Seattle is not a mecca of Eastern European food. To be sure, Polish and Russian cuisines are well-represented at the Polish Home Association, Sebi's, Pel Meni Dumpling Tzar, and Piroshky Piroshky. And who doesn't adore a pile of dumplings? (Pierogi and pelmeni and vareniki, oh my!) But for years, I've been scouring the city for something different—a taste of my Romanian roots.
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Sarajevo Lounge—a Belltown spot with a nightclub vibe (2332 First Ave)—works in a pinch; their Friday happy hour is a lovely thing on a summer's day, when you can sit by the open windows and drink in the view of Puget Sound. The menu features cevapi, a grilled skinless sausage that goes great with a cold beer. Back home in Brooklyn, when my parents didn't have time to schlep to Sunnyside in Queens for mici—the slightly larger Romanian version—they would serve cevapi from the neighborhood's Albanian butcher. And Sarajevo Lounge doesn't skimp on serving size: $14 gets you 10 lamb-beef sausages (about the size of a breakfast link) sandwiched between two slices of lepinja, the Balkan flatbread that is like a fluffier pita with the slightest crackle. The platter comes with a scoop of kajmak (a dairy product akin to whipped butter) to spread on the delectable lepinja, chopped white onion, and ajvar (a somewhat creamy red bell pepper spread). The sharpness of the raw onion and sweet tang of the ajvar help bring life to these well-grilled (if short on garlic and pepper) sausages. Crispy fries round out the hearty platter; you will not go hungry.
I wanted to get sarma—stuffed cabbage—but the server said the owner's mother was out, so it wasn't available. My disappointment shifted to hope; perhaps when I returned, the sarma would have a special magic that the cevapi lacked. Instead, I tried a goulash that was more soup than stew. Chunks of beef swam in a savory tomato and paprika broth with potatoes, cauliflower, and asparagus. The beef needed the sauce, as it wasn't exactly melt-in-your-mouth. But more lepinja bread proved a winning addition, perfect for sopping.
No thanks to a buy-out from Heineken, Timisoreana, the Romanian beer on the menu, wasn't available. But the waiter recommended two refreshing lagers, Skopsko from Macedonia and the slightly more flavorful Nisko from Serbia, the perfect accompaniment.
Fans of Big John's PFI in the International District or George's Deli on First Hill should head to the colorful aisles of European Foods, a gem of a grocery store and restaurant in a strip mall near Bitter Lake (13520 Aurora Ave N). There you'll find all manner of smoked fish and meats; seven kinds of dry curd cottage cheese (to say nothing of the other dairy products—I like kashkaval, a sharp Bulgarian cheese); Romanian, Moldovan, Russian, and Georgian wine; poppy seed roulades and other tantalizing confections; and myriad preserves—Armenian green walnuts, cherry compote, and black currant jam.
On my visit, the dining room was dark and quiet. Doilies graced each table. Gold streamers and stars hung from the crimson ceiling. A set of ornate light fixtures reminded me of Byzantine crowns. It felt as if we'd missed a party that had happened the night before and everyone was still sleeping. Or they were waiting for the party to start and no one had arrived yet. Granted, it was midafternoon, an awkward time of day.
I'd heard the sweet-and-sour sauce on their cabbage rolls included ketchup, and I was extremely skeptical. The rolls arrived somewhat cold with a dollop of sour cream and, yes, a whiff of vinegary tomato. They were a bit tastier than the golabki at Sebi's, whose creamy tomato sauce is milder (though comforting). Brown rye bread, handy for plate-cleaning, had the right-out-of-a-plastic-bag texture that plagues too many loaves. (Indeed, European Foods ships in German bread from Vancouver, BC, and rye bread from Portland; it's time for Seattle bakeries to make a better, crustier rye!) For good measure, we tried the potato vareniki, which were delightful: Dense and chewy dough gave way to luscious, buttery potato. Covered in sour cream and flecked with dill, this is the dish worth the trek to Aurora and 135th.
For many years, Vancouver, BC, seemed to be the only place I could get authentic Romanian food. Once, my parents shipped me a jar of pickled cabbage leaves from Sunnyside so I could make sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls) the way I wanted. None of the cabbage rolls I'd encountered in Seattle thus far used pickled cabbage, and so to me came off a bit on the bland side. But now I can go to Renton, where the region's one Romanian restaurant opened in May of 2016: Sunset Bistro.
Like European Foods, it's located in a strip mall (354 Sunset Blvd N, Renton). We arrived in the airy dining room to find the best of the 1980s piping through the speakers, while the sunny back patio was half full of people chatting under all the available umbrellas. Eggplant salad was a divine summer starter. The roasted and pureed eggplant was smoky and creamy, and chopped red onion added a sharp crunch. Slices of tomato and flecks of parsley made for a bright garnish. A basket of thick-cut white country bread accompanied the spread; alas, it ached for a crunchier crust.
The mici was lightly crispy. The succulent lamb-beef sausage—redolent of garlic and well-peppered—tasted fresh, as if they'd just ground the meat. Regular old yellow mustard proved a fine condiment, though I'd hoped for something a bit different in that department. Intense, more-than-full-sour pickles with quite a bit of spice were a nice surprise.
At last came the sarmale, juicy and wrapped in pickled cabbage. A slender hot pepper lay atop the four rolls, and it burned my tongue off. A wedge of creamy polenta and dollop of sour cream, however, were the best antidote. This is what I'd hoped for—the most flavorful cabbage rolls I'd found yet. The one thing they lacked was a hint of smoked pork, like in my grandmother's spin on the dish. Lots of other dishes on the menu promised smoked pork, however. Now I just need to figure out a way to walk to Renton so I can come back to eat here with a bigger appetite.