A Taste of the Balkans at Mignon

Times Staff Writer

The Romanian stuffed cabbage was superb. Better than I remember having at the Romanian restaurants on the Lower East Side in New York, which, when I was growing up, were considered the hotbed of Romanian cooking outside of Romania.

Well, we weren't in New York. We were in a small neighborhood mall in raggle-taggle Hollywood, in a spotlessly clean, undistinguished restaurant trying desperately--and sincerely--to appear first class.

"You like?" said the proud waiter who had dressed up for evening business at Mignon European Restaurant in Hollywood with a black tux and huge red bow tie. He smiled genuine pleasure at my pleasure. "It's best we have in Romania," he said, meaning, I think, that stuffed cabbage is a national dish in Romania.

The ciorba was good, too. That's tripe soup, over which reputations of chefs throughout the Balkans, where the soup is prized, rise and fall. And so were the mamaliga (the cornmeal mush known as polenta in Italy, which in Romania you mix with cheese), and the mititei (meatballs), and the noodles Bucharest (buttery egg noodles mixed with feta cheese).

In a word, everything was excellent. Or almost. "Why you no eat sweetbreads? No like?" Actually I like, but not that much. I preferred the stroganoff served on rice or the schnitzel with the delicious French fries which were commanding my attention. It's just one of those things about dry, grilled offal that leaves me cold. Still, I was in heaven and the waiter knew it, watching me wash down the sampling of a meal of several dishes with squirts of Argentine seltzer and Romanian Premiat Cabernet Sauvignon, which was not bad at all.

The osso buco, called rasol de vita in Romanian, appeared before me after the rest of the stuff had been cleared away to make room. I had never seen a bigger or better veal shank with a bigger or better bone. Actually, it was a hunk of plain boiled shank served with excellent white rice, carrots and turnips. Ecstasy set in and I was left alone with my bone. And we're not talking Tom Jones. We're talking Dracula.

Romania is tucked away in a forested pocket of southeastern Europe where Count Dracula once made (makes?) his home. That's where the Transylvanian Alps loom. Romania's cuisine is a mixture of Roman (its origin is Roman), Ottoman Empire (having been under Turkish rule for more than 400 years) and Russian (having become a Russian protectorate after the Russo-Turkish War in the early-19th Century). After that, the culinary influence is negligible, unless you consider the cuisines of its neighbors (Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia), which are variations on the same theme.

So if you ever have wondered what Romanian food is like, you'll surely get a pretty good idea by visiting Mignon.

In fact, you'll feel as if you were actually sitting in a cafe in Bucharest, listening to the buzz of the chirpy language spoken at every turn by emigres who have barely penetrated the cultural curtain to American dress and speech. You'll taste food that is so authentic you would hardly find better represention in Bucharest, even if you've never been there. But somehow you'll know .

You will find a group of appetizers common to all Balkan and Middle Eastern cuisines called meze, meant to be eaten leisurely with drink. The appetizers may vary from country to country, but the basic idea is the same. At Mignon you get white caviar, made with red roe and olive oil, which turns almost pure white when mixed. You get eggplant pate, which in other places is called Russian salad (Israel) or melintzanosalata (Greece). You get a tomato and onion salad, French feta cheese (Bulgarian, however, is considered the best), and homemade pickles.

We suggest a bit of this and that to start off, then try the magnificent homespun soups--the chicken soup is outstanding--then go on to the house specialties, which are served with rice or French fries and vegetables and a wonderfully fresh lemon and olive oil salad. We did not try the pasta with Cognac or any of the broiler things (except sweetbreads), which include shish kebab, skewered shrimp, and lobster halibut and swordfish steaks as well as steaks, pork chops and grilled chicken.

We couldn't resist the desserts--Mignon crepes, which are filled with Romanian sour cherries, just as blinis are in Russia. The French cream caramel was nice, too.

The restaurant, formerly on Sunset Boulevard, moved to its present location almost a year ago. It's a spare, neutral dining hall atmosphere, with paneled ceiling, an attempt at art on the walls, and taped zamfir (pan-flute) music--everything from Giacomo Puccini to Romanian folk songs--by one of Romania's well-known flutists. On weekends, there is a live band performing an international repertoire, if you're interested in entertainment. And why not while you're at it?

All together, Mignon is a discovery for anyone jaded enough to think he's seen--and eaten--everything.

Mignon European Restaurant, 1253 N. Vine St., Los Angeles, (213) 461-4192. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. Major credit cards accepted. Mall parking. Banquet facilities available. Entrees from $5.50 to $13.95 for lunch and $6.50 to $14.95 for dinner.

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