Southeast Michigan is experiencing a mini-wave of Romanian restaurants in strip malls: Two have opened in the last five months. To someone who didn’t grow up on Romanian home cooking, it is a bland cuisine. The stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, sausage and meatballs familiar from other Eastern European experiences reappear here, equally heavy.
Both new restaurants have used Romania’s best-known province, Transylvania, in their names, but only Dearborn’s Transylvania House milks the Dracula connection, displaying a picture of Vlad the Impaler and showcasing a black-clad guitarist named Creepy Clyde. The Ypsi establishment, defying three generations of American pop culture, maintains that the “very name brings to mind vision of mountain peaks rising up to the sky above wooded valleys and sparking streams.” Well, no; for most of us it brings to mind vampires.
Neither establishment serves tomato juice.
At Transylvania House, I was seated near three ladies who said they had Romanian grandparents. The cook may well do Romanian cooking the way their grandmas did. But I can’t recommend it to someone who doesn’t have those (sometimes irrational) affections we get from growing up on certain foods. What can you say about a cuisine that serves “macaroni with potatoes”?
Transylvania House is all-Romanian-all-the-time; Transylvania includes burgers, mozzarella sticks and even chicken quesadillas along with the fried meatballs. Transylvania House serves mamaliga with practically everything; translated as “mashed corn,” this is literally cornmeal plus water plus salt, and it has no taste whatsoever. Think grits, only yellow. Romanians must like it because it says “mama.”
We ordered Transylvania House’s chicken paprikash, and it was relatively taste-free, with heavy dumplings. I’ve had delicious, rich versions of this in a Hungarian restaurant, so I know it’s not endemic to the dish. Mititei (sausages) were mild and greasy. I did like very much a mushroom goulash appetizer, served warm (this was one the Romanian ladies were anticipating). Also good was a simple clear chicken soup with skinny noodles and parsley, and a romaine salad with onions, lemon and fresh dill. A chocolate cake called amandina was just an ordinary chocolate cake.
At Transylvania the mititei are more interesting, with a smoky taste and char stripes. The European combination platter includes stuffed cabbage, pork schnitzel and turosz teszta. This last is noodles with cottage cheese and bacon — nursery food to the hilt — and the bacon does little or nothing to add flavor. The schnitzel is fine for a schnitzel — very thin, breading not too thick or greasy — and the stuffed cabbage is bland in both taste and texture. The dish does actually have a slightly spicy quality, but it’s spicy on top of nothing, so not satisfying.
Here I liked a mushroom spread: the texture of moist hummus, slightly sour and good; bean soup: few beans but a rich broth; and “nature potatoes”: boiled and treated with olive oil and parsley.
The real standout at Transylvania, though, is the desserts. Their version of dobos is five layers of sponge cake soaked in rum, with a light chocolate filling and a slab of chocolate on top. Suhaida is a cup made of chocolate and filled with light chocolate mousse and lots of whipped cream. Service was friendly and accommodating in the extreme.
I must say that Creepy Clyde is a major plus for Transylvania House. He sings and plays selections from the last 60 years of American popular music (no Romanian), occasionally throwing in a ghoulish laugh and a creepy song. He closed his show one night with a ditty he introduced as “really scary”: the Farmer Jack theme song. Here was a performer with no pretensions but plenty of charm.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.