Bucharest may not have any Michelin star restaurants, and it may not be recognised in any way through its food. Of course, there’s nothing wrong about that. At the end of the day it would be hard to become London, Napoli or Lyon.
However, Bucharest is fast at catching up with international food trends, contemporary design and restaurants that serve Instagram worthy dishes.
The lingering post-communist formality
Unfriendly waiters in their black-tie attire, somehow always resembling Anton Ego from Ratatouille. White table cloths with a rough, cardboard texture due to an excessive use of sizing solution. Ten page long menus, full of (usually) poorly cooked French classics. The habitual singers covering songs by Demis Roussos, Julio Iglesias and Bonnie Tyler with an extravagant echo effect. A cordon bleu with a side of fries topped with cheese, decorative parsley and slices of carrot cut using a zigzag blade. Waiting two hours for a course to finally land on the table. All these childhood memories from restaurants are long gone.
Bucharest has become emancipated, just like its people, but every passing trend left its trace. In the early 2000s, Italian restaurants, good or bad, started populating the city. Later, a large number Bucharesters, with zero previous experience in the restaurant business started opening new places. The city looked the same, with large, bad taste furniture, loud repetitive music and no concept at all. Few of those restaurants are still open, and I’m sure there’s no question why.
It is only in the past six, seven years that restaurant managers understood the need to have a concept, a well-defined brand, nice décor and a simpler menu that can increase efficiency while at the same time decreasing waste, let alone making it easier for the customer to order.
My city is a city of contrasts, and we’ve covered them in multiple articles in the Journal. Food is another aspect that portrays this defining feature of Bucharest.
On the one hand, there are increasingly more hip places that serve high quality ingredients and slow food, cooked using traditional techniques rather than inexpensive shortcuts.
On the other hand, there are still a lot of places with below mediocre food and unfortunately those only survive because the average Bucharester’s palate has not yet been educated and refined. But I’m sure with time (and effort), this will change!
"Romanian food is mostly known for being fat, meat focused and kind of medieval in a way – unrefined. The beautiful, artful part of Romanian cuisine is little known."
Going back to the roots
Romania has a rich culture, and unfortunately, its people have buried it somewhere deeply under American trends of post-communist consumerism. Romanian food is mostly known for being fat, meat focused and kind of medieval in a way – unrefined. The beautiful, artful part of Romanian cuisine is little known.
Chef Sorin Cucu, owner and head chef of Mahala Restaurant is one of the chefs who are challenging these perceptions. He uses French techniques and Romanian recipes inspired by dishes his grand-parents used to cook to create refined dishes that are not just Instagram worthy, but that please your taste buds while taking you back in time.
Paine si Vin source most of their ingredients in Romania, and that doesn’t only include premium wines (yes, you’ve heard that right!), but buffalo burrata from Transylvania, mangalitsa charcuterie, and much more.
The much-needed Asian trend
Bucharest is starting to finally embrace Asian food that goes beyond soggy noodles, flavourless Shanghai chicken and rice that would rather stay in its bowl than lose its dignity falling off your chopsticks because it was poorly cooked.
This is making me particularly happy, and it’s not just because I feel like Asian food is needed for the city to develop further, but also because it brings new cultures into play and educates the masses to appreciate new flavours and cooking techniques.
Contemporary food, cooked with heart and soul
I spent my last year in the UK discovering the fascinating trend of tasting menus. You pay a fixed price and get several fine dining style dishes: small and beautifully plated.
This is not yet happening in Bucharest, but I reckon it won’t take long before it does. However, more and more chefs are embracing smaller plates, shorter menus and contemporary dishes (I really hate the word fusion). Ceviche, kaffir lime leaves, miso… I must admit, I really love seeing these ingredients more and more in great dishes around the city!
With this emancipation, the prices consequently increased. However, Bucharest is still hard to compare with cities like London or Paris. For €20 per person you can have an exquisite meal (that includes starter, main and dessert) – one that would probably cost you almost twice in a large European metropole.
Ioana Negulescu from Berries and Spice.