Bucharest. Different.

Tourists rarely give it more than a weekend. Those moving here have a hard time calling it home. Those who’ve known it all their life are already jaded. But Bucharest is still more than the background city for your trip from A to B; special places popping up are drawing in the crowds, turning the city cool. The list that follows is subjective, a map this local is scribbling as she discovers her city; but these venues could easily be included in any guide. The people who built them and their courage to follow their passion put Bucharest in the spotlight.

J’ai Bistro

I pass the excavators chewing up the Matache Market  and go down Grivitei Boulevard. A baptism party is slowly moving from its pink-ballooned courtyard to the street; across, by the University of Arts, all is quiet. “We’re closed, we’re still building”, a young boy warns me when I get to number 55. For a moment, I’m just terrified how close he moves around that circular saw. I tell him they’re waiting for me, so I slalom through building materials along the first passageway, narrow as a Venetian street, I go through a wooden-paved tunnel and step into a garden like no other in town. There’s nothing in the cool air to remind me of the wooden chips floating around just meters behind.

I came back here to meet Corina, one of the owners of J’ai Bistro, the second venue she opened in the country, after the one in Targu Mures. It’s like being backstage, everybody fretting, just a couple days before the housewarming party that will celebrate a brand new interior, where the bistro can carry on through the winter. Outside, grapes still hang from the vines sheltering the tables, while the trees flaunt their green against the October sun; if the weather allows, the garden might just continue to receive guests; the pink blankets I spot around might also help.

It was two months ago that this place got me hooked. Accidentally. It’s a landscape in itself, every table with its share of shadow, where bare feet could jump from a hummock straight into the sand. Working there for an entire afternoon meant some elderflower juice, a glass of chocolate milk, walking barefoot through the warm pebbles and playing with Pamfil the cat, the bistro’s mascot. People came and never seemed to leave. They parked their bicycles, grabbed their laptops or just their coffees, focused on their reading or chats.

Corina is short haired and seems a relaxed enthusiast. She says that after taking care of the Transylvanian J’ai Bistro opened in her grandfather’s house, she wanted something similar in Bucharest. Its name is a French twist to her grandpa’s nickname, Papa Je. It all came naturally; everybody involved followed their hearts and did what they liked best – be it design, handling paperwork or organizing events.

In Bucharest, the Bistro was a prodigy child – achieving more in a day than others in months – more than 500 people came to the opening, then spread the news. The human energy matched the vibe of the place. “It’s nice to see how things change every day”, says Corina, while Ciuc (the tomcat who took over the garden after Pamfil’s mysteriously disappearance) stretches in my lap. Evenings often come with live music, from alternative rock to fiddle tunes, magazine launches or movies screened on the high wall of the garden. While in Targu Mures there’s a steady group of loyal customers, in Bucharest more and more people are discovering the place and put it on their entertainment map.

During the weekends, J’ai Bistro becomes even more appealing with its special dishes – seafood or goulash – or by organizing vintage fairs and events for children. Pass your time with coffee or tea, warm milk or a less orthodox drink. Corina says she wanted people to come here for the spirit of the place, and not for its products. Some clients working as freelancers have already set their office here. And get their daily fuel with hearty sandwiches. And for those late drunken nights, they’re even working on a new, “I’m sorry” cocktail.

Origo

Mihai wears a black shirt and his eyes light the room; he makes micro-gestures as he talks, and what he talks about is coffee – oozing the self-assurance of a connoisseur who, despite years of experience, is still thirsty for more. That’s why he chose coffee – it always has something to teach him; and that’s why he opened Origo a couple of months ago – to teach others to experiment, to ask more from their brews.

So today I’m trying my first flat white, that stuff between a foamy cappuccino and a whitish  latte. Two espresso shots hug a glimpse of milk foam without losing strength. The metal meets the foam and the maple leaf disappears in a whirlwind; milk bubbles dive into the warmth below.

I put my teaspoon on the wooden board and mould my hands around the curves of the cup. The memory of any previous taste is erased with a sip of water. All my taste buds jump at this exotic velvet, they cling to it, they splosh silently and turn it upside down. They search through their memories, but all they can come up with is “a bit of walnuts, cocoa, aaaaa…it’s so…damn good.”

A national barista champion, Mihai never stopped doing his homework – professional coffee classes, trips to coffee farms, annual pilgrimages to London, Berlin and Milan, where he can find inspiration. Origo does not discriminate coffee by name, everything revolves around origin beans, which get here from plantations aimed at a specific market.

Any day, they offer five types of coffee; a comfort blend for the prudent, an experimental one for bolder days and three different versions of brewed coffee. As a layperson, so far I’ve been better at remembering the taste better than the technique; what I got was that the base of my flat white came from Ethiopia, that Panama Geisha from the Esmeralda hacienda is ridiculously expensive and that the Tanzania Blackburn prickles the tongue just a bit.

A blackboard lists the menu written in chalk: the caffeine bits, then some matching desserts, spiruline tea, molecular affogato, going all the way to classic and concept cocktails, available only after 7 pm, when Origo puts on its after dark mood and turns into a hybrid bar.

There’s also something paradoxical here: it’s a space to slow down, where your senses sharpen on a background of rough geometry, warm wooden furniture and a light not too high above, falling from ceramic cups. It’s a good place to unwind brain cells, work, talk or just gaze. Mihai says all sorts of people drop in, from artists to IT geeks, from coffee-loving tourists to locals who actually explore the edge of the historical centre. I see it myself: the glass door keeps letting in suits in Converse shoes, flower-power dresses or sweatshirts, sitting down at one of the four tables, grabbing a to-go or stopping for a sip outside, on the quiet side of Lipscani.

In the meantime, behind the bar, one of the baristas is sniffing a sort of tall hour-glass, breathing in to his stomach, eyelids trembling and closing under the haze of caffeine. Preparing a siphon coffee involves many mandatory steps, but technicalities do not imply skipping the passion. In a room closed to the public sits the coffee roaster; one can only guess how flavored its walls must be.

There’s nothing arbitrary at Origo. The smiling staff knows its way around coffee. Behind the oak bar, they do their thing with the Marzocco, the Ferrari of coffee machines. They don’t want to let anybody thirsty, so they always fill your water cup. You can hear the music, but also your thoughts. And having a coffee is best with no cigarette smoke in sight, says Mihai, an uncommon motto for this city.

Beautyfood

People squeeze me in the subway and I’m squeezing the squeaking styrofoam. Through the hinges of the wrapping, the smokiness of the steak goes to my head, whispering something about a mid rare juiciness, melting under the knife. “The train will halt for 2 minutes.” This is not the best timing. Beef cutlet, Gruyere cheese, sauerkraut, horseradish, all united in a couple of sauces –  Reuben, my imminent sandwich, needs to be attended quite urgently.

My dinner to go comes from Beautyfood, the bistro behind the row of buildings facing Magheru boulevard. I bumped into it one July afternoon, and my hunger panged just out of curiosity. A few steps inside and I’m already in the inner garden, a square dotted with 3 or 4 tables, flanked by flowers. I’m trying to remember all the details of my first visit, but all I know is I forked my way through the crust, the yolk erupted in a low gush, all over the spinach leaves and the salty crunchiness of cheese. It was primal, a forgotten childhood voluptuousness, completed by thoroughly dipping my bread through the eggy scraps.

But tonight I took my time to look around. The music covers the traffic on Batistei street, at the back there’s somebody typing enthusiastically on their laptop, a couple try each other’s drinks. The bar is covered in white tiles and colorful plates and a clear, dry rattle echoes behind it, signaling that the food elevator is working its way from the kitchen downstairs, as orders flow through the intercom.

Elena, the owner, sits at the counter; she strikes me with her honest manner. Energy and humor don’t seem to have left her despite a full day of cooking and washing up. Same as the artisan behind it, Beautyfood is young and pretty, and food has punch. “I cook what I like to eat”, says Elena, who switched from dinner parties for friends to more serious business. Not everything was smooth when she started out, but she defied the lack of safety nets; today, things have fallen into place. “The greatest joy is when you don’t recognize the faces of those coming through the door”, when she talks about opening up a place in a less crowded area.

The new menu, which Elena changes every 3-4 months is pending. It will keep its core dishes – including the Moroccan chicken and apricot wrap, which won the hearts of festival goers at Summer Well last summer, when Beautyfood camped their kitchen there. For the healthy carnivore, no meal can go wrong with a steady burger, roast potatoes, all lightly sauced. The all-day breakfast policy, ran not by many venues in Bucharest, involves poached eggs with parmesan or pancakes lathered in maple, walnut and orange syrup.

But beyond the weekly routine, Beautyfood goes further – on Sundays, Elena promotes community cooking events, when people gather to enjoy special food. Belgium National Day was the perfect pretense for chocolate ice-cream and moulles frites, a visit from a Portuguese chef resulted in a hearty feijoada ( a meaty, bean stew) and some drunken chorizos; justice was done also to Asian cuisine, pickles and hangover-fixing pies.

Omnivore’s dilemma

When a man is hungry, he doesn’t feel anything else, said Jerome K. Jerome when analyzing daily life. It might just be true. Around me, shapes become blurry, voices soften, and reason is on the brink of sinking in digestive juices. It’s that time of day when instincts rearrange priorities, senses sharpen, and in the city rush, one grabs a bagel and a yoghurt.

But if you want to pace yourself and roam through a dish that actually combines ingredients, look for a narrow strip of sidewalk on Victoria Boulevard, one marked by rose bays, where for more than three years, a cool bunch of friends have supported honest food and time for conversation. Three omnivores wanted to give the city one of the first places with a hint of home, with no thorough plans and defying the city center craziness. The venue is named after Michael Pollan’s book, the American who disclosed the backstage of simple meals and all its economic stakes, trying to answer, in the end, just one question: “what I am gonna eat today?”

A few times per month I solve my food dilemmas at Omnivore’s. I know the drill: check the blackboard on the left, check the window on the right. Decide. If you can. To make sure you can enjoy all the dishes, try to get there before lunch time, when white collars ravage the shop.

I’m always coming back to the chicken pie – with its mushy, spiced fibers, heavy under a buttery pastry dough – I hope for it every time I check the menu that varies daily. It might happen that on Tuesdays the chicken will be dressed in maple syrup, that on Wednesdays olives will land in a leek stew, or that on Thursdays the pumpkin cream soup will end up sprinkled in pesto. Whatever the case, there’s always quiche and salad on the glass shelves; the omnivores also follow the season, giving lead roles to turnips, beetroot, cauliflower, and don’t ignore sandwich-worthy salamis or figs that need to dip in a creamy tart.

It was Michael Pollan who confessed in his book that cooking, repetitive in its steps, allows him to think; there’s a chance you might find clarity at Omnivore’s. That is, if a marshmallow doesn’t play with your mind. All ingredients are mixed, roasted, groomed, served, wrapped, and worshipped on about 40 square meters, everything in sight. Love for food comes first. There’s straight angles and Spartan touches; packs of biscuits on high shelves and metal bowls being whisked as the cooks don’t hide their mechanics. There’s nothing unnatural about this place. Lunch steams the air inside. Some kir (a mix of white wine and blueberry liquor) will give you strength to face the rest of your workday. No shame for the dark blue aprons powdered in flour, no rush for the neuron when acoustic music flows from above and just a lot of magazines to read for the bored.

Beyond live experiences, if you google a bit the history of the place, you’ll find a heavy track record – a Victorian dinner with roasted geese and rabbit pie, theme parties featuring board games or trading vinyl records, topped with ginger cake or exotic fruit custard.

Valeriu, one of the owners, maintains a certain coolness when talking how he’s trying to act responsibly with regard to his customers and the environment. Everything is fresh, sourced locally as much as possible, each season has its stars, the menu is short, but varied.

Article featured in National Geographic Traveler Romania, in the Winter 2013 issue.

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