Soft lighting, white tablecloths and Old World décor beckon at Tokaj.

Image: Chad Spencer

Intimate and elegant, Tokaj is a Hungarian restaurant seating about 40, situated in the Gulf Gate area of Sarasota. This neighborhood is replete with tiny eating places that come and go with regularity. Storefront ethnic restaurants and beer joints jostle for space with a trophy shop, cleaning service, key-making store, tailors, a French cookie store (well worth patronizing), and a tattoo and body-piercing emporium.

Tokaj is bookended by a New Age religious center and a management company. A large sign above the awning, window boxes with bright flowers and two tables on the sidewalk alert you to your arrival (there’s angle parking in front as well as along the street). 

Only in business since last December, Tokaj serves authentic Hungarian recipes and the buzz is good, so reservations are a smart idea. If you’re going to walk in, pick an unfashionable time, such as when the place opens at 5 p.m.

Tokaj is owned by Eva Katz; together with chef Tamas Benkovics they have 70 years in the food and beverage industry. (The pair also operates the Sunnyside Cafe near the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport.) The owner’s experience and sensitivity to good hospitality practices are everywhere at Tokaj. The staff is pleasant, knowledgeable and efficient. Silverware is replaced between courses and crumbs from good bread are whisked away before you notice them. 

Tokaj is named for a Hungarian sweet wine, the grapes of which are grown in the northeast corner of Hungary. There are two kinds of Tokaj on the drinks menu, and there’s every reason to order a split to sip, as dessert itself or with your house-made dessert. 

The small dining room, with service bar and hidden kitchen at the far end, is carefully outfitted for fine dining, with white tablecloths and napkins, red roses in bud vases, individual table lighting, soft overhead illumination and decor that’s a tad Old World. When we sat down, I remarked to my dinner companion that the only thing missing was a strolling violinist. Twenty minutes later one appeared, although mercifully he did not stroll. He remained near the service bar, connected to digital musical accompaniment while he provided unobtrusive background music. 

The Tokaj menu is neither large nor wide-ranging but focuses on familiar Hungarian classics with a few Mediterranean/European dishes added, such as a veal chop with roasted garlic sauce ($28), rack of lamb ($36), pistachio-crusted black grouper ($32), steamed mussels as an appetizer for $12 or the ubiquitous kale salad, this time with chickpeas and a tangy lemon dressing for $9. There’s always a vegetarian platter of the day consisting of grilled tofu and a vegetable melange for $19.

Tokaj's rack of lamb arrives with fresh veggies.

Image: Chad Spencer

But really, this is a place to frequent when you want to discover the pleasures of Hungarian cuisine, because Hungarian cooking is done expertly at Tokaj. By all means try the töltött káposzta ($19), traditional stuffed cabbage rolls. They’re juicy with subtle spicing and not overcooked. Additionally, they look enticing (difficult for cooked cabbage) in their shallow white serving bowl, decorated with silhouettes of green bell pepper and wands of fresh dill. There’s an old saying that “meat and cabbage is the coat of arms of Hungary,” because it’s eaten so often at the tables of all Hungarians weekly. The roasted duck at Tokaj is served with red cabbage and potatoes ($29).  

Tokaj-style Mangalica tenderloin is luxurious, served over mushroom toast and topped with a goose liver and dill paprika sauce. It comes to the table with roasted Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes for $24. A house recipe for chicken breast ($21) elevates this simple barnyard bird to sumptuous by stuffing it with duck liver and blanched spinach and covering it with Gorgonzola sauce. 

For a ridiculously rich meal with a flavor bomb in every forkful, there’s the haute cuisine tournados alla Budapest (a riff on the classic tournados Rossini), tender sautéed beef with goose liver, crimini mushroom and sweet peas all in a rich ragout. At $38, it may be more than you can eat, but share a taste or two with a lucky dinner companion. Another substantial starter is Hungarian-style crepes (they’re crispy) stuffed with pheasant and served with a white wine sauce for $14. 

The wine list showcases Hungarian reds and whites from various regions of the country, so this is a good opportunity to try a bottle or glass of something you’ve never had before. Bull’s Blood ($40 for the bottle or $10 a glass) is so popular there was none left the night we ate, so we tried a bottle of Twickel Liszt with a picture of composer Franz Liszt on the label. There are also wines from California and Italy. 

 Dessert dishes include a luscious, multilayered Esterhazy cake.

Image: Chad Spencer

Tokaj believes in a big finish. Desserts are tantalizing, especially the Budapest favorite, Esterhazy cake ($10), a multilayer walnut and buttercream torte named for Prince Paul III Anton Esterházy. Other choices are sweet fruit crepes or farmer’s cheese dumplings with sweet-sour cream. Four kinds of good strong coffee are offered as well as an assortment of hot teas. And do think about the Tokaj, a dessert wine that’s been produced in the nation since the 1650s.

The whole dinner experience at Tokaj is delightfully transporting. It’s like eating in another country and in another time.

Tokaj | 6516 Superior Ave., Sarasota | (941) 906-9444 | Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday, 5-9 p.m. Closed Monday. | Bar: Wine and soft drinks | Handicapped accessible; parking in strip mall

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