THE HUNGARIAN MEAL I dream of would move from restaurant to restaurant - sausage here, stuffed cabbage there, dobosh torte someplace else. And maybe it would skip the main course altogether, just proceed through several appetizers to dessert. For what I have learned by gorging my way through the menus of Washingtons's four Hungarian restaurants is that highlights are found at each one, though one is hard put to construct an entire meal of them. The soups, the pastries, occasional breaads bespeak grandmothers showering their love on chopping blocks and pastry cloths. But the best-known Hungarian dishes - goulash, veal or chicken paprikash, wood platters arraying assorted veal and port cutlets - verify the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So try these restaurants in an experimental frame of mind, ready to see through the flaws to the occasional inspirations.
Csikos has the kind of setting that makes you pretend you're a pretender to a throne. The draperies and Austrian shades are patrician, the high ceilings and plasterwork frooom a fabled era. Tables are spaced as if real estate were measured in countries rather than square feet. With the whole smoked salmon on the sideboard, the lone red carnation on each table, this looks like a stage set for a faded empire - actually less faded these days, since this apartment house dining roorom looks fresher and brighter than it has in years past.
The props are good - rosettes of whipped butter with the sesame-seeded braided bread, a mixed hors d'oeuvre plate as pretty as a centerpiece, an elegantly scripted menu with two dozen main dishes paprikaed and wine-sauced and sounding historic. THe actors, formally costumed, are experienced performers, though they are not always paying atttention to their cues. As for the stars of the show, roast duck is the one to watch. Not only is it juicy, with crackling good skin, it tastes remarkably like duck for this day and age, not like an orange Popsicle pie. With it comes wonderful sauteed potatoes and onions, and red cabbage tangy just short of being fermented. If tangy is one of your favorite culinary terms, try the sauerkraut and pork stew known as szekely gulyas, sparked with paprika and mellowed by sour cream. It is a counsin to the sauerkraut and paprika-flavored stuffed cabbage, which suffered from its meat stuffing being insufficiently mixed, so some bites were shocks of clove, others bland. Csikos is a good place to try combination plates; the mixed hors d'ouevre for two gives samples of the grand smoked salmon, the Hungarian salami which should not be missed, plus a pleasant coarse pate and other pretty fillers. The combination plate entree leads you through the stuffed cabbage to a remarkably boring goulash. If you have been pleased in the past, as I had, by the cold cherry soup, fish soup, rabbit and pepper-and-onion-smothered steak Esterhazy, forget history. My last samplings were pale renditions and the steak has turned into a driedout pot roast. Pastries, too - tortes, strudel, apricot-filled pancakes - looked spunkier than they tasted. But, in light of the gysy background music, the generous main dishes averaging $5 to $7, and the finale of tea served in aglass with a filigree holder, the show is definitely worth seeing.