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The Cluj Guide to Dining Out

Note: This is a 2016 update to the post originally written in 2012. 

Back in 2012, Toulouse was the only place in town to serve a halfway decent hamburger. How things have changed. There's been a veritable burger revolution and you'll be hard pressed to find bistro-style restaurants that don't offer the king of sandwiches. There are also several new, and very good, additions to the city's fine dining roster. But maybe the most positive change is in the market itself. Patrons have become more discerning about their options, there is a deeper appreciation for consistency, and, as a result, restaurants have responded with an elevated level of service and quality overall.
But there's still no authentic Mexican...


So, with no particular order in mind, let's get into it, shall we?

Via - The simple name denotes understated excellence. At least that's how I look at it now. Over the past couple of years, Via has cemented itself as one of my favourite Cluj restaurants. I've never had a less than satisfactory meal at Via, and, given the accent they place on quality ingredients, seasonal menu changes, and perfect execution (from the back to the front of the house), it's downright difficult to have a negative experience here.
Located in a small street, just off Unirii square, it's cozy and quiet. Although it's more pricey than the average Cluj restaurant, the dining experience also surpasses the average expectations in Cluj . The TripAdvisor reviews are pretty fair, although it has no business drifting out of the city's Top 3. This is a restaurant that would do well in Paris, Toronto, or any world capital for that matter.
Try the Chatrubriand, Mangalita, or Thai beef risotto. Pair it with a fine Romanian wine and you'll go home very satisfied.

Cabinet de Vin & Cocotte - The prices here are steep indeed for a Cluj restaurant, but were you to find it in a major European capital, it would feel quite at home. It's only fair if you consider that the quality of the food and service will match, and likely exceed, most diners' expectations.
There are some quirks to get used to: everything is served in small cast iron cocotte dishes - hence the mouthful of a name - and when ordering a main you're combining three items; the dish, the sauce, and the side. But I'll put it this way; until I went for the pork tenderloin here, I didn't know that an ordinary cut of meat could be elevated to such a sublime flavours. The lentil side dish was another revelation. As was the lamb, the duck, and anything else I've tried on the menu. Easily deserving of a Michelin star.
The "Vin" part of the name is represented by fine Romanian vintages, reds from the Cotes du Rhone, Argentinian Malbecs, and the best of world wines.
If you're going to try just one restaurant in Cluj, and budget is not an issue, it should be this one.

Casa Boema - The best thing about Boema is its summer garden. Located in a shady inner courtyard on Iuliu Maniu, it gives off an 'oasis in the middle of the city' vibe. During the winter, service takes place inside the renovated Belle Epoque building surrounding the yard. The wine and cocktails are good, if pricey, while the menu is big enough that there's something for everyone, albeit it's not usually anything special.
My recommendation here is try to stick to the grill items. Try the hamburger -one of the better burgers in town - or the house specials. Don't get me wrong, the food is decent enough, but it's hard to get excited about slightly above average bistro food after writing about Via and Cocotte. Likewise service is impersonal and cold, but maybe not surprising given how busy it gets and how understaffed it seems.
You'll want to come here for the atmosphere and conversations with friends, not for a mind-blowing dining experience.

Off The Wall - The owners are friends. Chef Tayler and Oliver moved from Alberta, in Canada, to open OTW. They wanted to bring the Canadian bistro experience to Cluj, and have mostly succeeded. You won't find a Caesar (cocktail) anywhere else in Cluj, nor deep fried pickles, nor Kalbi ribs, and especially not Poutine. For Cluj, the dishes are all very much, dare I say, off the wall...( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) 
The menu changes a couple of times a year and is represented by its variety of world cuisine. Quesadillas, burgers, risottos, Kung Pao chicken, Caesar salad -all done Canadian (North American) style. The Tayler burger is probably the best gourmet burger in town.
I've dined here enough to catch one or two off days, but the owners and staff are very receptive to feedback and they always serve better quality food than than the average Cluj fare. In my view, it's a top 20 restaurant in Cluj.

Baracca - Like Casa Boema, it's one of those places I don't want to write too much about because of its pretentiousness. It's mostly frequented by the type of parvenu Romanian clientele (guys in bright chinos and loafers with no socks and women at various stages of augmentation) who like a place precisely because it's portrayed as upscale, not because they know anything about quality food.
That is not to say that there is no quality food on the menu, but for an upscale resto, it lags behind Via or Cocotte. Is the food bad? Not at all, they do most of the dishes very well. But they always seem to look better than they taste (impeccable presentation) and the only memorable dish that comes to mind is the giant Tiramisu desert. While it is by far my favourite desert in town, a place of Baracca's pretensions should/could offer more.  The service, too is on the cold side. In my view, it's great for desert, but you've got better dining options for the money.

Mint Bistro - I was delighted with this place when it opened two or three years ago. It was one of the first exclusively non-smoking places in town and literally a breath of fresh air to dine there, but I feel the quality has fallen off a bit. It's got a great atmosphere, great appetizers and home-made pasta dishes, but the last time I had the steak it was overcooked and the burger lacked any character - yes, much like disreputable people a burger, too, can lack character. Service is friendly, and the Romanian wines are top-notch.

Marty - Marty deserves to be in the discussion because it's an ever-evolving and thriving restaurant. The change over the past five years has been impressive indeed. All of the locations have been upgraded and it's become a sort of up-scale 'casual dining' restaurant, like the Moxies franchise in Canada. It's got the best looking menu in Cluj, with tons of options,and very acceptable burgers and glazed ribs. Service is also efficient and the overall experience pretty much delivers on what you'd expect - except for when you expect more because the glossy menu picture makes a dish look better than it is. The drinks and wine menu is ample, and the seasonal changes offer a nice touch. If they'd reduce the expansive dining menu and keep their focus on well-executed dishes, I'd definitely rate it higher.

Brick's - Can I just say I find the name Brick's (M)eating Point slightly cringy? On one hand there's the presumably creative play on words, but on the other is a naughty double entendre that you don't want anywhere near a professional kitchen.
While this restaurant was up top in 2012, it's not much above Marty these days. The service, presentation, and wine menu suggest more upscale pretensions, but the food itself is...bland. It's a very popular lunch spot for the corporate crowd, but that's because they manage to present the lunch special as gourmet food. The fare they serve is decent and filling enough, but you don't get a sense of creativity or passion for gastronomy. It's like the window dressing is there but not much more.

Rosticerria D'Autore - When I think Osso Bucco, I think of this place. Also when I think of focaccia - a focaccia which they serve warm, in an handcrafted pouch, alongside sprigs of thyme. It is so cacciatore! I'd be happy to come here just to dip the foccacia in the Osso Bucco sauce. I'm not sure what anything else on the menu is like, but does it even matter?
Seriously though, in addition to the Osso Bucco, they also make a fine rabbit stew and great home-made pasta. The menu is not expansive and I take that as a good sign. The restaurant is very well reviewed for their seafood on TripAdvisor but I can't make judgement on anything I haven't eaten myself. However, if the classics are anything to judge by, the seafood must indeed be exquisite.

Napoli Centrale - While we're onto Italian food, Napoli Centrale can't be ignored. It boasts a beautiful oasis-in-the-city type of garden that's always full in the summer, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the food that brings everybody back. They have delicious antipasto platters, pizza from a wood fired oven, and the kind of home-made pasta nonna used to make (if I had a Italian nonna). I also like that the Italian-Romanian owners are very involved in the service, and they help add that family atmosphere to the place. If you're craving Italian carbs, this is where you go in Cluj.

Tokyo - I'm surprised a Japanese restaurant is in the top 5 in Cluj, but not necessarily surprised that it's this one. The Japanese owner has worked hard to instill a high standard of quality and service, both of which stand out in the food and their very professional staff. On the other hand, even the sushi is fresh and carefully prepared, the place is much too pricey, even by local standards. It's a good Japanese dining experience if you're craving it, but if all you want is sushi, just hit the Wasabi Sushi bar at Iulius Mall and have your fill. It's owned by the same guy and the sushi quality is just as good.

Wasabi Sushi - I'm going to write about the All You Can Eat (AYCE) running bar at Iulius Mall here, although there is a smaller Wasabi at Polus Mall, too. I kind of said most of what there is to say in the review above. Just pull up a chair and have your fill from the plates on the running bar in front of you. You get an hour to eat as much as you can handle. I've been at a couple of times when there's too much of the cooked variety and not enough of the fresh rolls/nigiri/ maki but you can always have a look before sitting down. The chefs can also prep some rolls if you ask them, so it's hard to go wrong. Not cheap either, but a better value than Tokyo for sure.

Shanghai - Yes, we're onto the Asian theme now. I didn't used to think much of Shanghai because I would usually order the daily special which is usually highly Romanian-ized Chinese food. But if you order from the menu, you can get some really good stuff. A friend introduced me to their very flavoursome curry chicken, but pretty much every dish is very tasty and extremely filling. Great spot if you need a Chinese fix.

Gandhi -Went here with a friend when it first opened in 2015. The place is run by a couple of Bangladeshi-born Londoners who wanted to bring a touch of exotic spice to Cluj. We were treated to an off menu dish that I will forever remember as the best lamb curry I've had. It's probably off menu because the local palates are unlikely to enjoy that level of heat, but this is just to say that the authenticity is there, and that this place is good, if a bit pricey by Cluj standards. Haven't been in a while because I enjoy making my own curries at home, but I recommend it if you're looking for the taste of India in Cluj.

Lotus - Maybe the best Pad Thai I've had. This isn't usually my favourite dish at Thai restaurants, but they do it so well at Lotus I can't help ordering it most time. Unfortunately, since their move away from the Eroilor location down to Horea St. there isn't much to say about the atmosphere or the convenience of finding it. Still, if you need a Thai fix, it's the best -and only - place you'll get it.

Livada - This place is pretty similar to Marty's menu-wise. Similar dishes, similar expectations, similar hit or miss on a scale from so-so to excellent. Beautiful huge garden (livada means 'orchard' in Romanian) where you can easily spend a couple of hours in the summer heat, but also quite busy along with the associated service mishaps. They had an amazing pork hock, I say 'had' because it's still on the menu but I haven't had it in a long time, but also serve pretty good burgers, ribs, and schnitzel. I have a friend who swears by their duck confit, but maybe I had it on an off day. Worth a go, especially in the summer.

Matei Corvin - This may be the only Cluj restaurant I ever visited because of TripAdvisor. It's consistently in the Top 10 and I couldn't understand why, it seemed like a pretty typical Romanian restaurant. It turns out it's Romanian/Hungarian and the family who run it do a great job getting the food out of the kitchen and entertaining the guests. It offers very good local  fare at very fair prices. Portions are large and don't disappoint. Try the papricas (chicken stew with polenta) and the mushroom soup with tarragon.

Zama - Can't leave all these reviews without including the official Transylvanian  restaurant. Unlike the typically rustic local food restaurants, Zama offers their Romanian/Hungarian/Austrian dishes in a very modern, very chic setting.  They serve delicious soups, but my favourite menu items are the gulyas and the mamaliga with bacon. The dishes are all named in the local Ardeal (Transylvanian) vernacular and even I can't even make out what they all mean, but ask you shall receive. Although the portions are not the typical massive Romanian portions, Zama delivers with good food, decor, and service. 

Not that there aren't another fifty places I could review, but I'll leave it at this for now. I've also left the previously reviewed restaurants below, and added some edits in brackets.

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Bistro Viena - In addition to the Viennese specialties like Emmentaler sausages, you'll find many items that the typical Romanian restaurant will carry 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 woodern furniture. The service is very efficient while the prices, for the quality, are more than reasonable. The biggest takeaway though is that the food here is simply great. (Update: It's pretty much the same, but I'd stick mostly to the meat and potato dishes)


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. (Closed but there's a sausage in a cone fast food place there instead...not bad)

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. (Casa Ardeleana is closed, Hanul Dacilor seems to have gone way down in terms of quality, Casa Vikingilor is still pretty good; massive portions and big Romanian taste)

LunchBox CITY - There are versions of this lunch-crowd favourite at Polus Center and Iulius Mall, but  the real deal is in the city center on 21 December. 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. (Pretty much exactly the same)

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 weren'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. (Got a lot more expensive, apparently)

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 than that 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. (Been to the 'real' resto since. It's pretty decent, but prefer Gandhi for Indian)

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. (Actually a very good place for a proper steak, but expensive -as beef always is, in Romania. Good service and nice on the house appetizers.)

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 about 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 if you get this. It makes sense to try a 25 RON dish if you're dishing out 20 lei for cocktails. (A clear example of the drop in quality restaurants often experience in Romania. Wouldn't eat here, but still a nice bar)


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. (Changed ownership, not sure it's exactly the same quality, but the place is still there)

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 10 lei. Cheap, tasty, and quick. It's a win. (Closed)

La Liga - Located in Sigma Center in Zorilor, this is the closest thing to an authentic sports bar. Lots of sports memorabilia platered everywhere, LCDs on all the walls, and it even has booth style seating. It's a big spot so it's rarely filled up unless there's a large 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). (Now Marty Sports Bar & Grill)



I <3 Cluj

Comments

  1. You forgot Lugano, and Lugano is not forgettable!!

    La Liga had a great menu in the past, I'm not a fan of their new one.

    Marty would have awesome potential if they tried a little more with the decor. The menu is excellent but the setting quite uninspiring, not to mention that they serve steaks but don't have steak knives!!

    Baracca is a great dessert place- gotta try their Tiramisu!- but they're so frugal with their portions that it's simply not worth making it a dining experience..and the bill certainly doesn't reflect that!

    Napoca 8 is another one you have to check out, we were quite pleased.

    People around town also rave about Via, I don't know why.

    Also, you've been to Chios in Central Park, haven't you? It's definitely worth a mention .

    Yours truly :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did forget Lugano, how could I? That is an imperial dining experience with service to match. It was quite a while ago, but will have to add it in the edit...perhaps this will be an ever growing guide.
      Thanks for the suggestions:)

      Delete
  2. Damn, I've never been to Cluj before, but I've heard some amazing things about it. The food sounds great, too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not going anywhere Steve, drop by anytime!

      Delete
  3. Hey Matt...baracka seems to miss on thew list...cheers marc

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Marc, that's only because I haven't been. Gave a bit of a mention in the Brick's paragraph :)

      Delete
  4. Hi Matt, just found your blog and had to comment re dining out in Cluj. We (two middle-aged Aussies from a wine growing area of South Oz who love our food) were in Cluj in September just gone and had one of the best meals ever at Via Restaurant just off Strata Universitati,. It was wonderful, cooked to perfection, washed down with a very creditable Romanian merlot, great service, lovely ambience, everything made it a memorable experience. And we also really loved Cluj - great upbeat feel from all you young things there, felt very hopeful and positive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love to hear stories like yours and I'm glad you share in my own optimism for the future of this great little city.

      Thanks for suggesting Via, I'll be sure to check it out.

      Cheers!

      Delete
  5. A food experience in Cluj without Vărzărie? There is were you find really traditional, cheap and really good romanian food.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for such a detailed account of the restaurants in Cluj.
    I am in London but I might be going to live in Cluj soon. Great work.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Congratulations on your site. Very nice.

    ReplyDelete

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