It’s definitely been a down year for me: record heat and rising pollution, the just-lifted ban on the importation of big game trophies, repeated attempts to kill Obamacare, the specter of local taxes being removed as allowable federal deductions, the wall that refuses to die, the goading of Kim Jong Un toward nuclear war and the new tax on gasoline that makes me wish I’d bought a Prius when my last car died in 2004. Roy Moore is likely to join the Senate and Al Franken may be expelled. So what, on this Thanksgiving, have I got to be grateful for?
Well, aside from the health and wellbeing of family and friends, the return of “The Librarians” and the coming Dr. Who Christmas special, there’s the indomitable spirit of small entrepreneurs whose culinary vision and drive has caused them to courageously open small eateries on shoestring budgets and make a go of them. Just knowing they’re still in business despite the incredibly long odds of success makes me thankful their dedication has been rewarded.
In the past few years, I’ve written about many: Café Lu-Mar, California Chutney, Penelope’s, CREPEstudio, Lavender & Honey, El Metate, Love to Go, Thee Elbow Room, New York Famous Deli, Polkatots Cupcakes, Thai Me Upp, Honeybird, Sabz & Olive, Spudds, Annapurna Grill, Lao Xi Noodle House, Sierra Fusion, Braise & Crumble, Chris’ Korean BBQ, Grill’em All, Bay Poké, Colette, Pizza of Venice, Via-Mar, Melt It and Rosebud.
Now there’s another, Parsnip in Highland Park. I first noticed this new Romanian restaurant in March in a Yelp email about newly opened restaurants, put it on my to-try list and then forgot about it over the spring and summer. Last week, when I rechecked, 125 Yelpers had given the place an average of five stars — practically unheard of in this age of hyper-critical reviews. And with the temps finally down to a seasonal norm, it seemed like the perfect time for dumplings, soups and “hearty bowls” as Parsnip’s menu calls its entrées.
Since the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, we decided to come by mid-afternoon and either dine on-site or take home food for dinner. Once we found it, a narrow little place with a peacock blue façade which has only a covered porch dining area with a lean-to roof and six small tables, a trio of tables on the sidewalk and two tables in front of the counter and kitchen where the magic is done, we decided to order to go and spend the short wait chatting with Anca, the young woman whose spirit and talent has willed Parsnip into being.
Our order was copious, since almost nothing on the menu was less than captivating. Dumplings ($5 a pair) come in three variants: two bulz — fat polenta wrapped balls with fillings of cheese, red peppers and sauerkraut or Brussels sprouts and red peppers and one gomboţi (potato shell stuffed with a mixture of cheese, parsley and green onion) all served with sour cream and either pico verde (chilies, dill, onion, parsley and vinegar) or zacuscă (a delicious spread of fire roasted peppers, eggplant and tomato with onions and spices).
Plachinta (stuffed grilled flatbread served hot with sour cream – $5) comes in choices of feta and dill, potato and red chili or potato, paprika and sauerkraut filling. We picked the first, then ordered two soups — roasted parsnip carrot with herb pistou and chickpea Swiss chard with croutons (each $6) along with a Romanian chopped salad ($9) of roasted beets, feta, chickpeas, roasted cauliflower, mixed green lettuces and toasted pumpkin seeds with a subtle lemon dill vinaigrette.
Astonishing Anca with our seemingly gargantuan appetites (actually just eyes-bigger-than-bellies syndrome), we also told her we wanted three of her four hearty bowls (each $9): chicken paprikash in creamy tomato red pepper sauce on a bed of polenta, beef goulash in spiced paprika broth with root vegetables atop fragrant barley pilaf and sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with beef, pork, rice and spices, simmered in tomato sauerkraut sauce, served with grilled toast, sauerkraut and sour cream. And, of course, a slice of Anca’s blueberry walnut bread (Parsnip’s only dessert that day – $3.50) fresh from the oven.
By the time we left, we’d learned from Anca that she’s planning to winterize the porch, that BYOB is unofficially allowed and that Romanian food is more highly spiced than that of neighboring countries, served with condiments to pick up the heat. As we departed with two huge sacks packed to their brims, we took note of the pretty logo on the window: “parsnip” with a delicate drawing of the vegetable subbing for the “i” and below the sobriquet “LA eatery/Romanian roots” (a nice play on words). Also, from a handwritten sign taped on the window, that Anca is looking for additional prep/line cooks, a positive sign.
It only remained for us to devour the feast. The mildly sweet and savory carrot parsnip soup — was that a hint of mint in the pistou? The thick satisfying porridge of chard and whole chickpeas. The near tennis ball size of each delectable dumpling. An appealing char on the bottom of the paratha-like plachinta. A pretty purple cabbage and green onion garnish on the goulash and paprikash, both spicy enough to prove Anca’s assertions about Romanian preference for piquancy. The near quenelle lightness of the cabbage rolls’ filling. And finally the no-nonsense home-baked goodness of the dense blueberry bread.
We barely consumed a quarter of what we’d brought home, grateful that we would have another meal or perhaps even two of this fabulous Eastern European food. Anca’s recipes are absolutely wonderful and a singularity in our local market. The closest are Café Lu-Mar’s Croatian cuisine in Monrovia and Polka’s Polish menu in southeast Glendale, but there’s little overlap. And that’s why, as I’m praying for the survival of our country and our planet in these uncertain times, I will also be sending prayers to the higher powers for Parsnip’s continued success.
5623 York Blvd., | Highland Park | (323) 739-0240 | No Alcohol/Major Cards