“The time has come to review Bucovina,” he said with a heavy heart. After my initial post seeking authentic Romanian restaurants, followed by Rene G’s extraordinary one-night one-man Romaniathon, an intrepid band of culinary adventurers (ReneG, Cathy2, sazerac, A2Fay, and I—the Lovely Dining Companion could not be with us) decided to investigate…
But first, a side-trip to another Rene G discovery: Saravale Meat Market, on Irving Park Road. It’s a meat market with a couple of shelving units of pan-Eastern European jams, pickles, and so forth. Interestingly, very little of the canned/jarred goods was from Romania itself. But one doesn’t go to Saravale for the other items. One goes for the meat…and what a wonderful ethnic market it was. (You can consult the original thread
for Rene G’s post of their sign, listing some of the delicacies on offer.) A wide variety of Romanian specialties, including a number of different sausages. The butcher came out from the back and insisted that we sample half a dozen different items, starting with the head cheese. Suffice to say, every single one of us bought something, and it wasn’t because we were being polite. There was a steady trickle of customers, all Romanian judging by the conversations. The women behind the counter were gregarious, language barriers notwithstanding (they were from Timisoara, in the far west of the country, and Sibiu, a beautiful old Saxon town in the central part of the country). We had a great time talking with them, joking, and learning about what they had in their glass cases. All in all a terrific place; if it were closer, I’d visit far more often.
Bucovina at 7 pm on a Friday night was empty. Totally, completely empty. Eventually a young woman appeared from behind a closed door that, I think, led to/from the apartment upstairs. (Parenthetical note: since its days as Vox Maris, another Romanian restaurant, the interior has been totally, beautifully remodeled. While not the place for that spare-no-expense romantic dinner, it’s a pleasant place, complete with tiny stage and dance lights!) The menu offers a nice selection of some classic Romanian dishes with a lot of unexceptional choices as well. There were only six soups, so we had them all: five were (supposed to be) ciorbas, a class of soups that are generally soured with a variety of things ranging from lemon juice to yogurt to sauerkraut juice. The word ciorba itself is an inheritance from the days of Turkish dominion. (Two-third of Romania, notably present-day Wallachia and Moldavia, were part of the Ottoman empire for centuries, ending only in the later 19th century.) The soups—and the word—derive from that time. I cannot now put my fingers on my source but the gist of the history is that the word ciorba is from the Turkish which, in turn, derives from the Persian “shorba.” There is an extended tangent here, but I will leave it for now.
The soups were mostly quite good. The tripe (ciorba de burta) was a creamy, buttery, soup with some of the most toothsome tripe I ever expect to have. The ciorba de perisoare (meatball) seemed to be basically the vegetable soup with meatballs in it. So too the beef soup. All three were very well done, thick with fresh vegetables, full of flavor, but not overspiced. The only thing missing was the tang of a ciorba. Still, all three were excellent. The ciorba de fasole, a navy bean soup, again lacked the requisite sour bite, but was perhaps the group favorite. There was also a nod to chicken noodle soup lovers: a very light but nonetheless delicious broth with vermicelli.
We then tried three standard Romanian salads, a cabbage slaw, a tomato, cucumber, onion salad, and roasted red bell peppers with a garlic dressing. Unless my memory deceives me, we agreed that all were fine but perfectly ordinary. Nothing surprising in any way; pleasant without being particularly interesting.
Dinner: we chose a grilled meat platter (with mititei, a pork steak, and chicken kebabs), sarmalute (stuffed cabbage rolls), and tochitura (a pork stew).
The sarmalute were a hit. The cabbage leaves had a bit of a vinegar-y edge to them that complemented the meat (pork) stuffing nicely. The mititei were a grave disappointment, both to those with prior experience of them and those without: they were very nicely flavored (generally these sausages, the pride of Romania, are made of beef and pork, sometimes with lamb added, and heavy on the garlic) but of very poor texture. As Cathy pointed out, the meat had apparently been overground, resulting in an oversoft, almost bad meatloaf texture. So sad because the flavor was otherwise attractive. The pork steak was fine but unexceptional. The chicken kebabs were also very nice but not unusual or “Romanian” in any way.
One of the most interesting topics, both that evening and in general, is the culinary heritage of this proudly—defiantly, one might say—non-Slavic country. Romanian is a Romance language and Bucharest was long known as the “Paris of the East.” Romanians long took a delight in all things French and the French responded in kind. (There is still evidence of those ties in a variety of ways, such as in the strong French championing of Romanian admission to the EU.) The language is comprehensible to those who speak Italian. And with components of Eastern European food (with what appear to be occasional Russian influences) as well as “Oriental” influences (pace Edward Said) through centuries of Turkish suzerainty, the food can be fascinating. Rene G asked, at one point, whether, like other Eastern European countries, a beet soup existed, noting its absence from the menu. It does, but it’s not a staple of the diet (or the cuisine) as elsewhere in that part of the world.
Time to note the mamaliga (advertised, I must confess, as polenta with feta. Worse still, the waitress said it WAS feta). So much for my brinza diatribe earlier. In any event, the mamaliga with cheese and sour cream (cu brinza si smantana) was excellent and enjoyed thoroughly by all.
Desserts were simple: clatita; crepes that were closer to pancakes, rolled around your choice of filling. We picked one serving with nuts and honey and one with farmer’s cheese. Both were quite good—the former especially so with the homemade tuica (plum brandy) I brought along in celebration. The tuica had a full, round fruitiness and just the right (IMHO) bite for a fruit brandy. Entirely delicious on its own, even better with the clatita.
Dinner wasn’t very expensive: the above with tip was about $20 per person. Still, it was, despite its bright spots, generally disappointing. I suspect that few non-Romanians drop in and the regulars no doubt know what to have and what to avoid. The place was entirely ours until our little party wound down. Between 9 pm and 10 pm, people began drifting in by ones and twos. By midnight, the place was probably hopping. But we were all long since home and busy digesting our first Romanian foray. Watch out Nelly’s and Via La Scala!
Saravale Meat Market & European Deli
5254 W. Irving Park Road
6107 W. Addison