‘On a quiet Tuesday evening, we casually strode along the cobbled sidewalk in the late Summer heat. We headed to Zama Bistro for our first taste of traditional Romanian food…’
It was my first visit to Cluj-Napoca and, in fact, my first visit to Romania. Les had previously spent a few nights in Bucharest several years before but hadn’t gotten around to eating anything classed as traditional Romanian food.
Zama Bistro was warm and inviting, with bare stone walls, exposed brickwork, and modern hanging light fixtures, giving it a hip warehouse look. With banquette seating, solid wood tables, and sleek and shiny black bar, it had the right balance of upmarket with a hipster edge.
We took seats opposite the bar, which gave us a clear view of the young bartender. He spent the night producing gin and tonics with lime wedges and thin strips of cucumber, Aperol spritz, with thick wedges of orange, and an array of red, white, and rose wine.
While I enjoyed the white wine, and Les opted for a green tea with mango and strawberry, I looked around to see who our fellow diners were. In the far corner were five friends who ordered a bottle of red from the cellar. As they were about to pour, a sixth member joined them, and everyone got up to shake his hand and hug him in congratulations. Although the new group member spoke in English with a heavy Romanian accent, I was unable to work out quite what he’d done to merit this celebration with his friends.
On the other side, a lone man in a suit ordered a large glass red wine and a bowl of dumplings with jam. I wondered whether he’d had a bad day at the office and needed something comforting to take the edge off. A little later, a member of the bistro staff joined him for a chat.
The atmosphere was cozy and pleasant, and it was interesting to get a snapshot into a regular weekday evening in Cluj-Napoca. I love people-watching and enjoyed my glimpse into local lives.
Adriana provided us with the bistro menu and recommended we order some traditional Romanian food. The two dishes were Cabbage a la Cluj – which is the official meal of the city – and Veal Transylvanian Gulyas with potatoes and parsley. We ordered one of each and decided we’d mix and match.
To start, Adriana had the chef prepare a sharing platter of Zacusca. Zacusca is a pureed vegetable dip, enjoyed with thick slabs of white bread. She chose three pots for us with eggplant and pepper, mushroom and pepper, and eggplant with onion. Delving into the unknown, we tore chunks of bread from the wooden serving board and tentatively dunked it into the various Zacusca pots.
We were unsure what to expect but were very impressed with the flavours. I’m not a fan of eggplant as a rule, but pureed, seasoned and mixed with peppers; it was fantastic. I could happily have grazed on Zacusca all night with a glass of wine. Adriana explained its popularity in Romania and how women cook it early in the year and store it in large jars for the cold winter months.
Varza a la Cluj & Veal Gulyas
The main courses followed shortly afterward. I received a small earthenware pot of Varza a la Cluj, a layered dish of mince, passata, onions, and rice. It was built and presented like lasagne, but without all the messy cheesiness that goes with it. At the other end of the table, Les received a plate of slow-cooked veal and lightly roasted potatoes. We both dove in and came up for air at the same time to nod our approval at each other. Halfway through, we switched plates and repeated the same process of eating and nodding, with mouths full of food. If this is what Romanians cook at home for their families, I was entirely on board.
After having a short break, Adriana offered up her local knowledge to recommend traditional Romanian desserts we should try. I rarely eat dessert when I’m out, as I’m not someone who enjoys sweet courses. Les, on the other hand, is partial to a slice of cake or bowl of something sticky, so we decided to give it a go, nonetheless. We opted for famous Romanian puddings of Boiled Dumplings with Jam and something called a Floating Island.
Floating Island and Boiled Dumplings
The dumplings were filled with cottage cheese and sour cream and dipped in breadcrumbs. They were savoury and sweet, and, at first, I wasn’t overly keen. Once I tried dipping them in the dark jam, however, it changed the taste entirely. As someone who never eats dessert, this was new territory for me. The Floating Island turned out to be just that: a white island of boiled egg white, gently bobbing around on the vanilla, milk, and egg yolk cream sauce. The texture took a bit of getting used to but wasn’t unpleasant at all.
As we alternated between small spoonfuls of dumpling and egg white, we watched as bowl after bowl of Floating Islands emerged from the kitchen to tables across the bistro. It’s a firm favourite with locals. Adriana, noticing we this was the only course we hadn’t inhaled, approached us to suggest the dessert was ‘interesting, yes?’. And, so, interesting is precisely the way I’m describing it.
Location and Specialities
Zama Bistro is just off the central square in Cluj-Napoca Old Town. It’s open each day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails. It’s a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists visiting the city. The restaurant opened in 2016, with a further outlet scheduled for January 2020. Zama takes traditional Romanian dishes and serves them with a modern twist. It’s a great blend of contemporary and traditional. If you want to test out the local fare, you can’t go wrong with traditional Romanian dining at Zama Bistro.
** AD: We’d like to say a huge thanks to Aura, owner at Zama Bistro, and to wonderful Adriana, who waited on us. The food was fantastic and we thoroughly enjoyed learning about Romanian food and culture. **