For our last night in Bucharest, we met up with some friends and went to Bucharest's top-rated restaurant. "The Artist" is another "fusion" restaurant, but has a sense of playfulness in its menu and presentation.
One of the novelties of the restaurant is their "spoon tasting" menu choice: a degustation of all the different selections for any given course. We opted for this for entree and dessert, although we chose individual mains. The spoon tasting is definitely the right choice, as the presentation was a lot more fun and an excellent sampling of all the dishes.
The food was very good in general, although perhaps not quite as adventurous as it could be. There definitely were elements that aren't part of standard Romanian or "western" cuisine, but it felt a little like while the dishes had some interesting ingredient choices and combinations on paper, the overall taste of the finished dishes tended to be a little conservative. My main course, the Mangalita Pork Chop with a pistachio wafer and sour apple, was a good example of this. It was delicious, cooked to perfection and a perfect size in the context of the meal, but it was "safe". I guess that's also on me for ordering a safe dish from the menu, but nothing in the "Mains" menu really grabbed my attention as adventurous except perhaps the seafood "paella", made using black lentils in place of rice. With two of these already ordered at our table of four, I didn't want to order it, but I did try some. And it was excellently prepared (just the right spring in the scallop), delicious, but still felt like it was lacking ... "something". 1
I don't want to take away from the quality and enjoyment we all had though. All of the dishes were delicious, with only one that I actually didn't particularly like. Surprisingly, this wasn't the goat's cheese dish, but instead the oysters - which were served on a (too large) bed of leek jelly, which despite its quantity didn't have enough flavour to cut through the raw oyster + oyster foam (which itself was amazing). An overpowering taste of oyster is not a bad thing, but when it's with a big lump of vivid green jelly, it was a bit confusing. On the flip side, the pigeon in dark chocolate sauce was easily the favourite entree, and a very delicious introduction to pigeon meat for me.
The presentation is where The Artist really excels. Our first entree (salmon tartare, off-menu and compliments of the house) was served chilled on a "cloud" of dry ice. The spoon tasting was not only a novel presentation, but was simultaneously placed for all four of us, with just the right amount of theatre. The pattern of the spoons also guided us in the order of eating. I have to assume this is deliberate, because the order worked very well, for both entree and dessert. The second amuse-bouche, pea and ham soup in a test tube, was also a fun presentation (not to mention delicious).
Far and away the best presentation for the night, and possibly the best tasting as well, was the cucumber sorbet. We first had our third freebie (soft dark chocolate infused with black truffle and dusted with cocoa), and then as those plates were cleared away, we each received a small mortar and pestle with some basil and mint leaves, rose petals and orange peel. The waitress left us with the instruction to wait for the chef, leaving us a little confused and curious. The chef arrived a couple of minutes later, poured a dash of liquid nitrogen into each of our mortars, and then told us to "just grind them up a bit". I'm not sure the amount of glee around the table was entirely justified, but I'm very sure I don't care. Once we'd ground our snap-frozen leaves, the chef gave us all a generous scoop of sorbet, and then started to head back to the kitchen. Almost as a cheeky aside, he turned and said "now before you eat, just take your spoon and mix it up a bit", then left us to it. There was just so much whimsy in the chef's instructions, and a huge smile on his face that I think it just carried over to us. Not to mention that it's good fun to add a bit of interactivity to your meal, especially if it involves liquid nitrogen. The cucumber sorbet was also quite excellent, with all the flavours of the leaves and peel breaking through just enough to add their flavours, without overpowering the cucumber.
Throw in a couple of bottles of fine Romanian wine and you've got an excellent meal, a great night, and I can see why it's currently regarded as Bucharest's number one restaurant.
Silly aside: Our group was speaking mostly English the entire night, purely for my benefit, and we actually walked in to the restaurant and went through the reservation, seating, cloakroom dance all in English. This meant the staff were speaking to all of us in English (such a privilege to have fine dining in another country in your native language). When some questions started to come in Romanian, it looked like it threw them for a bit of a loop, but they soon worked out who the only monolingual chump at the table was. It was amusing when all the main courses except mine were introduced in Romanian, and then mine was described in English. ↩