I ate bear once before. A game restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia, let diners order different meats that a chef then cooked over an open fire pit, and I opted for wild boar, venison, elk and grizzly bear. I felt guilty eating the chewy, gamey-tasting bear, but I told myself I would only do it once. I was wrong. Three years later, I visited Brasov in Romania, and I heard about a restaurant where I could eat brown bear, but it came with a major caveat. There was also a chance the bear would eat me. I had to go.
Brasov is an 800-year-old town surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, and I braved the three-hour train ride from Bucharest to experience its main draw, Dracula tourism. I booked Eugene, the gregarious owner of the hostel where I stayed, to take me on a tour of Dracula’s castle and fortress. His face lit up when I told him I was born in Los Angeles.
“Did you know some people call this place Brasov Hollywood?” said Eugene excitedly.
“Why, do you shoot a lot of vampire movies here?” I asked. “No,” he
said. “We have a big BRASOV sign in the hill overlooking the city. It’s just like the HOLLYWOOD sign!”
Eugene beckoned me to follow him outside where he pointed at Tampa, the heavily forested mountain that overlooks the town. Near the top sat a
giant BRASOV sign. “See, it’s just like in Hollywood!”
The Soviets occupied Romania from 1944 to 1958, and the town of Brasov was renamed Stalin City in 1950. To honor the Soviet leader, darker-leafed fir trees were planted on Tampa Mountain spelling out STALIN. In 1960, the Brasov name was restored, and the Stalin trees slowly got lost to the forest. Still, the locals apparently liked the general concept. In 2004, the city council voted to erect a giant sign on the 3,200-foot-high limestone mountain that said BRASOV.
“Can people get up to the sign?” I asked. “Yes, there is a cable car, and you can also hike up the mountain,” he said. “On the path up the mountain, there is a restaurant that serves bear, but you have to be careful. There have been issues with bears eating the diners.”
“Are you serious?” “The mountain is part of a nature reserve with lots of bears, boars and snakes,” he explained. “A lot of gypsies pick berries in the forest, and with less berries to eat, the bears started to come closer to town. The restaurant is on the path up the mountain, and bears sometimes go there looking for food. Some people who went into the woods to eat bear actually got eaten by a bear.” “Good for the bears!” I laughed.
Romania claims the second-highest brown bear population in Europe, trailing only Russia, and with 6,000 bears in the Brasov area alone, attacks on humans are not entirely rare. In 2004, a large bear seriously injured five people picking mushrooms in the forest and then attacked the ambulance that arrived to help and killed one of three hikers elsewhere before being stopped. That same year, three hungry bears attacked two locals as they left their home, and a man was killed in 2008 after a bear stumbled upon him in downtown Brasov. Just a few months ago, a bear even attacked a 20-year-old American tourist in the local woods. The bears are more likely to flee than fight, but a Transylvanian politician in 2014 called on the army to help protect locals from the bears.
Despite my pledge not to eat bear again, the risk factor made the culinary journey more enticing, and I headed into the forest that afternoon to find Casa Padurarului, a game-themed restaurant in the lower slopes of Mount Tampa.
Brasov, at least at the time, is not the easiest town to navigate. As Eugene explained, the town stopped putting up street signs because people would tear them down for scrap metal. Now here I am trying to navigate the many paths that head into the forest and up the mountain. Eugene pointed me in the right direction, and every time I ran into a Romanian, I held up a piece of paper that said “Casa Padurarului” and shrugged my shoulders. I knew I was getting close when I heard a pack of dogs starting to bark.
Casa Padurarului, which models itself after a large hunting lodge, sits slightly elevated off the street with an outdoor patio and a rustic wooden construction. Coming up the pathway, I came upon a dog pen adjacent to the restaurant, and it was obvious the barking dogs were placed there to scare away bears and other animals. I walked past the dogs, up a few stairs, through a gate and into a dining room. A mannequin dressed as a hunter sat in the corner next to a bear painting and several hunting knives, and countless animal skins decorated the walls like pieces of art. In a few of the smaller rooms, bear-skin rugs (with the heads still attached) hung from the walls and ceiling. Ace Ventura would call it “a lovely room of death.”
A server adorned in traditional garb walked me to a table and handed me a menu in English. At this point in the late afternoon, I was the only customer in the restaurant. The menu itself, which colorfully captured the hunters’ ethos, included freshwater Eurasian fish, Transylvanian mushrooms and deer served several ways (e.g., soup, medallions, thinly sliced). One of the house specialities, of course, was a haiduceasca brown bear stew with polenta. The Romanian word haiduceasca translates into English as “outlawry,” which is surprisingly a real English word. Per a helpful agent at the Romanian Tourism Bureau, a better English translation of haiduceasca would be “the preferred dish of the outlaws” or “prepared according to the outlaws’ recipe or method.” This pretend outlaw naturally ordered the brown bear stew and a local draft beer.
As I awaited my outlaw stew, I walked around the room with beer in hand. The details inside Casa Padurarului were precise and plentiful, from dark brown beams stretching across the main ceiling to handcrafted wooden tables and chairs. A tall candle sat in the middle of each table, recalling the days before electricity. Antlers, stuffed birds and animal heads adorned the hallways and smaller rooms. The server, who gave me a quizzical look as I walked about, finally arrived with the stew.
Though I expected more of a soup, the restaurant served the bear as medallions heavily covered in sauce, but the taste was starkly different than the grizzly bear in northern Russia. This bear was far more tender, possibly due to the preparation and sauce, and it tasted more like a traditional beef stew with only a slightly gamey flavor. It crossed my mind that this might not actually be bear—maybe they served elk, venison or another game meat—as I honestly wouldn’t know the difference. Either way, the Romanians made a much more delicious bear dish than the Russians.
By the time I paid the bill, the sun was starting to set, and I realized I faced a greater risk of getting lost in the dark than getting mauled by a hungry bear. With the dogs barking in the background, I quickly headed down the path and watched for any sign of the town lights. Fortunately, I made it back without incident, knowing the next diner might not be so lucky.