A Guide To A Good Life

I’ll have a regular coffee, please

Coffee… some say when you drink it, it’s like flogging a tired horse. Sometimes you need to do that — you need to push yourself a bit further and get that day’s work done. And sometimes you just want to savor a well-made cup of coffee. It’s a bit like meditation. You focus on one thing while you let the world flow around you.

It’s getting harder to find good coffee on the go in Romania. I used to get an espresso now and then, especially when driving at night. That was till I got tired of espressos that were too bitter, too bland or tasted like motor oil. It used to be you’d rarely find an espresso back in 2008 and 2009. Now everyone, including the random roadside stand, has an espresso machine and most taste terrible. To date, the best espresso I’ve had was at a little hotel on the beach in Ladispoli, Italy, back in 2009, and that says something about the quality of the espressos if in more than three years nothing even came close.

The thing about the espresso is that if you want a good one, you have to have a good espresso machine. And that machine has to be serviced regularly and constantly calibrated. You have to put in quality coffee in the right amount. But most restaurants and hotels forget these other things. They think that if they’ve got an espresso machine, they’re good to go. No, no, no. Not unless you want to sell crappy espressos.

So I’m not drinking espressos anymore. I’ve switched back to regular coffee. To my dismay, I’ve found out that most places don’t have filter coffee anymore. In the short span of three years, they’ve all stocked up on espresso machines and forgotten about regular coffee. Stop at any place in Romania but a five-star hotel and ask for it. You know what they’ll say? “Sorry, we don’t have any. But we can serve espressos. Would you like one?” To which my answer is easily guessed.

Given my experiences, I was pleasantly surprised when I had breakfast at a Swiss hotel next to Hanul lui Manuc in Bucharest, where I had what was quite possibly the best cup of filter coffee ever. Just as I was thinking it, my dad, with whom we were dining, exclaimed: “Wow, this is very good coffee!” I sure wish I could remember the name of the place but you can’t miss it, it’s right next to Hanul lui Manuc, the great historic inn, which by the way, doesn’t serve filter coffee or turkish coffee, only espresso, as if the espresso existed in the 1800s.

To make sure, we went back there just last week to have breakfast and sure enough, the coffee was just as delicious: perfectly flavored, not bitter, not watery, the right aftertaste, went down easy and made you want more. I called the waiter over, complimented them on their coffee and asked how they made it. In case you’d like to follow the same recipe, here it is: ground Lavazza coffee, 6 grams per 50 ml of water. They run it through a regular coffee maker, albeit a big one. That’s it. It’s so simple. Why aren’t others doing it?

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Thoughts

The boring sameness of Romanian restaurants

Romanian cuisine was (and still can be) wonderfully varied and delicious. Not only are there different dishes in each region of the country, but even the basics, the staple traditional dishes, are prepared differently from region to region. Visiting Romania should be a delectable experience for one’s palate — the potential and the means to bring it about are there.

Sadly, if you should walk into more than one restaurant in Romania these days, your chances are better than 95% that you’ll see the same limited menu — the same soups, the same entrees, the same salads, the same meat dishes, the same desserts, the same drinks etc ad nauseam… It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is part of a two-star, three-star or four-star hotel or pension or if it’s a standalone place in a mountain or seaside resort or just some place alongside the road. Beside a few dishes or drinks that sometimes vary, they share the same boring menu.

They all have vegetable soup (most of them don’t know how to make it). They all have tripe soup (in varying degrees of stomach-turning oiliness). They all have fried trout, most of it bland beyond belief to the taste. They all have, of course, lots of pork, beef and chicken dishes (the same fattening dishes across the board), so it’s no wonder most Romanians are starting to look like potbellied pigs. They all have the same salads, and most seem to compete in using the most withered vegetables, drowned in a sea of oil and topped with nose-turning vinegar.

The question then arises, can you find decent food as you travel through Romania? Sure, if you manage not to get sick of eating the same dishes… We’ve traveled a lot through the country (we’d like to travel some more) and we have come across a few restaurants that do some dishes well. We’ve also seen a few restaurants that have impressed us by straying from the boring sameness with different and delicious dishes. But these places were few and far between, and when you’ve been on the road all day and you walk into a restaurant only to see the same menu, it’s a very disappointing experience.

There’s also another factor that adds a certain degree of difficulty to our search for food. We’re raw vegans, which means we prefer to eat raw, uncooked vegan foods. When we don’t have a choice, we’ll eat cooked vegetarian dishes, such as soups, side dishes or salads. But that doesn’t mean we don’t look at the whole menu, just to see what a particular restaurant is offering to the general public, and that’s when the disappointment sets in.

Having grown up in Southern Transilvania, my palate is naturally accustomed to Southern Transilvanian foods, which include Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian dishes. Those dishes were, surprisingly enough (by today’s standards) mostly vegetarian dishes (ovo-lacto-vegetarian). As I grew up, we ate meat once a week (on Sunday), and it was most likely chicken. We ate beef very seldom (I remember only a few occasions during my childhood), but we did eat pork quite often (to my chagrin) in winter-time. I loathed the stuff, but that’s what we had in the pantry, so that’s what I ate.

If you should go to a restaurant in Southern Transilvania these days, their menu won’t reflect the traditional cuisine of the region at all, even if they say they’re a traditional “Transilvanian” restaurant. (Somehow the stupidity of calling a restaurant “Transilvanian” when it’s located smack-dab in the middle of Transilvania escapes the owners…) They have the same dishes you’ll find everywhere else, prepared in mostly the same ways. And they’ll have mostly meat dishes. Where are the traditional soups, entrees and dishes I grew up with? They’re certainly not on the menu!

My grandmother used to make a delicious sweet potato soup. She also made a sour potato soup with tarragon and milk that makes my mouth water even now. She also made cabbage soup, a nice thick soup with dill and all sorts of condiments, completely unlike the pig food they call cabbage soup in restaurants these days. In the spring, she’d make a wonderful sour salad, watercress or wild garlic leaf soup. Her noodle soup was the best. And she’d also make a dumpling soup that had me licking my fingers and begging for more dumplings.

The meal that had me begging for more was chicken drumstick stew with mashed potatoes. That was the best. But she only made that once a week, on Sunday. She also made a delicious mushroom stew. Oh, and her pea stew was so good! Her fried onion sauce, usually served with mashed beans or whole bean stew, sure made my mouth water. She also made a mean potato stew with sweet sauce. Her fries were amazing, particularly when she sprinkled a little grated cheese on top! I can’t even find proper fries in restaurants these days! Most restaurants decided it’s better (for them, not for the customers) to buy frozen, pre-cut fries and warm them up instead of making them from fresh potatoes, as is the rule.

For dessert, my grandmother also made “gomboti” (a sort of dumpling) filled with plums, apricots or peaches. Or she made “clatite” (a small crepe) filled with fruit jam or honey. She made a lot of desserts as well (layered cakes and more) all of them delicious, unlike the cakes you find in pastry shops these days.

My mother and my wife both cook (my wife is a raw food chef) and they both make their own versions of the vegetarian dishes listed above. They’re all delicious. And as we visited various Romanian friends during my childhood and later life, I got to eat some pretty interesting variations on these same recipes.

When we go to restaurants, I can’t find any of these traditional dishes. Instead, what we’ll find is lots of bland, badly cooked side dishes and lots of meat dishes. And when we go to restaurants in other parts of the country (Moldova, Muntenia, Dobrogea), we can’t find any of the traditional dishes from those regions, either.

When did Romanians start to eat meat every day? That was certainly not the case 15-20 years ago. And look at them now, as a nation… They’re almost as fat as the Americans. Most Romanian men over 30 have pot bellies, which they proudly display and rub as if they’re some treasure. Hey, guys, I got some news for you, big bellies are nothing to brag about. In fact, they’re a sign you’re overeating and they’re also a precursor to erectile dysfunction. Think about that as you gulp down steaks and other fat-laden dishes…

My questions for Romanian restaurant owners are these:

  • Where are the foods that set Romanian cuisine apart?
  • Where are the traditional dishes we know and love?
  • Why do you all have the same menus?
  • Will you serve more vegetarian dishes? 

I’m curious to see what answers I’ll get (if any).

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A Guide To A Good Life

The Office Lounge is a restaurant and night club in Predeal, Romania. Its location is amazing. It sits on top of a mountain peak which overlooks an idyllic meadow and valley. Other mountain peaks frame the view all around.

The restaurant has indoor space, but it also has a beautiful terrace where you can truly enjoy the view.

The espresso is good. It could even be called great, but let’s not get carried away… It has a well-balanced taste: not too bitter, not too watery, not too chocolatey. It’s good. And when you sit on the terrace and look at that gorgeous view, it somehow tastes even better.

We also had some very tasty “clatite” — a Romanian dessert that’s similar to French crepes and to British (not American) pancakes, according to one of my readers.

The place is a nightclub — and we’re not much into nightclubs. We went there during the day, to enjoy the beautiful view. If you’re interested in going there for a morning coffee, don’t — they open around 11 am or noon, because they close in the early hours of the morning.

Here is a map.

Espresso at the Office Lounge

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Places

We stopped at Pizzeria New Croco in Cluj-Napoca last night, around midnight. Among other things, I ordered my usual espresso. It had a strong taste, the right aroma, a bit on the bitter side, but it was what I needed to keep me awake for a night trip that would last another few hours.

Taste-wise, this espresso ranks right up there with some of the best I’ve had in recent years. It may have been a little bitter, but it was its strong character that set it apart from some of the swill I’ve tasted at times.

Here’s a map of the restaurant’s location. They have a website as well, but it’s done in Flash, it takes forever to load, and you can’t shut off the annoying music that starts playing as soon as the site opens up.

Espresso at Pizzeria New Croco

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Places

Espresso at Pensiunea Stejarul

A few days ago, on Tuesday, we’d woken up early to drive to Cluj, and we were passing a place I’d often wanted to stop at, but never found the time. The place is called Pensiunea Stejarul, and they’re open 24/7. The setting for this restaurant is quite beautiful. It’s high up on the tallest hill outside the city of Tarnaveni, in the middle of an oak forest.

That day, we had the time. It was freezing outside, it was snowing slowly, we were driving slowly, and wanted to stop and take in the scenery for a bit. So we did. I had an espresso, and Ligia had a tea. My N95 refused to focus properly, and all the photos I got were rubbish. This was the best of the lot.

The espresso was almost great. Much better than this one, but not among the best I’ve ever had.

This is what the restaurant looks like from above, courtesy of Google Maps. And this is their exact location.

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Places

Espresso at Hotel As

The photo you see below doesn’t tell the whole story, but I like photographing espresso cups, what can I say…

It was a little past 6 o’clock in the morning this past Thursday, we’d been driving all night, it was snowing and freezing outside, there was black ice on the road, and we needed some warm breakfast. We stopped at a hotel/restaurant called Hotel As, on E60, between the villages of Tureni and Copaceni, north of Turda, in Transilvania, Romania.

We had scrambled eggs, I had the espresso, Ligia had a tea, and we walked around the restaurant looking at the beautiful paintings they had on the walls, depicting quaint medieval streets and buildings. Unfortunately the waiter couldn’t tell me who the artist was, and didn’t have any contact information for him/her. We wanted to buy one of the paintings.

I suppose I need to rate the espresso: it was barely decent — nothing special, but at least it had a modicum of caffeine to keep me awake. Got a screenshot of the hotel from Google Maps below, and this is their exact location. We’ll probably stop there again at some point in the future — if for no other reason than to look at the paintings once more.

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Places

Clatite at "La Patronul Meu"

There’s a dessert in Romania called “clatite”. It’s similar to the French crepes, but the dough is prepared somewhat differently, and a clatita is also smaller and usually folded differently than a crepe. Some translate it into English as pancake, but that’s not it either. They’re definitely not as thick, the dough is different, and they’re not left flat, but they’re folded or rolled up. What can I say — they’re a food unto their own. This is how they’re traditionally prepared. 

Clatite

I’ve recently had some of the best clatite ever, at a little restaurant which I believe is called “La Patronul Meu”, in the city of Mangalia, which is a seaside resort in Romania, in the province of Dobrogea. I didn’t jot down the name, forgot to take a photo of the restaurant’s exterior, and didn’t take the receipt with us when we left, but I’m fairly sure the word “Patron” was in the restaurant’s name. It was next to a Pirate-themed restaurant, near the docks. 

Down by the docks

These clatite were prepared with peach jam and topped with raspberry jam. The dough was just right: not too crisp, not too soft, and they were exquisitely delicious. If you’re ever in Mangalia, stop by this restaurant and order some; you won’t regret it. Here’s what they looked like. 

Clatite

And by all means, order some of the other food on the menu, too. Mmm, mmm, good, and the service was friendly and prompt. 

If you want to make some yourself, check out these recipes.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-05

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Thoughts

Montgomery becomes first county in nation to ban trans fats

A few days ago, on May 15th, Montgomery County (my county) became the first county in the nation to ban trans fats from restaurants and marketplaces. Basically, anything made and or cooked in this county will have to contain no trans fats, or at least close enough to that — only 0.5 grams of trans fat are allowed per serving. There’s some leeway, and some establishments can continue to sell foods with trans fats for a while, but let’s hope the wiggle room doesn’t turn into a ballroom.

I think this is pretty cool, and it’s a step in the right direction. The law is meant to address the growing waistlines of Americans everywhere. While foods with no trans fats are great, we also need to limit our caloric intake (that means smaller portions) and get more physical activity. Legislation can only go so far. People need to take some personal responsibility if they wish to stay thin. Complaining about their weight at the water cooler won’t solve anything.

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