The Cluj guide to dining out
I've been in Cluj for seventeen months. That's 73 weeks. And every week there's something going on in this city. I write about so many socio-political-economic-motivational issues that it probably looks like I never have any fun. That's unfair because the city has lots to offer and I'm really enjoying living here. What I'd like to do is write a bit about the places that are memorable in this town; sights, restaurants, nightlife. It's not going to fit it all in one post, so first, the food!
One of my favorite things to do is to try new food. The more exotic the better. To put it bluntly, Romania isn't the greatest place on earth for foodie adventures as the exotic ingredients required for adventurous dishes can be hard to find, but it doesn't mean a great gastronomical experience is impossible in Cluj. My bias is entirely Western when writing about these places, that's to say I have a pretty good idea about what quality food and good service mean. It's never just about the food, it's also about what the dining experience should entail. Am I being pretentious? I don't know, but it's hard not to notice the little details considering I come from a city with 10,000 restaurants.
I'm not arranging the list it in any particular order. If it's here, it's worth checking out.
Bistro Viena - In addition to the Viennese specialties like Emmentaler sausages, you'll find many items that the typical Romanian restaurant carries on its menu, but this is where similarities end because at this Bistro they execute it all with Teutonic perfection. The roasted pork knuckle is incredible. It's like eating a meal and dessert all at the same time; crispy skin, a thin layer of caramelized fat, both smoky and sweet, and deliciously tender meat that will turn a vegan into a believer in no time. The decor is cozy and warm with lots of exposed brick and hand-carved wooden furniture. The service is very efficient while the prices, for the quality, are more than reasonable. Still, the star of the show is definitely the food. It's simply great.
Brick's - Here's what I was most impressed with; it's the only fully-fledged restaurant in Romania where I have seen the manager helping out with table service -and not because it was overcrowded. To me that says a lot, particularly that it's run by somebody proactive. It's clearly a more 'high-end' type of setting; from the decor, to the plates, presentation, and menu, but it encompasses what the dining out experience should be: an experience. The chef clearly knows what he's doing. You feast with your eyes first at Brick's, but then you also eat some good food. More pricey than the average Cluj restaurant, but worth the experience. I've also heard good things about the more upscale sister restaurant Baracca, but can't give any first-hand details. Nevertheless, the owners here clearly know what they're doing.
Fat Boy - A hole in the wall, literally, but the best chicken nuggets in town always made fresh on the spot. I wouldn't call what they call a burger a burger, but dem nuggets sure is good! Open day and night on Memo, next to the entrance to Piata Muzeului.
Hanul Dacilor, Casa Ardeleana, Casa Vikingilor - Apart from the names and decor, there is very little that separates any of these places from one another. They all have fresh and very tasty cold starter plates, delicious meat and potato type fare, fair prices, large portions, and average service. Oh, at Casa Ardeleana they hook you up with a shot of tuica on the house, so that's a nice touch. As with many Romanian restaurants, they have very large menus and it's not always easy to figure out what the dish contains just by reading its name. Come to think of it, they basically offer a traditional Romanian experience in every sense of the word.
LunchBox CITY - There are versions of this lunch-crowd favorite at Polus Center and Iulius Mall, but the real deal is in the city center on 21 December street. A bit pricy for a lunch spot, but there's no denying that the tasty fare being served is fresh and of the highest quality. The nicest touch of all are the potted herbs on each table.
Tokyo Sushi - All I have to say about this is thank God there is a sushi joint in this town. I'd love it even if it wasn't very good. Good thing that is is! One of their 50 RON boats does the trick for an evening. I find it very comparable to the average Sushi spot in Toronto, but unlike the average sushi spot in Toronto, the service is very good -what an ironic twist! I'll also mention Nobori Sushi where I went once and found the food just as good but much more expensive, though apparently prices are more reasonable now.
Indigo - A little torn about writing up on it since I've only been to the Iulius Mall food court version. But I figure the real thing must be even better, so it must be worth checking out. I ate lots of Indian food in Toronto and the authenticity is definitely there -which makes sense since the chef is Indian. The most interesting part though was dessert: Jalebi, something I'd never tried before. Delicious.
El Toro - The only spot in Cluj you'll find a proper steak, only I wouldn't know anything about it because I ate soup and some mici. Worst restaurant review ever, why are you even reading this? Alright, I'll make it worthwhile by mentioning that it seemed lonely (maybe we went at an odd time?) and unless the steak really is good, it's nothing out of the ordinary as far as ambiance and service.
Toulouse - Love this spot. It's expensive but it's everything I expect from a bar: attractive design, lots of variety, and mixologists who know what they're doing. Although the cocktails are better than the food, it's still a decent spot to eat. The Gazpacho was very tasty and very garlicky, while I also really enjoyed the plain nachos and home-made guacamole. Can't say I was impressed by the Jack Daniels burger, mostly because the sauce that gives it its name tasted like it came out of a can, which is a shame because it was a proper beef burger with all the trimmings - and that's generally hard to come by here. Opt for the regular house burger. It makes sense to try a RON 25 dish if you're dishing out RON 20 for cocktails.
Marty - This is the restaurant that tries. It's got mostly American style food so it's great for curing those infrequent bouts of nostalgia gringos may have for the land of the burger. I ate some really good chicken wings here and also had a terrible Bloody Mary, but here's the awesome thing about that story; the server, when she saw I wasn't drinking it asked if it was okay, when I told her I couldn't drink it she took it took it off the bill. According to the friend who was with me, this can be considered a miracle in Romania.
Shanghai (I apologize for the most 1.0 website in the world) - This is a very nice looking restaurant with good service and good food, it's a pity it doesn't quite taste Chinese. Toronto's spoiled me so my expectations are that restaurants need to deliver on authenticity, but as I said in the preamble, there's a bit of a lack in the exotic ingredients department. That said, the food is very tasty and does have a distinctly Asian twang, but it's almost like it has a Romanian twist at the same time. On the plus side, I think it means they really don't use MSG.
Istanbul - I can't even find a website for this place, but everyone in Cluj knows it for the authentically delicious Shawarmas. It's located on Herman Oberth, just off Eroilor in the city center. The Turkish guy who owns it speaks very good Romanian (so I assume English is a given). Open late, lots of other Turkish dishes whose names I can't tell you but that contain chickpeas, eggplant, and parsley and stuff like that. Go there for the Shawarma at least.
Jaco Toast - This is worth mentioning because what they do is so simple it's crazy there aren't more places like this around. They offer a variety of cold-cut and cheese sandwiches in a baguette that ends up warm and crispy after a trip to the panini press. They taste great and you can get a combo with a fresh fruit shake for RON 10 lei. Cheap, tasty, and quick. It's a winner.
La Liga - Located in Sigma Center in Zorilor, this is the closest thing around to an authentic sports bar. Lots of sports memorabilia plastered everywhere, LCDs on all the walls, and it even has booth style seating. It's a larger spot, so it's rarely full, unless there's a big sporting event going on. The food is a very pleasant surprise. I've had soups, pasta, pizza and even traditional Romanian dishes here and I was never disappointed. The service can be slow at times, but it's always courteous. Prices are reasonable and there's ample choice on the menu for all budgets (but maybe not for student budgets).
I could probably add a few more places, but these are the ones that come to mind first. I really wish I'd been able to include a brief review of Lotus, the first Thai place in Transylvania, but it wasn't yet open when we went by last weekend. According to first impressions from a fellow Torontonian, it's the real deal.
By Matt Sampalean, Guest Writer
Matt was born in Romania and grew up in a world of ration cards and clandestine Radio Free Europe broadcasts. He emigrated with his parents to Toronto, Canada in 1991 where he spent twenty years before returning to Romania as co-founder of a technology startup. When he’s not working he blogs about his experiences as a person with ‘bipolar nationality disorder’. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania -Insider.com.
(photo source: Matt Sampalean's blog)