Before the Boronia Road M3 freeway entrance in Wantirna in Melbourne’s east, a giant white, green and red billboard with flailing flags waves you into Australia’s largest Hungarian community centre.
The 5.5-acre centre was completed in 1990, its land donated by two local Hungarian families. The construction of its church and two stocky event halls was made possible by the fundraising efforts of Melbourne’s Hungarian community. Today they host cultural festivals, markets, dancing classes, performances, weddings and funerals.
Following the long driveway into the 250-space car park feels like arriving at Hungarian Dreamworld. It’s a disorienting brick maze until, at the back of the main building, surrounded by trees, you find a small lodge that houses the centre’s restaurant, Korona Csárda.
Korona Csárda opened in 1995, but has been operated by husband and wife Zsolt and Eniko Vigh since 2009, who first met at one of the many Hungarian culture festivals held here. Zsolt runs the floor and helps with meal prep, and Eniko cooks part-time. Her 65-year-old mother Rozalia runs the kitchen, preparing around 25 savoury dishes and about a dozen Transylvanian cakes each week.
“I have the best mother-in-law, I’ve learnt so much from her,” says Zsolt, then clarifies. “She didn’t teach me anything – she just did it and I watched and was stealing ideas.”
Korona Csárda is only open for Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch, serving generous all-you-can-eat buffets for $40 a head.
The best way to start the meal is with a shot of pálinka, a Hungarian spirit flavoured with fruits such as pear, plum or apricot that are fermented, then cooked for two days and distilled into a sweet, smooth, clear liquor that rings in somewhere between 40 and 51 per cent ABV. Korona Csárda is licensed for BYO wine, too.
Insides suitably warmed, you then collect a few snacks from the entrée table, which might include bread; soups; cold cuts (including salami smeared with cream cheese, smoked gypsy ham and pork loin stuffed with a whole sausage); devilled eggs; potato salad; and Liptauer, a spread made with sheep’s-milk cheese and spices. Then sit back down, take a deep breath, nibble, order another drink and greet your neighbours. Time passes more slowly here than outside, so you can leave your impatience in the car park.
Korona Csárda (csárda meaning “tavern”, or “pub”) is a regular weekend retreat for many. It’s clear how many diners are loyal regulars when Zsolt turns up the music halfway through lunch. Everyone in the room seems to know what’s coming.
Zsolt pulls out a sword-like glass tube from behind the register and fills it with Hungarian white wine. Then, plugging the opening with his other thumb, he raises it above his head and artfully shoots wine into diners’ mouths. Women and men of all ages knowingly tip their heads back in anticipation as Zsolt twirls around the applauding room. One woman, a second-generation Hungarian here with her young children, tells me he does this every weekend.
The main course begins with salads using sauerkraut, cabbage or cucumbers. Then, the mostly meaty hot section is a steaming procession of all-important beef goulash; a roast cut of pork, usually neck or belly; chicken paprikásh (boneless chicken braised in stock and sweet paprika); tripe stew; chicken schnitzel; thick cheese-and-spinach sauce; fresh pasta with quark and bacon; and nokedli, known as spätzle in some regions. These peanut-sized, oddly shaped dumplings are made by hand-mixing flour, water and salt into a rough dough, then pushing the dough through the holes in a colander directly into salted boiling water.
Zsolt’s buffet contribution is a dish of cabbage rolls stuffed with pork and rice. They’re briny, slightly sour, dripping with juice and, according to Zsolt, the restaurant’s most popular dish.
But there are no labels on anything – a deliberate move to promote experimentation and curiosity among non-Hungarian diners. “We are here and we can explain,” Zsolt says, enthusiastically.
Zsolt has been in restaurant service since he was 14, growing up in Eger in Hungary’s north-east. His parents didn’t cook much at home, but they owned a deli – something he’s saluted in the restaurant’s entryway, where rows of different paprikas and pastes, mustards, jams, jarred roast peppers, and pickles, all imported from Hungary, are stocked.
“I love promoting my country. My country has more than 1000 years of history, so you have to be proud of that,” he says.
And it shows. Everything inside is Hungarian, from the tablecloths, to the curtains and even Zsolt’s floral-patterned shirt.
760 Boronia Road, Wantirna
(03) 9801 8887
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on September 17, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.