Culinary traditions in Moldova reflect the various ethnic and linguistic identities with influences from Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.
A typical Moldovan meal will invariably include a couple of scoops of yellow Mămăligă (maize polenta), their most recognizable staple.
This will be garnished with some sour cream or cottage cheese, as well as some grated Brînză (or Brânză) cheese.
Brînză is the generic word for cheese, but can also mean a specific hard salty sheep’s cheese. It’s also eaten in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Croatia.
It’s a rare meal that doesn’t include at least one of these two ingredients in Moldova.
A very common dish is Plăcinte or cheese pie which you will come across in many versions, both sweet and savoury, all over the country. It’s a typical lunch time snack and convenient street food. There’s even a popular takeaway chain of the same name selling it.
In terms of flavouring, parsley and dill were the only herbs I came across.
Moldova used to be the main wine producer for the Eastern bloc, although many vineyards were uprooted during an anti-alcoholism campaign under Gorbachev. However viticulture is still very important with the red wines and cognacs in particular being very good.
Many of the following restaurants are quite expensive by local standards but very cheap for visitors. Usually the wine would account for half or more of the bill and a good bottle would cost as little as £10 (at 23 lei to the pound in 2014). As a result I lived like a king for the whole of my stay.
Here’s my Google map with these and other places not mentioned.
Big Deal (Intermediate B+), Strada Mitropolit Varlaam 69a
I came here with my colleagues on the first night as it’s the best place for traditional Moldovan food near the hotel. My only gripe is that it’s downstairs in a cellar, probably nice and warm in winter but in Spring it would be nice to sit outside.
The food is good, nothing amazing just simple and tasty. I had Tocana (stewed pork) with Mămăligă (polenta) and grated Brînză (cheese) which was all very nice (B+) and the first of many similar meals.
Three of us shared a bottle of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Purcari, the most famous wine-producer in the country. This one was good (B) but I know they have better.
I finished with a glass of Divin (cognac) called Bălți, taking it’s name from the second city in the north. Again it was pretty good, but there’s better to be had.
La Taifas (High Intermediate B+), Strada Bucureşti 67 (entrance on Puşkin), www.lataifas.allmoldova.com
My favourite place, I came here four times in all. It’s high end traditional with lots of rustic decorations and waiters in folk costume.
There are four dining rooms. In the first room there is usually live traditional music which is excellent as it goes but a little loud, so I tended to sit in one of the side rooms.
I’d usually have a soup to start.
My favourite was the Ciorbiţa cu Perişoare de Carne, or soup with meatballs made I think with equal proportions of veal and pork (A).
I also liked the Ciorbă de Burtă Dreasă, or sour tripe soup, which looked terrible but tasted great (B+).
And the Borş su Carne de Raţă, or Russian beetroot soup with duck meat and a scoop of sour cream, was okay (B-).
For the main I had Chiftelute Moldovenesti, more meatballs made in the simple national style (egg, breadcrumbs, parsley) in a tomato sauce with noodles on the side. The dark purple basil on the plate was incredible by the way.
And you can’t go wrong with a steak and sautéed potatoes (cartofi), called Antrecote Moldovensc here.
If you’re not massively hungry you could just have some of their excellent Plăcinte cheese pie (B+).
I had a few wines here. The ‘Taraboste’ Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Chateau Vartely was memorable (B+).
The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Rezervia from Chateau Vartely was also very enjoyable (B+). I prefer it to their Merlot Rezervia although that’s very good too.
I also liked the ‘Fabula’ Cabernet Sauvignon from the lesser known Fautor winery (B).
On my final visit, having tasted nearly everything decent on their wine list, the waiter dug deep in the cellar for this 2003 Malbec ‘Carlevana’ which was just okay (B).
The desserts were pretty hefty, hard to finish and not particularly sweet so I only tried a couple. My favourite was the Clătite cu Vişine, or pancakes with sour cherries (B).
Prune Umplute cu Nuci, or prunes stuffed with nuts (a very common dessert) were fine in themselves but too numerous for me to finish (C).
To finish I tried a clear ‘brandy’ distillate made of quince, aka Rachiu de Gutuie. It was fine but not my preferred digestif (B).
Vatra Neamului (High Intermediate B), Strada Puşkin 20b, www.vatraneamului.md
Another posh place, right next door to La Taifas. Perhaps slightly posher with a bigger menu. It’s fine but I prefer the atmosphere next door.
Here I had Zama (or Zeama) de Gaina cu Taiatei aka chicken noodle soup, which is considered to be the Moldovan dish. It was very enjoyable (A).
Also some Sărmălute cu carne, cabbage leaves stuffed in this case with pork mince and rice and steamed.
This was served with Smantana (Smetana), a creamy dip prepared with Brînză and lemon juice, all of which was excellent (A). This was my favourite dish over the whole stay and I had them whenever I could.
Their mixed grill with baked potatoes was fine but unremarkable in its simplicity (C+).
I drank a 2011 Merlot from up and coming winery Et Cetera which was very good (B+).
And finally a seven-year-old Divin called ‘Moldova’ which was okay (B).
Pani Pit (Intermediate B), 115 Strada 31 August 1989
A nice location with lots of tables outside in a leafy courtyard with a fountain and live tradional music. The food is ok but not the greatest.
I started with Tartar de Vită, a classic beef tartar, which was good (B).
The following Costită Moldovenească, a fried pork chop with all the usual trimmings. Perfectly edible again but tedious in its extreme simplicity (C+).
However the bottle of 2007 Cab Sauv Merlot blend called Codru Prestige from the famous Cricova winery (Codru being the region) that I shared with my colleague Jonathan was one of the best reds I had here (B+).
Ditto the Luceafăr brandy, also one of the best I had during my visit (B+).
Café Opa (Low Intermediate B+), 88 Strada Mitropolit Varlaam
For a change from Moldovan food, Greek food is a cheap and readily available alternative and this was the best Greek place near the hotel.
I ended up eating lunch here a lot or finishing the evening with a cognac and a chat with the friendly staff. It also seems to be a favourite spot amongst the backgammon fraternity and you’ll certainly get a game here if you’re looking for one.
The food is simple Greek fare, nothing special. Typically I’d just have some chicken gyros with pita, rice, salad and tsatziki.
Perhaps with a side of their excellent hummus.
Or maybe just a mozzarella and rocket salad with some lovely ripe tomatoes (B). Not sure about the toast though (C).
I can’t remember their prices but it was next to nothing and cheaper than a Moldovan restaurant.
The Calarasi seven-year old cognac they have here is pretty decent (B+). They serve it Greek style with a couple of coffee beans in the glass which adds to the aroma. Mind you Greek brandy (Metaxa) needs all the help it can get.
The following places were sub-standard in my opinion:
El Greco (High Elementary B), Strada Vasile Alecsandri 86 (entrance on Strada Columna, opposite the Educational Centre bookshop)
Another simple Greek place, but not quite as good as Cafe Opa above. There is a courtyard where you can sit outside and the restaurant turns into a disco later on. Handy for meeting my national manager and popular with some colleagues, but I’d go elsewhere if I had the choice.
The gyros are fine (B) but I was unimpressed by their moussaka (C-) and their hummus seems coarse and less tasty (C) than that at Café Opa.
As usual the wine came to the rescue. The 2008 Codru from Cricova was good (B+). Codru is the winemaking region that the best Moldovan wines come from.
Caravan (Intermediate C), Strada Mihai Eminescu 64
This is a relatively pricey Uzbek restaurant next door to Big Deal. Although the terrace is a nice place to sit, the food is terrible and I’d advise you to avoid it.
Having never tried Uzbek cuisine before I did a bit of research and found out the national dish is pilaf. When I ordered it here it looked wonderful visually, on a beautiful blue ceramic plate with the yellow pilaf decorated with pomegranate seeds, but it tasted really horrible and I didn’t finish it (D).
Not wanting to write them off on one visit, I came back and tried the Manty (or Manti) which are steamed, or in this case fried, meat dumplings of Turkic origin. From what I could gather from reviews on the internet these are supposed to be their best dish and they are better than the pilaf but still not that great (C).
However, the 2009 Cab Sauv Rezervia from Chateau Vartely was for me the best bottle of wine I had here (A) although the quality can be variable as I discovered when I ordered it again (C-). Think it must have been corked the second time but we didn’t notice till we got nearer the bottom of the bottle.
I also had a 2009 Negru de Purcari here, which is generally considered to be the best wine in Moldova. I found it hard to disagree (A).
To finish a shot of Kvint, Moldova’s best selling cognac from the breakaway region of Transnistria, which was okay (B).
Saslcioara (Intermediate B), Strada A. Puşkin 39, www.salcioara.md
Yet another traditional style place with lots of folk art and crafts on display. They don’t usually have live music which is a good thing, and there are tables in booths making for a more cosy eating experience. Unfortunately though my experience of the food wasn’t that great. I went twice but that was enough.
The Ciorbă de Fasole, or bean soup, is ok (B-), as is their oily and unphotogenic mushroom soup (B-).
However I can’t recommend either of the two pork mains I had here (C-) which were pretty ugly looking too.
The 2012 Rara Neagra de Purcari I had here is a very good wine (B+), although I’m not sure what the grape is.
The 2010 Rosu de Purcari is I think a Cab Sauv/Merlot/Malbec blend and also pretty good. Purcari generally was cheaper here than at other restaurants.
Grill House (aka Orasul Vechi) (High Intermediate B), Strada Armenească 24
I think Orasul Vechi and Grill House are the same place, as their signs are right next door to each other. I went in the entrance marked Grill House anyway.
It seems very popular and you would need to reserve for a large group in order to get a table on the small terrace. So it was inside for me. Lots of Italians and company executives eat here which would seem to indicate quality, but I didn’t enjoy my food sadly.
Ok so I did take a chance on the grilled Bulls Testicles (I like to challenge myself with offal if I see it on the menu) but they were pretty horrible, just very lightly grilled and topped with virtually raw garlic, yuck! (D).
The lamb chops with onion rings to follow were fine but were pretty unspecial for somewhere trying to be high end (B-).
The 2009 Cab Sauv from the Gitana winery was the saving grace (B+).
The chocolate profiterolles presented as a swan swimming on chocolate and vanilla sauce was quite beautiful though (B+). Shame my picture didn’t come out.
I really didn’t like the over attentive but rather unfriendly service from my waiter and I didn’t tip him, much to his chagrin. Overall not worth the high prices in my opinion and I wouldn’t go back.
And a few places I didn’t get to go to:
Barracuda (Intermediate B), Strada Puşkin 35
A fish specialist. My colleague recommends the prawn and salmon soup.
Gălbenuş (Elementary A), Strada Puşkin
I didn’t eat here but if you’re on a budget this canteen style place would be a good place to go. They weigh the food you choose and charge you accordingly.
Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel, Strada Mihai Eminescu 49/1, www.nobil.md
The restaurant on the penthouse floor has the best view of the city according to a guide I read but it wasn’t open in the evening when I went.
Pensiunea La Hanul Lui Vasile (High Intermediate B), Strada Vadal lui Vodă, www.hanulluivasile.md
Our national manager brought us to this four star hotel and restaurant on our last evening to thank us for our hard work.
To celebrate we started with a bottle of fizz from Cricova who make some of the best sparkling wines in the country.
The hotel is built in wood in a traditional ‘forest’ style and has large attractive grounds with private dining tables on small islands surrounded by water for eating outdoors on warm evenings.
The beautiful garden is very romantic with black swans swimming in the pond. I presume it gets used for weddings a lot.
The food is ok but not amazing, it’s more about the setting here.
I started with some tiny dumplings stuffed with pork which were delicious dipped in sour cream (B+). I think they are called Pelmeni in which case they are Russian in origin,
We also had two kinds of Placinte, one with a cabbage filling (B) and another with cheese (B+).
The following main course of overcooked meat and oven chips out of the freezer doesn’t deserve a photograph (C-).
With our food we drank a bottle of Rose de Purcari (not to be confused with Rosu) which made a nice change (B).
All in all, a very pleasant way to end our Moldovan adventure, thanks all!
Please see the previous post for things to do in Chișinău.