Two guards approached me on the train station at Tiraspol as I was waiting for the train to arrive. Entry Card? Yes, here it is! Ok, good night. The train lumbered up to the platform and I found myself sitting in a group seat around a table directly facing 2 others... my favourite. Thank goodness the train didn't take longer than an hour and a half, and before I knew it I was standing outside Chisinau station with the address of my Airbnb but no idea how to get there. I hadn't a clue what the prices were either, so I asked a young couple who were waiting on a cab, and they kindly enough ordered one on an app with a pre-fixed price.
One of my favourite things in life is sitting in the back of cabs driving into new cities at night. Alone. Nobody to talk to me, just roll down the window and get as much of a look at the new place as I can. Try pick out some clues as to what it's like, maybe note down a promising looking bar to re-visit. Chisinau was honestly pretty boring, from the cab at least. A city of regular buildings, and no real charm or romance.
My Airbnb was downtown, in an alleyway tucked from the main road. I dropped off my bags and headed into town to find food (it was already 11pm). On the way to the ATM I stopped a group of guys who looking like they might know some food places. It turned out to be the best bit of luck. They pointed down the street at Taproom and told me to go there tomorrow, but tonight I should follow them to their favourite local for a pint and take-away food after. How could I refuse.
We sat a good hour drinking cold beers and talking about the music scene in Chisinau. It seemed nothing much really happened except for the occasional battle of the bands competition. I said goodbye, grabbed my take-away burger, and walked the 2 blocks home. Riddled with tiredness and exhaustion I ate half the burger (rather salty and weird) and opted for sleep.
Brother's Pub ($)
My first full day was spent arguing and complaining at the immigration office for what took almost 3 hours to get an entry stamp due to a missunderstanding between me and the guard in Transnistria. He was wrong, and by default so was I for listening to him. I ended up going to about 10 different offices, having to find translators, being interrogated by a guard who said "Why come here? There is nothing to see". Then finding I had to go to the top floor to write a report, go back down and line up again, pay my fine, then back up to the top floor to check it was ok, then back down to get a stamp and finally I was out, famished and furious.
Nothing to do but forget the whole thing happened and grab some food. Luckily one of the best rated places in town was directly opposite the office.
Tbilisi Restaurant ($$)
Never not in the mood for Khinkali's I dove in, ordered a nice glass of saperavi and awaited my fate. A woman wrestled with her two year old son who was intent on screaming and knocking over everything on the table (Lord give me strength), I managed to eat in relative peace and then spent the next 25 minutes waiting on the cheque. The service was atrocious, and everywhere I looked were disgruntled customers searching helplessly for the servers. Food wise it was alright, but nothing that deserved such glowing reviews.
Totally drained after the debacle at the immigration office I headed for the Smokehouse and sat there having a chat with the American owner and writing down a list of new tips to try. He also recommended that I crossed the road and bought a bottle of wine and headed home because it was about to start raining again. True to his prophecy, the skies broke and dumped a years worth of rain in a matter of minutes. I managed to grab a bottle and head home before the worst of it started.
Himalayan Kitchen & Bar ($$)
Google maps informed me there was a decent Nepali restaurant 2 blocks away, so I grabbed my things, headed out into the bright sunshine, found the place, descended into the basement and out popped a very friendly Nepali man who happened to be the owner. He showed me to my seat, waving away his two staff members (because they didn't speak English), watched as I studied the menu, ordered the regular Chicken Curry, Chapati, raitha to see if they were up to scratch, he ran off into the back and didn't come back until he appeared holding my food on a tray. "Sorry sir, cook burnt her hand badly yesterday so she is home.. so I am only cooking this one". If he had told me earlier I probably wouldn't have ordered, but it was too late now.
The food tasted quite amateurish, and was unsettlingly sweet. I managed to eat a decent portion of it before throwing in the towel and politely excusing myself. Before leaving I had to stand and listen to a 10 minute speech on his entire life story, something that would perhaps have been ok under different circumstances, but made me feel a bit uncomfortable.
To walk off some of the excess ghee that was in my stomach I headed 25 minutes outside of downtown to visit the Jewish Cemetery, something that I would recommend to anyone stuck in Chisinau without a plan.
The Jewish Cemetery
Rows and rows of depression in the realisation that we too, one day, will lie under heavy slabs. Nevertheless, in a city with precious few sights, this is one worth heading to. I walked almost half way back to town passing strange neighborhoods and derelict buildings. The rain started again, so I grabbed an Uber the rest of the way and headed for a Japanese restaurant to try some ramen that the owner of Smokehouse had bestowed honors on.
After the relative success found at Ramen spots in Odesa, I had a minute amount of hope for Chisinau. If it weren't for the over-lappingly positive American I would probably have given this a wide berth. The rain was coming down in torrents, which adds to the ramen appeal in my books. I sat under the awning on the street and the bowl arrived. It was as I feared. The pork was quite okay, the egg butchered, the broth rather tasteless, but the main criminality lay in the instant packet noodles on show. He literally was opening packs of 20 cent noodles, maybe even using the taste-maker, and boiling those instead of proper ramen noodles.
Having suffered mild addiction to instant packs of Ramen growing up, I am not above eating them at all, I just don't expect to pay top dollar at a restaurant and still be served them.
La Taifas ($$)
My final day in town before catching the train back to Odesa. Up early (i lie) and out to face the blistering sun on my way to try the national dish of Moldova: Zeama (or chicken noodle soup to us). I'd been told by more than one person that La Taifas did the best in town, and was an experience in of itself.
The waiter looked at me in disbelief when I only wanted a soup. "But that is starter".. I explained that I was going to have a couple more meal's today and wanted to try a few different places. His puzzled expression stayed with him until he returned carrying the zeama. It looked unlike anything i'd seen before, a deep yellow colour but with lots of loveage, a herb popular in Moldova. I dug in, and was pleasantly surprised. A decent bowl of noodle soup with some definite flavour profiles I had never had before.
Smokehouse / Taproom ($$)
It was Wednesday. Wings Day at Smokehouse + Taproom. I had been told to be there before 7pm, as the wings always sold out early. So I headed down, grabbed a pint of cold beer, ordered wings and sat chatting with one of the owners.They were decent wings, nothing to write home about, came a bit cold and had that cold-fat feeling when they have done them in batches and some get stuck on the bottom for longer than intended until some unlucky sod gets the old-cold ones (me). Despite that, the flavours were good, and their seasoned fries hit the spot. The place was literally packed to the brim with ex-pats on dates with locals and locals hanging out in big groups pounding beers like they were going out of fashion.
Night fell. Morning awoke me. Made up my mind to try one last place on the American dudes "list of places to eat". Gastrobar. Such a terrible name. Unimaginative to the gravest degree, but ok, if the food's good then that can be overlooked. I opted for a table outside, white wine, ribs and a salad. All around me were definitely the "richer" of the locals. Arriving in fancy cars, plastered with big watches and expensive hair cuts. I felt a bit shabby in my shorts and t-shirt, but mostly no fucks given.
From left-right, the first two ribs were succelent, juicy and came off the bone with little to no pressure applied. The sauce was a bit on the sweet side for me, but thats personal preference. The final rib was the one that got away... completely bone-dry and uninspired. My salad was undressed and average, but the service and wine was good.
Whilst travelling in these kind of countries you can't expect the world when it comes to culinary adventures, and sticking to purely local food does get boring, so sometimes you need to venture out and try their attempts. Hit and miss as they are.
I left in a cab hurtling through traffic on my way to catch the train back to Odesa. I hadn't really caught the vibe of Chisinau after 5 days there, and maybe there was no vibe to catch. The locals were friendly and accommodating, the food was generally ok, and the prices were cheap. It's not a place to go out of your way to visit, but if you like the odder things in life then by all mean's !
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.