Hungarian Rhapsody 

Glamour, goulash at the beach

Glamour, goulash at the beach

Leaf through the guest book at Sandor’s in Seagrove Beach, Fla., and you’ll find comments from more than a few Nashvillians. Some of the names you will know, some you will know of, and many will be unfamiliar. Since so many Nashvillians vacation in this part of Florida, it’s enough to make you think that everybody in Music City knows about Sandor Zambori’s little restaurant.

I’ve made a trek to the Seagrove/Seaside/Grayton/Destin area every year since the mid-’80s, and Sandor’s has been open since 1995. Still, it somehow escaped my notice. What’s more, it’s less than 50 yards from the Village Market in Seagrove, where I purchase at least one grilled amberjack sandwich per vacation. I only learned about Sandor’s from Nashville architect and foodie Manuel Zeitlin. Now I’m hooked.

Sandor’s (pronounced “Shondor’s”) is named for its chef/owner. The dining room of the tiny cottage is carpeted and wallpapered in muted shades of burgundy and gold; the lighting is subdued; the china comes from Germany, the sterling flatware from France. There are only nine tables in the room, but once you’re seated, your table is yours for the evening. Lingering over a glass of wine or a cup of espresso is not just permitted it’s encouraged. Maybe that’s because Zambori is only too happy to sit and chat with his customers, once his kitchen duties are completed.

And the man does have plenty to say. He was born in Hungary, where his family owned a textile mill. After war devastated the country, the mill was nationalized, and Zambori’s parents were jailed as political prisoners. Young Sandor was sent to an orphanage, where he was “always hungry.”

He defected to the U.S. in the late ’60s. To show his appreciation to his adopted country, Zambori enlisted in the military and served several tours of duty in Vietnam. Afterward, he settled in Pensacola, where he worked as a computer engineer. It was an attack of “male menopause,” Zambori says, that prompted him to switch careers and return to Europe. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he came back to Florida, opening a restaurant in Panama City in 1991. Then he fell in love with Seagrove, where he opened Sandor’s, on County Road 395, just off the intersection with Scenic Route 30A.

Sandor describes his food as “European cuisine,” and the Continental experience begins the moment waiter Jorn Erck opens the door and welcomes you inside. Erck, a handsome, exuberant German, is the only other employee, but he works the tables so efficiently you’d swear he’d been cloned in the kitchen. Erck will seat you, offer the menu and the wine list, pour a glass of bottled water, and describe any specials of the day, but he will not rush you.

The aromas from the dishes being carried to other diners are absolutely intoxicating. Whiffs of garlic, rosemary and tarragon, curry, and especially truffles whetted our appetites as we read the menu. As one would expect from a one-man kitchen, it is a concise listing: one salad, two appetizers, a soup of the day, and seven entrées. Specials add a few more choices.

Erck’s English is thickly accented. When he described the soup of the day, I was sure he said sherry soup, but it turned out to be cherry soup, a recipe Zambori brought from Hungary. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Stoned cherries are stewed in port with cloves and cinnamon. Then Zambori purées half the mixture and adds the remaining whole cherries, which make for a nice texture. It will be worth your trouble to call ahead and ask if cherry soup is on the menu for your visit. But then, you’ll be equally happy with the salsify soup, which we enjoyed on our second visit. Salsify, a root vegetable with a slightly bitter flavor, requires painstaking preparation. Zambori cooks it with parsnips and then purées it to a thick, creamy consistency.

On one visit, our starter was a block of Sandor’s duck-and-calf paté en terrine, beautifully presented with caperberries, cornichons, piles of coarsely ground salt and pepper, and puddles of a very hot mustard that was reminiscent of wasabi (except that it was red, not green).

Given the choice, I’d order the Thai-influenced crawfish tail meat in curry sauce rather than the layered portobello mushroom, which is more pedestrian. (Nevertheless, Zambori says the mushroom is the most popular of his appetizers.)

When I’m at the beach, I want fish, and Sandor’s allows you to choose among jumbo shrimp, salmon, grouper, and even lobster ravioli. The flavor of the grouper, sautéed with truffle butter, then served in a black pond of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar, is lavish. It is served with bayaldi, a delicious, layered construction of thinly sliced tomatoes and green and yellow squash, served on a bed of caramelized onions. The thick salmon filet is crusted in coarse black pepper and anise; then it’s pan sautéed and placed atop the creamiest imaginable white polenta, heady with the scent, and the unmistakable flavor, of truffles. The four spring lamb chops were of an excellent quality. Perfectly cooked to a bright pink, they were paired with smoky-seasoned green lentils and two triangles of fresh-spinach spanakopita.

On our first visit, I noted that the small wine list includes several Alsatian selections. I remarked that just reading about Alsatian wines reminded me of a wonderful meal at the Alsace-influenced Brasserie Jo in Chicago. When I said I had particularly fond memories of the spätzle, Zambori brought his spätzle pan from the kitchen and described the process of cooking the little flour, egg, and cream dumplings. If we returned, he promised to make them for us. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I’m glad I didn’t, since Zambori’s spätzle gave me the opportunity to sample his fabulous Hungarian veal goulash, its hearty sauce brick-red with paprika. Zambori is so passionate about food that, if you asked, I’m sure he would make spätzle for you too. Thus far, I haven’t found it anywhere in Nashville.

For dessert, we devoured a walnut-filled crêpe folded into a pool of remarkable semisweet, light-brown chocolate sauce. We also loved the mango sorbet.

Because Sandor’s dining room is so small, reservations are required, and you must leave a credit card number. If you fail to show up, a $25 charge will appear on your monthly statement. (Don’t be shocked; it’s an increasingly common procedure in New York.) Prices are on the steep side appetizers are $8.85, entrées range from $19.95 to $26.95. But I promise, you’ll get what you pay for.

Sandor’s is the kind of restaurant foodies and chefs fantasize about. As Zambori says, “I present the European style of dining. I am not a food factory. If you want to eat, go somewhere else. If you want to dine, come here.”

Sandor’s European Cuisine is located at the intersection of Hwy. 30A and Hwy. 395, Seagrove Beach, Fla. (850-231-2858).

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