When Erika Nagy, Balaton's cook, makes cabbage rolls, she doesn't bother with little piggies-in-a-blanket with thin tomato sauce. Instead, she creates massive babes weighing in at about a half-pound each, filled with ground pork, beef, and rice, wrapped in tender cabbage leaves, and cooked with sauerkraut, Polish kielbasa, and black peppercorns until the elements blend into a symphony of good tastes. A little bit sweet from the meat, a little bit tangy from the kraut, and a little bit spicy from the pepper and sausage, this is country-style Eastern-European cooking at its most flavorful.
Of course, the restaurant's staff has had about 39 years to perfect their culinary craft. Founders Louis and Therezia Olah came to this country from Hungary in 1957 and launched their first Cleveland eatery in 1960.
The tiny spot on East 93rd Street proved so popular that the couple soon found themselves hunting for larger digs. They opened Balaton (named after Hungary's Lake Balaton) on Buckeye Road in 1966.
Thirty years later, the realities of a changing neighborhood finally spurred the family to move to more genteel quarters in Shaker Square. The new Balaton opened in April 1998, with the Olahs' niece, Krisztina Ponti, and her husband, George, as partners and managers. (Nagy is Krisztina's sister, and both women were successful caterers in Hungary before coming to America in 1989.)
The restaurant now occupies a prime corner property on the Square, with plenty of Palladian windows lending it a spacious, airy feeling. The interior, decorated mostly in shades of cream and white, is bright, inviting, and elegantly spare. Touches of red--in the fresh flowers on the tables and the curtains at the windows--add energy and a bit of ethnic flavor.
But while the location may have changed, Balaton's assortment of well-prepared and reasonably priced Hungarian foods remains reliably the same. Therezia, now eighty, makes sure of that.
"She's here almost every day, checking on the food to make sure we are doing it right," Krisztina says affectionately. "And we are always happy to be able to learn from her."
Take those cabbage rolls, for instance, which Nagy cooks from Therezia's recipe. Mine came as part of the hearty Hungarian Platter, a combination plate that also included pork goulash and a choice of veal or chicken paprikash.
The chicken paprikash was tasty, too, if a bit impractical to eat. A small chicken leg, thigh, and wing had been pan-fried, then cooked in a broth of sweet Hungarian paprika, onions, and seasonings until they were nearly falling off the bone. The dish was finished with a generous dollop of sour cream, then ladled onto an oval platter covered with fingertip-sized, homemade egg-and-flour spaetzle. Unfortunately, the slightly greasy, unskinned dark meat was so well done that it kept slipping off my fork. When I tried to pick up a wing to eat out of hand, it fell apart. Eventually I gave up the notion of eating the chicken and simply scooped up the delicious, creamy sauce and buttery spaetzle with a spoon. I wished the chicken had been skinned and removed from the bones before serving and decided that next time I'll choose the veal paprikash--cubes of tender meat with mushrooms, sour cream, and plenty of paprika.
However, my serving of traditional Hungarian goulash, with cubes of perfectly trimmed and thoroughly cooked pork, was scrumptious. (The menu also offered szekely goulash made with pork and sauerkraut, and beef goulash.) Again, the savory Hungarian gravy--paprika, oil, onion, and garlic--was just right for spooning up with the spaetzle.
I met some resistance when I tried to convince my usually sophisticated adult dining companions to share my side dish of battered-and-fried chicken livers. Although I made what I thought was an eloquent argument that folks who blissfully eat octopus tentacles can't turn squeamish when faced with poultry organs, I couldn't win them over. Their loss, I say. The mild-flavored, firm-but-creamy livers, in their light, crisp batter, were delicious.
I also had been hoping to try a bowl of gulyas--a goulash-like soup made with beef and potatoes simmered in a rich paprika broth. Alas, it wasn't available that evening. Likewise, lecso, an interesting-sounding stew of tomatoes, Hungarian peppers, onions, and rice, either flavored with smoked sausage or available in a vegetarian version, wasn't to be had; nor were the homemade potato pancakes.
Instead, we continued to satisfy our Hungarian cravings with two house specialties: wiener schnitzel and chicken schnitzel.
Krisztina says the wiener schnitzel--tender, thinly pounded veal, coated with an egg-and-bread-crumb batter and fried--is the restaurant's most popular dish. No wonder: With its moist, tender, and slightly sweet-flavored meat coated in a remarkably light and crunchy breading, the dish was outstanding.
Like several other menu items, the wiener schnitzel comes in regular or small portions. But unless you make your living hauling canal boats, the small portion--two generous filets with applesauce, spaetzle, and a wedge of fresh lemon--will be more than enough to eat.
The chicken schnitzel--thinly pounded chicken breast prepared like the wiener schnitzel, with the same crisp, light breading--made a flavorful alternative for diners with dietary or ethical objections to veal.
We missed the warm buns with a Hungarian-style seasoned butter that the menu said would accompany our dinners. Instead, the entrees came with a basket of thick, crusty white bread and little plastic packets of Land o' Lakes. Our salads were also unremarkable: small bowls of iceberg lettuce in a sugar-oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Although the sweet dressing was pleasantly light, it had been applied much too generously.
Six Hungarian wines--two whites, two reds, and two dessert wines--are available by the bottle or glass. We chose a 1996 bottle of Egri Bikaver, a dry red wine made in northeastern Hungary for the past 500 years. Despite its scary moniker, which means "bull's blood," the wine proved to be a mellow, pleasant companion to our meals and was fairly priced at $16.95 a bottle.
Hungarians have an appetite for substantial desserts, and Balaton offers several tempting choices. The most unusual is a traditional winter treat: a bowl of cooked, mashed chestnuts blended with vanilla, sugar, and lots of rum, and topped with whipped cream. If you have a sweet tooth and a fondness for Ronrico, this dish is right up your alley.
We also enjoyed the large palacsinta--thin, eggy crepes rolled around apricot, cheese, nut, or poppyseed filling. We tried the poppyseed and enjoyed its fresh flavor and crunchy texture, especially nice in contrast to the moist, tender crepe.
A slice of Dobosh Torte--eight thin layers of white cake interspersed with seven layers of buttery chocolate frosting and topped with crisp caramelized sugar--was impressive-looking, but a little on the dry side.
Both the torte and substantial slices of flaky-crusted strudel came from Lucy's Sweet Surrender, the city's top Hungarian bakery. The warm, plump strudel slices proved to be the evening's dessert champions. Generously filled with fresh, lightly sweetened fruit and unstintingly powdered with confectioner's sugar, the buttery pastry was crisp, delicate, and rich. My favorite is the fresh baked apple, although I admit the juicy, slightly sour cherry is also very good; cheese strudel is on the list for my next visit.
That, and some more of those nice, fat cabbage rolls, will do me just fine.
Balaton. 13133 Shaker Square, Shaker Hts. 216-921-9691. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.
Breaded Chicken Livers (appetizer serving) $4.25
Veal Paprikash $11.95/$8.45
Hungarian Goulash $10.45/$7.45
Hungarian Platter $14.95
Stuffed Cabbage $10.45/$7.45
Wiener Schnitzel $13.95/$10.95
Chicken Schnitzel $11.95
Dobosh Torte $2.95
Homemade Chestnut Puree $3.75