When in Romany

Bistro E Europe

Bistro E Europe ("Eastern Europe with Roma/Gypsy flavor") is not what you'd call the most polished restaurant. I found a piece of cork in my wine, the menu read "December 2000," and the stereo -- a seemingly ancient thing -- kept shutting off in the middle of wailing, soulful Hungarian tunes, filling the tiny space with a surreal quiet as our waiter fiddled again and again with the cassette tape. Bistro E is the only restaurant in which I've wondered if I was about to be set on fire during dessert (more on that later) -- which I could never imagine happening, say, at 1 Mission (Boulevard), at 662 Mission (Dine), or at 2389 Mission (Bruno's). But out at 4901, where Mission takes on the quiet, working-class feel of outer Taraval, a touch of chaos seemed par for the course, and in many ways added to the charm.

The woman responsible for all these things is chef/owner Julia Pecak, who may be the most hospitable restaurateur in all of San Francisco -- and who cooks a mean dinner as well. Her food is simple, hearty, and deeply satisfying, and the "Roma/Gypsy flavor" stems both from the style of cooking (mostly Hungarian recipes, some handed down from Julia's mother) and from Julia herself, a Hungarian-born Roma who lived in Croatia and Austria before moving to the States 13 years ago. As much a part of the experience as the food, Julia dropped by our table at least four times, smiling, chatting, showering us with laughter before heading back to the kitchen to pound the daylight out of our Roma/Gypsy steak.

The operation is family run -- Julia's son, Val, served as our waiter, and her other son, Marko, helps with the cooking -- and has a decidedly thrown-together feel to it. Chinese-style paper lanterns hang from the ceiling along with bundles of dried red peppers. The counter (Bistro E used to be a diner) and six stools take up approximately half the floor space but serve no purpose that I can discern. The curtains are quaint, though, as are the tiny vases of flowers and votive candles at each table.

Details

469-5637. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., brunch on weekends by reservation only (at least one day in advance) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations accepted. Credit cards not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Muni: 14, 29. Noise level: low to moderate.

Cherry soup $5.50
Roma "velted" salad $6.50
Stuffed cabbage $13.50
Spinach crepe $12.50
Chicken paprikash $12.50
Cherry-chocolate flambé $5.50
Gundel Bull's Blood of Eger $20/bottle

4901 Mission (at France)

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Though I suppose anything's possible, it's hard to imagine anyone walking out of Bistro E Europe hungry. We began with a loaf of dense, slightly sour, home-baked white bread served with bell peppers and thick slices of butter that my friend Elsbeth mistook for pale cheese (she realized her error after one bite). Though Bistro E has no wine list, Val asked if we'd prefer red or white, then recited three choices in our chosen category -- a Bulgarian merlot, a Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon, and the Hungarian Gundel Bull's Blood of Eger. Intrigued, we chose the last, a dusky blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and Blaufrankisch grapes with a strong cherry note, a tolerably smooth finish, and, as an added bonus, a history. According to legend (or at least the legend in the New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia), Bull's Blood acquired its name in 1552 when the hard-drinking Magyars of Hungary's Eger region frightened off an army of invading Turks, who mistook the locals' wine-stained beards for signs that they gained their strength by drinking blood.

Of course, one battle doesn't win the war, and the Turks dominated much of Hungary until late in the 17th century, introducing paprika, tomatoes, corn, and (at least in my opinion) the most delectable fruit on earth -- cherries. Thus, our meal proper began with cherry soup, a delicate, cinnamon-spiked ambrosia laced with whole, sour morellos. The soup can be served hot or cold, so we ordered both -- the hot version was slightly reminiscent of mulled cider, the cold more like a piquant cherry gazpacho perfectly suited to sweltering afternoons. We asked Julia how she prepared it, and were told the broth was made from the juice the cherries were bottled in (rather than meat or vegetables). She then produced a football-size jar of morellos from Trader Joe's and insisted we take it home with us. We refused, she insisted again, we refused again, she insisted again, and so the morellos remained at our table until she finally agreed to take them back prior to dessert.

Langos is another Hungarian dish with Turkish roots. Order it at Bistro E and you'll get something akin to a topping-free, deep-fried pizza crust -- crunchy, golden, lightly salty, served with cloves of raw garlic and a dab of sour cream. The Roma "velted" (wilted) salad provided our first taste of Hungarian-Gypsy flavor. Tomatoes, red onions, red bell peppers, cabbage, and bits of thick-cut bacon were braised with white wine until the vegetables surrendered perhaps half their crispness, producing a dish that was half salad, half soup, with a rich, smoky undertone playing off the tart pool of broth at the bottom of the bowl.

Our first entree -- Roma steak -- was the only disappointment. Pounded flat as an envelope, the breaded, fried pork loin was dry and fairly lifeless, but its sides of sautéed red cabbage and sauerkraut filled us up.

In contrast, our stuffed cabbage was as juicy and flavorful as a Roma "velted" salad. A softball-size bundle held nearly a pound of savory ground pork and rice; the whole bunch came sliced like pot roast, dusted with paprika, and served with mashed potatoes flecked with Italian parsley.

I'd definitely order that again, but only if Julia had run out of her sublime crepes. You can get beef stew with sweet cheese crepes, dessert crepes filled with cottage cheese or apricot jam, mushroom crepes -- or, as in our case, a feather-light crepe brimming with airy creamed spinach, served with a red beet salad and a side of the polenta-esque cornmeal dish known to the Roma as mamaliga.

Our final entree was actually a mistake: We'd ordered red wine- braised beef but received the chicken paprikash instead. We didn't realize the error until we'd eaten half the plate; as far as mistakes go, this was a fortuitous one. Served over a bed of tender, chewy spaetzle, whole pieces of chicken were braised with onion, tomato, bell peppers, and paprika until the meat fell off the bone in huge, moist shreds.

Dessert was definitely an adventure. We ordered the cherry flambé, and a few minutes later Julia arrived at our table bearing a burrito-size crepe and a small brass pitcher of flaming rum. Though she assured me there was no chance whatsoever that I'd be engulfed in flames as she poured the rum over the crepe, as I stared into the pool of blue fire just two feet from my face I had to wonder. She was right, of course, and the rum added a sharp, warm bite to the juicy cherries and the generous slathering of chocolate sauce. Me, I don't mind living dangerously when eating out, especially when the results are so worthwhile.

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