Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New York Times: Sharing Romanian Under a Sphinx

Sharing Romanian Under a Sphinx
Published: January 31, 2007

MARIGOLD walls, goldenrod tablecloths, egg yolks spilling into moist corn-colored mamaliga: yellow, yellow, yellow at Acasa in Sunnyside, Queens.

Acasa is a new Romanian place on a stretch of Skillman Avenue that’s not poor in the Romanian department. The dining room is dominated by a massive photo mural that struck me as being sci-fi: a solar eclipse in a red sky on one end; a rocky, Martian outcropping on the other. That’s what too much goulash will get you into, I thought.

Wrong, I was. Marian Golea, the restaurant’s effusive owner, explained that it was a photograph of the Romanian Sphinx, a rocky outcropping on the Bucegi Platform, taken during a total solar eclipse. As soon as Mr. Golea suggested it, the rock looked exactly like the profile of its more recently constructed and more internationally famous Egyptian brother.
Who knew you could argue that the Great Sphinx of Giza was a knockoff? You learn something new every night in this town.

One evening I learned that desserts at Acasa are very, very good, particularly papanasi cu smantana ($4), which the menu translates as “Fried Cheese Donuts with sweet vanilla creamy sauce.” I offer this nugget of discovery up front because anyone who does not budget his appetite will not have room for this.
For something a little less filling, go for the clatite cu gem ($4), crepes stuffed with jam. A friend of mine with a Romanian grandmother did, and devoured them, evoking her good name and good cooking.

He did the same with an order of red peppers stuffed with meat and rice. Mr. Golea linked the goulash and the mushroom stew with white sauce to Transylvania, the region of Romanian from which he hails. After moving to the United States, he spent 15 years working at different jobs — much of the time as a mechanical engineer at Kennedy Airport — before opening Acasa, his first restaurant.
While there may be the occasional Transylvanian accent on the menu, it’s not as strong as, say, Bela Lugosi’s. Mr. Golea said the Romanians who visit his restaurant come from all over Romania, so there are dishes to suit everyone.

A supremely creamy caviar spread, much like taramosalata, and other mezes with a Mediterranean accent, like a garlicky, light bean spread and a too-smoky eggplant dip, evince the Greek and Turkish influences on Romania’s cooking. Order a few ($4 each), and the kitchen will assemble a platter for the table.

A smoked pork knuckle — meager and sinewy but studded with enough meaty nuggets to merit inclusion on the list of house specialties — is served over melted cabbage ($11.99). It reflects the century Romania spent as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
My favorite dishes at Acasa feature mamaliga, Romania’s answer to polenta. It’s a perfect foil to grilled lamb (erroneously billed as lamb pastrami) or braised pork. I liked it best with a fried egg, a huge dollop of sour cream and a side order of sour-and-sweet pickled red peppers.
There’s beer and wine, and the Romanian choices are affordable and acceptable. Ursus is a pilsner that goes back easy. I tried two white wines: the riesling is drier than the muscat.

One night, after ordering a bottle of the riesling ($12), my waitress asked me if I’d like seltzer, too. She was upselling me, I thought, but I opted for it anyway. Wrong again. The seltzer was for the wine, to make what from here on I will refer to as Transylvanian champagne.

It might have been too much of that Transylvanian champagne, or maybe it was a calorie-overloaded hallucination, but I swear the sphinx whispered to me one night. It told me that eating crispy carnaciori oltenesti ($4) — hot dog-like sausages paired with Windy City-style yellow mustard — in the shadow of an eclipse would trigger a slaughtering of favored colts by savage bears this coming Sunday. Who am I to argue with the Romanian Sphinx?

48-06 Skillman Avenue (48th Street), Sunnyside, Queens; (718) 651-1364.
BEST DISHES Caviar spread; meatball appetizer; grilled lamb with mamaliga; mamaliga with egg and sour cream; pickled red peppers.
PRICE RANGE Small dishes, $4 to $6; main courses, $7.99 to $14.99; desserts, $4.
HOURS Noon to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; to midnight Friday, Saturday and Sunday.


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