Sarmale Sentiments

Photo by Matt OttoHer name I can't remember, but those eyes and cabbage rolls remain. She was Romanian, this mademoiselle, a classmate of mine at Orange Coast College during the mid-1990s. We'd bicker over soccer, debate Marxism and teach each other how to conjugate verbs in our respective Romance languages. When our arguments became particularly pointed, she'd offer a truce through sarmales—stuffed cabbage rolls containing peppered minced beef and carrots, steamed until the green cabbage leaves assumed the appearance of pale dumplings, delicious.

She and they were tender, luscious revelations, but revelations that disappeared too soon: the Romanian girl transferred to a major university after completing her general ed classes, and she took her sarmales with her. I was left with memories. I'll probably never see her again—I should have told her she was beautiful when I had the chance—but I remember her daily at Dunarea Restaurant, an Anaheim eatery where the city's considerable Romanian population dines deep into the night.

The sarmales here are exercises in real art, so worthy of her memory they nearly make the rest of the menu invisible to me. But such a remembrance would be foolish, since banqueting at Dunarea is like eating at the table of empires past. Romania at various times in its history suffered under the Romans, Ottoman Turks, the Hapsburgs, Russians, Germans and various Slavic marauders. Over the course of colonized centuries, the Romanians picked up cooking tips from each—grilled kebabs and searing coffee from the Turks, unctuous beef Stroganoff from the Russians, goulash and paprika from the Hungarians, and the aforementioned sarmales, reminiscent in their pungency of Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves. They produced one of gastronomy's most-varied cuisines.

Dunarea serves all of these with platters that are absolutely absent the invader influence. Meals begin here as they do in Bucharest with soup—an unpretentious vegetable stew where carrots and celery crowd together in a beef broth tasting of tomato, parsley and cream, and flush with raw meat cubes. Ciorba de buta, tough with tripe, rivals menudo as the world's funkiest innards pottage.

Soup precedes everything here—there's even a soup that comes with a separate soup as an appetizer—and other Romanian meal motifs also emerge. Corn meal, known as mamaliga, the Romanian equivalent of mashed potatoes, accompanies every order, steaming globules of earthiness sprinkled with feta cheese and sour cream that shock to life the rather bland side order. There is also a tendency to combine chicken livers with meat entrées, from the juicy filet mignon tournero rosigni to gritty liver risotto, the slices of liver in the latter wrapped around an EPCOT Center-esque ball of rice pilaf. The zacusca, an eggplant-derived condiment that reminds of baba ghanoush with more snap and is as Romanian as Dracula, works fine on its own but is gospel when spread on the fluffy house bread.

Most of Dunarea's offerings are pan-Romanian or influenced by other cultures, but the best dishes are those associated with particular sections of the restaurant's mother country. The province of Moldavia contributes sarmale while Oltenia chips in with mititei, a garlicky skinless sausage that suggests a marriage of German sauerbraten and Turkish luleh. From Dobrogea, a Romanian region noted for its multicultural influences, comes ciorba de buta and dobrogeana, a messy stew of pork, beef and stir-fried chicken chunks simmered in a tomato sauce potent with paprika. Looming over the dobrogeana is an over-easy egg, yolk still soft and ready for mixing into the grand amalgamation of carnage so that the meat assumes a glutinous texture. The city of Brasov christened the brasovene, a deep-fried crepe of onioned beef freshened with a flutter of dill weed. Its crunchy exterior is like a complex falafel, doused with white and red wine, feta cheese melted on top and inside, superb.

Families come to Dunarea during the weekdays, drawn by both the food and a big-screen television always tuned to Romanian sitcoms. Weekends attract the younger crowd with karaoke, live bands and flirting until their parents pick them up. Perhaps I'll see my Romanian Venus here one day, smiling over a plate of sarmales. Most likely she's gone, and only the cabbage rolls will remain.

Dunarea Restaurant, located at 821 n. Euclid Ave., Anaheim, (714) 772-7233, is open Tues.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; and 6-10:30 p.m. (Fri.-Sun., until 2 a.m.); Dinner for two, $12-$34, excluding beverages; beer, wine; all major credit cards accepted.


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