Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Hungarian Bakery

Cherry Cheese Strudel

The Hungarian Bakery, $6 with coffee

My application to graduate school at Columbia University was motivated in no small part by visions of spending my free time at the Hungarian Bakery, a popular neighborhood coffee shop. It's the kind of place that seems smoky, even though it isn't. Bespectacled strangers splitting rickety little tables pound on laptops or pore over dense texts in the dim light. Even on a sunny summer day, the Hungarian Bakery has the kind of lighting that makes everyone look earnest and interesting; with snow falling outside it could be a scene from the university quarter of any northern European capital. If they take place at all, conversations are kept to murmur and held in mysteriously sybillant foreign tongues; the bathroom's regularly repainted walls soon sprout fresh crops of conceptual or erudite graffitti in at least a dozen different languages--dead as well as living.

Every time I visit, that foreign feeling is reinforced by need to relearn the Hungarian Bakery ropes. First I hem and haw over the bakery case, trying to match the unnamed occupants to their descriptions on the wall. I ogle the list of fancy coffee concoctions and wonder whether it's possible to get a simple drip (it is). After placing my order with one of the tall, exotic, and rather detached waitresses, I guess at which bill to remove from my wallet (no prices are posted) and hold it out like a friendly handshake; when no one takes the money or even acknowledges it (pay as you leave), I try to conjure it back into my pocket unseen. Since I no longer seem to have any business at the counter, I stumble into the dark recesses, looking for an empty chair, or--mother lode!--an unclaimed table. I murmur apologies and act cool until an exotic waitress bearing plates calls out my order and I flail my arm like a second-grade know-it-all. Then it's back to acting cool, with pastry in one hand and note-scribbling pen in the other.

And the pastry? Good enough to keep me coming back, not so great that I get stuck and have the same thing every time. This time I chose the cherry cheese strudel. A heavy helping of tofu-like cheese overbalanced the thin seam of cherry pie filling and the even thinner tissue of flaky pastry, but the solid, simple taste was a pleasant foil for my bottomless cup of hot, dark coffee (serve-yourself refills available from the pot by the register--but don' t count on anyone to tell you that).

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