High in the Western Carpathian Mountains, bordering the Bodrog river in Northeastern Hungary, forces converge on sunny South-facing slopes to form magical conditions for a precious crop. After a well-timed harvest, furmint, lipovina, yellow muscat and zeta grapes lie in wait in subterranean cellars carved into the mountain, where Bacchus summons Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as noble rot. Noble rot, an enchanted fungus used by winemakers of the Tokaj wine region, gives these Hungarian fermented nectars the divine sweetness that became famous across Europe in the 18th century. Tokaj restaurant in Gulf Gate, named after this legendary valley, wants to bring a little bit of that magic to diners weary of the status quo.

HUNGARIAN- STYLE CREPES WITH STUFFED PHEASANT. PHOTO BY EVAN SIGMUND.

If the bottled ambrosia of Tokaj fills the cellars of mages, then paprika must certainly stuff the spice racks of their apothecaries. Hungarian cuisine makes use of sweet paprika, an earthy, smokey spice made from dried peppers that can overpower a sauce when used by lesser culinary wizards. Chef Tamas Benkovics is no such apprentice. Benkovics, born and raised in Budapest, was a troubled 12-year-old when his parents forced him into a job as an act of tough love. The Fates nudged him into a restaurant kitchen and he stumbled into a fruitful career that did a little more than keep him out of trouble. He went on to attend culinary school and command kitchens in some of the most prestigious dining establishments throughout Hungary’s capital, including Palace Restaurant, a top-rated fine dining institution open since 1911. It was here that he learned to unlock the mysteries of the red spice and pair it with the sweet alchemy of Tokaj wines.

Initiation into the Hungarian palette might begin with Tokaj’s Hungarian-style crepes. The crepes, unlike their French namesake, take on more the look of a large croquette than the thin pancakes used in French cuisine. Stuffed with pheasant and served atop a warm drizzle of a paprika and white wine reduction, the appetizer pairs well with Egri Bikavére (translation: bull’s blood), a blend of several red varietals. The dry, dark red also pairs well with Tokaj’s mangalica tenderloin steak. The steak sits atop a crisp slice of mushroom toast and is crowned by tender goose liver, then poured over with a rich dill-paprika sauce and accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes.

The ritual continues with the 2014 Tokay Hárslevelű from Simkó, Hungary, a semi-sweet white with floral undertones. The wine forms a perfect symbiosis with pork dishes like the töltött káposzta, a traditional Hungarian dish of pickled cabbage stuffed with spiced ground pork and submerged in an earthy paprika-cream sauce. For the brave and worthy, and those prudent enough to have left some room for dessert, Tokaj restaurant unveils its sacred rite of passage: top-shelf tokaji aszú wine.

CHEF TAMAS BENKOVICS AND CO-OWNER EVA KATZ. PHOTO BY EVAN SIGMUND.

In 1703, King Louis XIV received several bottles of tokaji aszú wine from a Transylvanian prince as a gesture of good will. The Sun King was so enthused that in his customary kingly pomp he declared, “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum,” or “Wine of Kings, King of Wines.” That phrase still graces the labels of some high-end wines from the Tokaj region, like the 2001 Tokaji Aszú from Simkó Pince vineyards. Rated at 5 puttonyos*, the 500-ml bottle contains 60 grams of natural sugar that, to the surprise of the uninitiated, never feels syrupy on the tongue. In fact, the wine flows as smooth and sweet as the river Bodrog on a summer’s day, balanced by a touch of acidity. The aroma alone inspires daydreams of freshly harvested honey drizzled on a bowl of ripe berries.

If the wine and food have failed to elicit a starry-eyed state of bliss, Tokaj has one final spell to cast. In the dim glow of faux candelabras, the cozy elegance of dark woods and the stone-like patina of deep gray walls, Tokaj restaurant offers the romance of a live violinist. “We wanted it to look like the catacombs in Budapest,” says Eva Katz, co-owner and maître d’. It all amounts to a potion that combines the refinement of white tablecloths with the mystique of an enchanted, faraway land, where sweet wines and curious flavors give Sarasota diners something new and mysteriously memorable.