Food for thought: Young Romanian chefs shake up old classics

Oana Vasiliu 20/07/2019 | 09:36

For some time now, forward-thinking chefs have been reinterpreting classic Romanian fare in original, one-of-a-kind dishes. It started slowly in the capital, but there are now restaurants serving “new Romanian cuisine” in Sibiu, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca and Targu Mures, to name but a few. BR donned its napkin to find out more.

International approval: Gault & Millau guide

June saw the release of the second Romanian edition of the international restaurant guide Gault & Millau. The guide is focused on “nouvelle cuisine”, stressing the freshness of the ingredients, the simplicity of their overlapping in a dish, innovation, and the way they lend flavor to one another. Gault & Millau is the first internationally recognized restaurant guide to have entered the Romanian market. At the launch of the first edition in November 2017, Côme de Chérisey, CEO of Gault & Millau, said, “We have seen that Romanians are more and more interested in quality gastronomic experiences and that there is an evolution of culinary concepts which Romanian restaurants and chefs provide.”

Alexandru Dumitru, Gault & Millau’s Chef of the Year 2019

The move was hailed as the first sign that Romanian cuisine is getting more and more creative, while using international standards to evaluate local restaurants serves as an acknowledgment of the national cuisine, as we seek to analyze the current culinary universe in Romania. Furthermore, the 2019 edition of the guide listed 275 new restaurants with 15 new towns and cities introduced, versus just 154 eateries in the first edition.

Chef’s special

While in 2018 the Chef of the Year was Alex Petricean from Maize – from Farm to Table (currently cooking at Noua restaurant), the accolade this time goes to Alexandru Dumitru of Bistro Ateneu (formerly known from Atra Doftana), who received 15.5 points out of 20 from the international guide. Great Chefs of Tomorrow were named as Andrei Chelaru of Fragment (Cluj-Napoca), who is currently doing an internship at Denmark’s Noma, said to be the most famous restaurant in the world, Radu Ionescu of Kaiamo (Bucharest) and Roland Suciu from Baracca (Cluj-Napoca). Furthermore, Woman Chef of the Year is Oana Coanta from Bistro de l’Arte (Brasov), while Pastry Chef of the Year is Ana Consulea from Zexe Braserie (Bucharest). Those whose budgets stretch to it are well advised to try their fare.

Starter served at Fragment in Cluj-Napoca

A taste of new Romania

To judge by the menus of most local restaurants, Romanians are big fans of pizza, pasta, burgers, chicken and pork. So does the “Romanian new cuisine” have a public? Business Review asked food journalist Vlad Macri to outline it. “Being still in its inception, it’s still very chaotic. The modernization of Romanian cuisine entails many initiatives, which often contradict each other. To begin with, over a decade ago, Romanian chefs realized they should reduce the volume of lipids, which is the main caloric source of our traditional dishes. Sarmale with 80 percent fatty pork meat has become “diet”, with lean beef becoming the most important part of that recipe. At the same time, a more minimalist approach to Romanian recipes was adopted: let’s stop throwing eight sarmale and a Mount Everest of polenta onto the plate, but just three sarmale and one or two spoonfuls of polen-ta. (…).”

Macri quoted Cosmin Dragomir, writing in Dilema Veche, who made fun of these very rapidly introduced excesses: “‘Oltenia stew with shrimp’ or ‘shepherd’s squid’. If they weren’t ridiculous, they’d be surrealist. (…) A better idea would be inspiration from the New Nordic Cuisine. Nordic chefs have their own manifesto: exclusive use of national and even regional ingredients. Therefore, when they want to sour something, they don’t use citrus fruits, even though lemons have become a kind of universal ingredient. What stops us from souring food with unripe grape juice (known as ‘agurida’, the French ‘verjus’, which they used for centuries, but forgot in time)? Or, an even better suggestion, who still sours food with mirabelle plums (‘corcoduse’) juice? No one. This return to local ingredients gives birth to unique recipes and reintroduces value to today’s neglected prod-ucts. Last but not least, before we introduce shrimp to our stews, it might be a better idea to try the opposite: use Western cooking techniques on Romanian ingredients. What’s more Romanian than polenta?! And what’s so difficult about baking polenta in an oven, much like a pizza?! In all its varia-tions! I’d call it ‘pizzalenta’.”

Journalist Dragomir, a food historian who writes about local cuisine on www.gastroart.ro, told BR: “Modern Romanian cuisine has two major subcategories: one where the dish presented is the re-sult of modern cooking techniques and ingredients from local production, and a traditional, old-fashioned dish, similar to what we know from our childhood, cooked in a modern way but pre-served unaltered, with the original taste. You cannot cook carp on cabbage using sea bream and Brussels sprouts. (…) We have managed to develop new gastronomic of new gastronomic emotions like the new Nordic cuisine manifesto or the new Anatolian cuisine, but we are still far away. I’d love to learn from their mistakes and not make them. Tourists should expect savory products offered by a remarkable terroir and a taste that includes Eastern, Slavic and Central European influences. An unusual but tried-and-tested combination that can provide an exciting experience for any type of papilla.”

When traditions meet both music and nouvelle cuisine

Romanian food in vogue

The beginning of the year brought encouraging news for Romanian cuisine: Vogue Paris magazine included Ibrik Kitchen in its January list of “Nos 5 restaurants du moment à Paris.” More international magazines followed suit. What’s the key to success in the world’s fashion and gourmet capital? The Romanian-born owner Ecaterina Paraschiv explains in an interview that it’s mici (specially cooked minced meat), sarmale (minced meat rolled in cabbage leaves), and papanasi (a doughnut with jam and sour cream). Food blogger Alexander Lobrano notes on his blog that the place offers the “excellent ‘neo-nostalgic’ Romanian cooking of chefs Ovidio Malisevschi and Bogdan Alexandrescu a.k.a. Dexter chef (check out his Instagram feed: https://www.instagram.com/dexterchef/). So instead I’ll only say that this dinner was not only the best non-French meal I’ve had in Paris dur-ing the last twelve months, but one of the best ones full stop. In fact, this art-gallery-like little restaurant on a side street in the Sentier came as a delightful surprise in almost every way. And now when people ask me what ‘foreign’ kitchens I recommend eating during a trip to Paris, Romanian will now join the usual Israeli, Moroccan, Tunisian, Laotian and Vietnamese.” Chapeau for being Romania’s gourmet ambassador and doing such an incredible job.

Trippin’ for food stories

Documenting the history of Romanian cuisine and its influences, two impressive sources of tastes and stories (currently available only in the Romanian language) are worth mentioning: Claudia Romana Rista (known for her cooking blog Fata care gătește cu flori) and young chef Mihai Toader and musician Bogdan Simion, who film the Fragmente vlog.

In an attempt to unearth old recipes hidden in grandma’s country kitchen, Rista looked in the Romanian villages where minority communities still preserve some of the best recipes. With the help of Profi supermarket, she has already launched two cooking books full of tasty stories: the collection is available in the supermarket chain, evocatively entitled Zestre culinară (Culinary Dowry).

Also on the hunt for hidden recipes is Toader, with the help of Simion, the youngest cobza players in Romania. Their videos encompass traditional music and slow food. But there is more: you can actually taste the chef’s interpretation of the discovered recipes, and the online video content presented also appears at pop-up dinners in random venues across Bucharest with Toader cooking and Simion singing.

Leaving a sour taste: Sibiu European Gastronomic Region 2019

It’s still an enigma what happened with something that should have been another boom for the Sibiu region. Instead, the Sibiu European Gastronomic Region 2019 event has been written off as a failure, given that the year is half over and little has happened. But things are looking up, as at the beginning of June, the County Hall announced that RON 1.25 million had been allocated to the project, giving several city halls from Sibiu county as well as NGOs promoting traditions and local food the funds to hold events to boost local gastronomy.

The general impression is that officials behind the project have put in little effort so far. Recently, there was a buzz about the visual identity of the event: a flower made from the famous Sibiu salami with a real butterfly on it and a girl dressed in a ham and salad dress were the talk of the country – and not in a good way. But officials from the Sibiu European Gastronomic Region (basically all the public institutions in Sibiu) declined to comment.

One of the side-projects of the Sibiu European Gastronomic Region

But the incompetence of the authorities of Sibiu county cannot detract from a community of chefs cooking with local products, and promoting slow food without the help of the endorsement of the public authorities. In their restaurants, real effort goes into finding local producers who can provide constant ingredients for their menu – and this is the biggest challenge, as they undertake the seemingly impossible task of changing the menu every week. BR was particularly impressed by Syndicat Gourmet (chef Ioan Bebeselea), Hochmeister (chef Daniel Joa), Kombinat Sibiu (chef Mihai Toader), and Pasaj (chef Andrei Luminea).

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