By Jeremy Ogden
I know Romanian food. Hearty and filling, it’s simple and unrefined. From mici to ciorba de burta, sarmale to mamaliguta, Romanian food is often heavy, delicious and undifferentiated between a restaurant to one’s home. So the first time I ate at Brasov’s Sub Tampa restaurant (aptly named for its location), I didn’t believe what I was eating was Romanian food.
Getting to Sub Tampa is a hike, quite literally. As the name suggests, it is directly below Mount Tampa, the infamous mountain sporting to the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign. The 800 meter hike from the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare is well worth it. It helps to work up an appetite, and after a feast of delicious nouveau-Romanian food, it doubly helps to burn off some calories.
As you get closer to the restaurant and further away from the touristy Republicii street, nature slowly envelops you. The restaurant is positioned directly next to the lower Tampa cable car station and nestled in the trees. “Feel the nature,” the restaurant’s slogan, vibes well with the interior design. Wood is incorporated generously throughout, but not in a traditional Romanian countryside way. The design here is very modern, while minimizing the distinction between indoors and out. Marketing Manager Bianca Ghita says “we want to create an experience for our guests, not just food, but the environment to create the right ambiance.”
The restaurant first opened its doors in February of 2018, but the concept for Sub Tampa was sparked by chance 14 years earlier when owner Valentin Soneriu happened upon a recipe from his grandmother Mami Nono. Though already a restauranteur, Valentin wasn’t at all familiar with this recipe. He started digging a little deeper and found that prior to the communist period in Romania’s history, two distinct classes of Romanian food existed. There was the more common country cuisine (țarănesc) contrasted with an aristocratic cuisine (bucătăria aristocratică). One of the greatest surprises for Valentin in researching this cuisine was that merchants used to bring live oysters in barrels to the markets in Bucharest.
The recipes and knowledge of aristocratic cuisine were nearly wiped out under communism, but thanks to exhaustive research, the fundamentals have been revived and given a modern twist in Sub Tampa. Valentin and the team call it neuveau-Romanian cuisine.
One of the ways they directly apply the ‘new’ in “new-traditional Romanian” is by using modern cooking techniques. Many of the meat and protein dishes are cooked using sous vide, in which the protein is vacuum sealed in a bag and then cooked at low temperatures in a water bath. The greatest benefits of this technique are ensuring the meat is tender and juicy while still being cooked all the way through and preserving flavor. The use of foam is done frequently to garnish main courses. A staple of ultra-modern molecular gastronomy restaurants, the foams are made from vegetables, fruits, or a combination of both. Like many modern restaurants, they incorporate the farm-to-table concept as much as possible, with some of the produce and meat sourced directly from the Soneriu family farm.
After being seated at a table and completing the standard ordering of drinks, this restaurant does something rather rare for Romania. They bring a basket of freshly baked bread and a jar of homemade Pasta De Jumari (pork fat paste). Likely owing to the decade Valentin spent in the United States in his youth, where it is common for bread or chips to be given free to the table, this is on the house. It’s a bacon lovers dream come true.
To start, try the Bran Gold (Aur de Bran), local kneaded cheese from the town of Bran, with walnuts and a tomato jam. The Fried Tripe (Burta De Vite Crocanta) is surprisingly reminiscent of fried calamari, served with garlic and picante sauces. This one is on the heavy side and best shared. I am still working up the courage to try one of the most highly recommended appetizers: Pig Brain Paste (Pasta De Creier).
When it comes to mains, I prefer the meats here, in part due to the tenderizing sous vide technique. The Rack of Lamb (Cotlet De Berbecut) is an excellent choice, and well garnished. A challenge the restaurant had when they opened was that there were an abundence of recipes which were developed for the restaurant, but they did not want to feature an overwhelming menu. Sub Tampa has now been open for nearly a year and a half and they are slowly rotating some of the menu items. One recent additionis the Milk-Fed Veal Chop (Cotlet De Vitel De Lapte). Commonly featured in royal courts, the dish is served with mushrooms, pureed potato, and a wine sauce. Chicken lovers will enjoy the Roasted Chicken Leg (Pulpe De Pui Rumenite). For the more adventurous diner, there are always the Veal Rocky Mountain Oysters (Fudulii De Vitel).
Sub Tampa is a must in Brasov – you will likely be pleasantly surprised to discover that Romanian cuisine is more than what you can find in most traditional Romanian restaurants. Beyond the recipes, the culinary development team at Sub Tampa have re-imagined what this cuisine looks like and how it is cooked.
Jeremy runs Brasov Tours, see www.BrasovTours.com for more information