“Locanta Jariștea is a living museum of human stories

Mrs. Laura Nicolau plays with elegance and refinement the role of life on the stage of Locanta Jariștea, managing to bring to life for many years the lady Kera Calița, a character descended from the old world of Bucharest who enchants night after night the guests who cross her threshold through everything that happens in the universe created here. In the restaurant at 50 George Georgescu Street in the capital, where the layout of the place, the food taken from a real “cultural culinary cabaret”, the music poured from the strings and the brass of the silk lute players and the unrepentant stories of the antique Bucharest scene told with charm take you back to the special atmosphere that a century ago brought us the nickname of Little Paris.

Locanta Jariștea has become over time one of the most visited places in Bucharest, especially by foreigners. What is the thing your restaurant customers are most impressed by?

Over three decades ago, I entered the hospitality industry coming from the world of books. I had spent many years working in libraries and was fascinated by the old, age-stained pages that I used to piously browse, enchanted by the fairytale world there. We have thus understood both that in the so-called modern age we are moving further and further away from our traditional values and beliefs and that, at the same time, more and more people will want to try to recover at least some glimpses of the picturesque horizon of the treasures of the past. I had also avidly read everything related to Old Bucharest, from the amalgamated accounts of Ionnescu-Gion or Dimitrie Papazoglu to the academic tomes of Iorga or Giurescu. I had also had the chance to be close to some of the leading personalities who had explored the historical archives, such as the refined Constantin Bălăceanu-Stolnici or the erudite Răzvan Theodorescu. In my mind, a small archaic universe was born, where the dames wore veils and hats with ostrich feathers (of which I later made about 300 myself!), and the rulers had just changed their shawls and scarves to frock coats and bowler hats. It became increasingly clear to me that if I were to open a restaurant, it would not be a “fusion” or “nouvelle cuisine” one, but rather a sort of “cultural culinary cabaret” in which the gastronomic spectacle would be doubled by the unforgiving stories of the vintage Bucharest scene. I wanted to make a combination between, let’s say, “The Lion and the Sausage” or Iordache Ionescu’s tavern, where the real “minced meat rolls” were invented, and “The Red Water Fountain” of Miss Ralu Caragea or, closer to our days, Tănase’s “The Beetle”, who took Josephine Baker from the North Railway Station to Capșa in a cart pulled by an ostrich. Last but not least, I wanted to literally recreate the “landscape as a state of mind” of a vintage restaurant, so I gathered silver-plated cutlery and tips, glasses and clinker jugs, inlaid kettles, embroidered satin tablecloths, as well as collectible paintings, rare tapestries, period lithographs, icons painted on glass and wood, as well as pieces of furniture with the patina of the time, such as the buffet of Elena Doamna, once given to me by the distinguished Mrs Michaela Tonitza-Iordache, niece of the great painter and life companion of the sublime artist, my good friend. So, I was trying – and I am still trying – to reconstruct this fabulous kaleidoscope of feelings and sensations, to help people understand that “the future and the past are a row of faces”. This, of course, is the charm of Locantei Jariștea and that’s why my mosaicists always come back here with the same joy and enthusiasm…

The location you patronize revives the Bucharest of yesteryear. Why is it that so many people still want to taste the wonders of Little Paris?

The present often gives us a harsh, distorted picture of immediate reality, in which the chaos, adversities and plagues seem to persist in making the law even more abrupt. People with pure hearts are more and more disgusted by these misfortunes and by the fact that we, Romanians, do not manage to find, even arduous, the true essence of our being. Now, at Jariștea, the focus is on recovering the beauty of Old Bucharest, which was once lost, when nothing was superfluous to the souls intoxicated by the beauty of places and times and when, according to Bacalbașa, the minced meat rolls could be happily dipped in champagne! The little Balkan-Levantine Paris of Wallachia without chaos really existed and, whether we know it or not, we still carry it in us, in a hidden corner of our minds. At Jariștea, visitors feel that they can find it as soon as they enter the restaurant and hear the melodies born from the strings and brass instruments of the silk lute players of the Taraful Crailors of the Old Court, which we set up from the very beginning. In this taraf, great singers have distinguished themselves in different periods, from Cornelia Catanga and Nunuța Luțescu to Nelu Ploieșteanu or Aurel Pădureanu, or from Ion Miu and Viorel Fundament to Haralamb Chiriac and Florian Bob Lambru…

The cuisine in your restaurant is a bohemian one, with Romanian dishes at the forefront. What would be your recommendations for putting together a special menu to impress guests?

I have always sought to gather in the Jariștea Locante kitchen chefs who truly respect the culinary art and practice even in the most banal cauldron an almost esoteric ritual that can turn any dish into a delight. Thus, the menu was perfected over time with the grace of Nicolas Bodislav or Lucene Cernaeff, with whom I spent hundreds of hours researching old recipes, from those of Brancoveanu to those of Kogălniceanu and Negruzzi, or from Constantin Bacalbașa (whose “Gastronomic Dictatorship” was my favourite book) and Maria General Dobrescu to Simona Racoviță and Păstorel Teodoreanu. At Jariștea, we have dozens of ancient menus, suitable for all the feasts of the Kingdom, with or without meat, in which we use all the fruits of our gardens, orchards and fruitful fields, as well as those of the puddles, sheepfolds and stables of the people who live there. We go to the market every morning, at dawn, looking for truffles, just as we go around the yards of livestock breeders from all over Vlașca and all the Romanații, in search of the choicest pieces of tender meat, not to mention the fishing in the Danube or mountain waters or the game with fur and feathers, which we favor, with no measure. But to eat well, chefs must first of all cook with passion, not just with the choicest ingredients. This is my biggest concern, and that’s why I’m always making the rounds of my kitchens, pantries and cellars, chatting at length with the managers of my boilers and ovens…

The atmosphere here is perhaps the most beautiful in Bucharest, managing to completely combine the location’s arrangement in a certain style, the proposed cuisine, including the way the dishes are named in a very original way, the music that is specific to that period and especially the performance of Kerei Calița, which completely completes the way in which the guest must be contained and immersed in the story. Tell us how you manage to keep your attractiveness in 2023?

“We will be what we were and more”: we will not hesitate for a moment to follow our dream of making Locanta Jariștea a living museum of human cravings, which everyone can taste with relish. I never stop rummaging through libraries and antique shops to find a new, in fact old, compilation of goodies or to find the most noble stories to keep the comrades permanently connected to the charm of the old world. And I continue to attract here the great artists of music, dance and theatre, because on my stage performed personalities like Stefan Iordache, Anca Parghel, Gil Dobrică, Doru Tufiș and Ion Dichiseanu.

Where does the passion and love for the old Bucharest come from? Please tell us a few things about yourself.

I believe in what Blaga wrote, namely that each of us belongs not only to the present moment, but to an adoptive time and space, dreamed and sometimes confessed. I come from an old family of Odobescu’s Bărăgan and Ștefan Bănulescu’s Metopolis, but I grew up and was educated in the Bucharest of the great scholars of the nation, after which I went to make commerce with emotions of all kinds on the Caliței Bridge, a stone’s throw from Dudescu’s garden, in whose mirador Ienăchiță Văcărescu whispered sweet songs to the wife of a Phanariot ruler, and halfway between the walls of the Mitropolia and Antim Ivireanu’s monastery, where the oldest public library of the city was founded. And, with that, I think I’ve said it all about me!

When customers walk out the door of your establishment, what do you want them to remember?

…That, at Jariștea Locantă, with the help of Kera Calița, Old Bucharest is by no means a ghostly illusion, but an eternal truth that you can “feel and shout”!