I chose the palacsinta barackos – crepes filled with homemade apricot jam (£4.50) – while Rosana went for the aranygaluska – sugared walnuts and baked doughballs in a vanilla custard (£5.90). We found the walnut dumplings a little stodgy, but the pancake was heavenly and the apricot jam filling reassuringly fruity and tart. To match the desserts, Mihaly chose a Tokaj – the most famous wine from Hungary. This 2015 Szolo is made predominantly from Furmint grapes and was a beautifully balanced example of Tokaj with notes of apricot, honey, spices and caramel. And to finish, Mihaly produced some digestifs in the form of Palinka sour cherry brandy and Unicum, an iconic Hungarian herbal liqueur made according to a secret formula of more than forty herbs and aged in oak casks – one of Hungary’s official drinks and a great digestif after a meal.
On the night we visited, there was an event in progress at the back of the restaurant with artworks and music and I asked Mihaly what other events hold at The Rosemary. He feels it is very important for the restuarant to engage with both the local and the London Hugarian community and wants the restaurant to be a community space as well as somewhere to eat and drink. As part of their programme of events at The Rosemary they host:
Live Hungarian Folk Music when they host their wine tasting nights, often with a Hungarian winemaker speaking
Free art exhibition every month – painters and photographers, mainly Hungarian but open to any artist.
Hungarian night 6th April – The Rosemary is a part of this year’s Telegraph Hill Festival and the evening will feature Hungarian food, drink, folk music and dance.
Sunday Tango – not Hungarian but for everyone in the New Cross community! Around 30-40 local dancers meet at The Rosemary and learn and dance Tango.
The Rosemary is only one stop from London Bridge and yet stepping inside is like taking a mini-break to Hungary. If you are tired of over-hyped, over-styled London restaurants, The Rosemary is a restaurant with a heart, and a deliciously authentic menu. Mihaly is a real renaissance man (he has recently taken up pottery and examples of his handiwork are on show all over the restaurant) and his enthusiasm for organic food, his hydroponics system, and Hungarian food, wine and culture is infectious. Whether it is for a wine tasting evening, a quiet dinner or a night of tango, the Rosemary is definitely worth a visit.
If you enjoyed this restaurant review, have a look at my other restaurant reviews.
Cost per head: £45 per head for 3 courses plus half a bottle of wine each
Nearest tube station: New Cross Gate
178 New Cross Road
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of The Rosemary but received no further remuneration and was under no obligation to write a review. All views expressed are my own and I retained full editorial control.
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