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Arbat: Transylvania Never Had It So Good

When I think of Romania, I think of Transylvania. I think of Dracula. I picture a dark, winding dirt road leading up to a medieval castle.

Closing my eyes during the ride to the newly opened Arbat, a Russian and Romanian restaurant on the new Ritan Park bar street, I imagine myself in a horse-drawn carriage heading to a lavish banquet with the Count.

Located along North Ritan Road, Arbat sits among several other foreign restaurants. Don't be fooled by the sign outside that reads Apdam. Apdam is Cyrillic for Arbat. Soft colors and elegant ambiance dominate the decor, from the avocado green and wine red tablecloths to the gentle waltzes lilting out of the sound system. Studio lights suffuse the dining area with a warm glow, and live plants rim the room.

What sets Arbat apart from other Eastern European restaurants in town is that it caters to the small Romanian community in Beijing, estimated at 150 people.

"I only like Romanian food," says Gabriela Ioan, a Romanian businesswoman who is an Arbat regular. She tells me that food from her homeland is generally strong in flavor, emphasizing condiments like salt and lemon, and meats like pork and chicken.

At Arbat, authentic Romanian dishes are skillfully prepared by 38-year-old chef Barsan Nelu. Born and raised in Brasov, a county in central Romania, Nelu is a culinary expert with 20 years of professional experience in the kitchen. He moved to China a year ago, at the request of friends from home who now live and work in Beijing.

In light of my romantic reverie on the way over, I must admit I am disappointed that Arbat does not really feel Eastern European, except for the sound of patrons conversing in mellifluous Romanian.

The diverse menu more than makes up for the lack of authentic decor. Printed in English, Russian, Italian and Chinese, it includes colorful photographs of a wide selection of Romanian and Russian dishes. The diversity verges on excessive, as we try to choose from the numerous salads, meat pies, soups, seafood, skewers and roasted meats. You can even order a whole roasted pig, head and all.

We start with the Pan Fried Pork Chop, a tender, medium-sized chop topped with a rich, creamy sauce made from sauted mushrooms and onions. The garden salad that accompanies it is crispy and fresh, a nice complement to the rich meat.

If you're really in the mood for something light and refreshing, not to mention delightfully colorful, try the Purple Salad, which is made from finely diced green onions, tomatoes, beets and cucumbers over fresh romaine lettuce.

Next up is the Pan Fried Salmon. Fried to a golden hue and seasoned with a twist of lemon, the fish prompts raves from the seafood lovers in our group. Then comes the Stewed Beef in a Pot, one of the night's biggest crowd-pleasers. We savor every morsel, from the moment we break open the bread on top and inhale the aromatic steam, to the last spoonful of melt-in-your-mouth tender chunks of beef.

The Deep Fried Chicken Roll is served with three small scoops of mashed potato. The deep-fried chicken roll is crispy and tender .

We end our meal with Strawberry with Cream. Fresh, sliced strawberries are served slathered in fresh cream and sugar. Other desserts include ice cream served with slices of oranges and strawberries, banana pancakes topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup, and fruit platters festooned with slices of juicy watermelon, strawberries, oranges, apples and grapes.

For those of you who want to enjoy good beer, a smooth Russian spirit, or fine Romanian wine, Arbat's bar is stocked with a variety of brews, vodkas, wines and other imported selections.

"Romanians don't drink much vodka. Red wine is most popular. They have good Merlot made in Vrancea," says Marcello Uarescu, a Romanian customer. Vrancea, a province in Romania, is known for its expanses of vineyards that cover rolling hills and lush terraces.

After a satisfying culinary experience, my images of Romania will no longer be limited to Transylvania and Count Dracula. Now when I think Romanian, I'll think Arbat.

2 Ritan Beilu, Chaoyang District, across from Fangcaodi Elementary School
Tel: 6595-0259 Hours: 11 am to 2 am
Food: *** Ambience: **** Service: *** Cost: YY


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