Updated Balkan Recs?
Greetings from Bawlmer, hon.
I'm heading up the road to your fair city this weekend and am on a hunt to get stuff I can't find in my neck of the woods: Balkan fare. I will consume (and purchase, if possible) and former Yugo fare/goods I can get my greedy little Chow paws on. Macedonian, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian....I takes what I can gets.
Based on a search, I've come up with some discussions from 2003 which I implore you to update, if possible.
Gjerdan #3, 221 W 38th St. While most reviews were gushing, I did find a 2008 comment elsewhere about their quality going downhill. I checked out their menu and the burek looks like real Balkan burek, but am concerned that the dough may not be what it should be, based on that review. Any recent Chow impressions of this place?
Other options on this board were to go to a couple of places in Astoria.
I'm anchoring down at Battery Park so would prefer to keep it in Manhattan....any other places I should consider? Is there any place that has a store where I can buy things like sirene, Skopsko, vegeta, Kras chocolates, etc???
Hit Gjerdan on 38th Saturday afternoon. I was the only person in the joint, barring "Uncle" Trajche who popped in to say hi. I had the cheese burek with some homemade yogurt. The yogurt was a 10/10: Creamy, cool, tangy goodness that complements the heavy, greasy, burek perfectly. I'd give the burek a 7.5/10. It needed at least 3 more layers of dough on either side, and the dough needed to be a hair thicker to give you that chewiness factor that is essential to a good burek. Their chese (white "sirene") needed to be a bit saltier, too.
The tulumba was quite good, 8/10, but I like them a bit crispier, with lighter syrup. (Personal preference.) Their Turkish coffee wasn't so good: they boiled it, rather than letting it rise and gather the foam necessary. And it was weaker than it should have been: I should have had an inch of sludge at the bottom.
They had about 8-10 wines from the area, including Vranec (Croatian) and T'ga za Jug (Macedonia), which was my absolute favorite!!! So I was happy.
Came out very full for a meager $20. Definitely will head up the next time I'm in NYC for some kepabcici.
sea97horse, thank you for the Kafana recommendation. It was a marvelous one. Kafana is outstanding, phenomenal, and stupendous. I don't have enough superlatives for it!
It is hands-down the best Serbian food I've had outside Belgrade.
We started with a cheese pastry dish, "gibanica." It was perfect: the dough was chewy yet crunchy the way it is supposed to be, and used the white cheese ubiquitous for the region, "belo sirenje."
They plunk down a basket of homemade wheat bread with a thick, chewy crust and a small dish of ajvar. This is a traditional homemade accompaniment of red peppers that has been roasted, drained, ground, fried, and preserved. A good one is supposed to be smoky, peppery, and creamy. This was quite a solid version.
The main dishes we had were nothing short of phenomenal. One dish was dried stuffed plums and livers wrapped in bacon and grilled. Like with all Balkan grill, they were slightly charred on the outside (as they should be). The contrast between sweet, salty, chewy, and crunchy was a delight. The livers were similarly good (though I thought the plums were really the standout).
The second main we chose was a traditional balkan dish, or baked beans with sausage. We are not talking American canned, sweet, baked beans. Imagine lima beans simmered to a buttery consistency over hours. Then they are dressed with dried sweet red pepper, onions that have been sauteed over hours, and a roux, finished in an oven to bake until the beans are surrounded in a flavorful, thick coating. The peasant sausage was assertive and a perfect complement to the creamy, buttery beans.
They had Serbian, Croatian, and even Slovenian wines. Try the Vranec, it was divine.
Dessert was palacinke (crepes) with nutella and walnuts, and sour cherry strudel/pie. The dough was again homemade and perfect for the cherry strudel, thicker than for the cheese pie app and chewy the way a good dough is supposed to be.
I wish we had gone with a larger party, so that I could have tried everything on the menu. They had other traditional items such as cevapcici (little grilled meat logs with different meats, spiced), pleskavica (Serbian hamburger---very large and thin and chock-full of onion and spices), and a mixed grill, which allows you to try a sampling of all of their grilled meats, including traditional pork chops.
It's a small place that filled up quickly on a Friday night. The tables are close together and it gets loud. However, that's a small price to pay for amazing food at very, very reasonable prices. Service was smooth, interested, and efficient. The owner is active and engaged.
They have a passion for good food from their native Serbia, and it shows. Run, don't walk, to Kafana! You will not be disappointed.
Totally agree! Kafana is great, even if you aren't specifically looking for Serbian fare. Any meat lover (well, make that pork lover) would appreciate it. (Yeah, not so many veggies on that menu.)
We got the mixed grill there last night and there was not one thing on that plate that wasn't amazing. We left so stuffed, but it was all worth it. Fantastic smokey and spiced sausages, a pork chop that was actually cooked perfectly (good luck finding that anywhere), wonderfully complex cured pork loin, and a smattering of other goodies wrapped in bacon.
I also agree that the service is great -- imagine, a restaurant in NYC where the server actually seems happy to be there, and excited to serve you food she's proud of!
It felt like only Serbian folk seem to know about it (all of the tables around us were), but I can see this place becoming a more general go-to meat eating destination.
One question that keeps nagging me though... how does Kafana get all of those wonderful smoked flavors into their meats, and yet NOT ONE of all of the overhyped barbecue places in this town can manage the same thing? Are they just smoking it all off site somewhere?
re: Bob Martinez
My pleasure. I want this place to be around when I'm back up in NYC, so will give them all word-of-mouth I can!
Their website is: http://www.kafananyc.com/
Regarding Sietsma's review....
Kajmak is something I've only found in the Balkan, Turkey, and Central Asia. Kajmak is essentially the fatty solids that you get when you boil milk. (You get bags of milk in the Balkan that are unpasturized, when you bring them home and boil it before you drink it.) The fat that settles on the top is then scraped off and put in the fridge. It is creamy, fatty, buttery, milky, and salty. Soooo good on bread.
I've seen bastardized versions of margarine mixed with cream cheese. In the US I've seen Serbian women heat half and half and/or heavy cream to make real kajmak. If you are served kajkam with a yellow-y tinge, stay away.
Regarding the whole wheat berry dessert, this is a traditional church offering. For holidays you boil kernels of wheat, dress them with a whisper of sugar (and ground walnuts, if you can afford them) and bring them to the church to be blessed. They are chewy, earthy, nutty, and delicious. Pour a little bit of red wine on 'em if you really want it to taste like a church offering---the priest pours some wine over it as he blesses it.
And yes, the servers and owners are proud to give you a taste of their homeland. They have a lot to be proud of, 'cause it's a damn good restaurant!
By the by, they are working on getting their liquor license so you can have traditional "rakija" (immature grape brandy) with the salads, Balkan-style. Right now they only can do beer and wine. And many people are surprised at what nice wines come out of the Balkan.
They know how to do some serious grillin' in the Balkan, and they are wizards with pork. It's the pork that gives things like cevapi and pleskavici the aroma and flavor that is so divine. It's the blend of meats that maximize the aroma/flavor/moistness of the meats.
Please do go and let us know what you had, and what you thought.
I'm sometimes dumbfounded to read posts about restos I've been to...I find Kafana to be a solidly mediocre experience. Been there thrice since it opened (live around the corner), and have tried over half the menu...items like grilled pork chops are, well, grilled pork chops (if you like your pig well-done and rolled in salt)...but food commonly comes out luke-warm, and some dishes I wouldn't let escape my kitchen, let alone ask someone to pay for them (the lamb/spinach stew was a gloppy mess). The waitstaff is uniformly pleasant to look at, but is sometimes surly (my first time, my table disappeared from the radar as soon as it was clear we wouldn't be buying a bottle of wine) and often clueless: the last time, our server was cheerful and chirpy, but had no idea about the menu and wine list (one example: she had to go ask the chef what the specials were...good thing he was nearby, lounging at the bar and chatting with friends as insufficiently heated dishes came out of his kitchen)...I really wanted Kafana to be good...but if this is how they prepare and serve food in Serbia, I'm afraid Belgrade is getting crossed off my list of dining destinations...(also, not particularly cheap, considering the level of sophistication...)
I won't deny that some of my enthusiasm for this place has everything to do with the fact that its a novelty. Balkan cuisine isn't exactly found on every street corner. So just having a place to try out with foods that I grew up on is a big deal.
That being said, if the food and service were crap, I would state that the food and service were crap. You'll note that the dishes I ate were very different from the ones that you tried. While our table had no problem with temp and timing of our food, at the table next to us, one patron sent their pastry back to be heated. As with everything, YMMV.
If you decide to give it another shot, I highly recommend getting the dishes I described. You may decide its worth going to, and that Serbian cuisine is worth the trip to Belgrade. ;>
I'm not sure what you mean about bell peppers. The ajvar is a smoky red pepper spread. These are not green bell peppers, but long, sweet, red peppers. First they are roasted (charred), then drained, ground, and fried as a paste/dip in oil.
For the bean dish, they use a dried red pepper spice (like paprika, but chunkier).
Those were the only pepper-like products we consumed, and there were no bell peppers served at all in what we ate.
Hope that helps. Go try it! :)
The peppers that they use in the Balkan are not bell peppers. A good photo of them can be seen here:
Yes, they are sweet and red, but they have a much thinner skin than bell peppers, and a much thicker, meatier "meat" than bell peppers. These peppers do not have any of that bitterness that comes with green bell peppers.
I hope you are able to try the place out!
Djerdan is great (and also super cheap). My boyfriend is Bosnian and a bunch of us went there recently. It's not a good as his mom's cooking, but it's a decent approximation. They also sell their mean bureks frozen (I saw a case in the back on my way to the restroom) so that could be a good option for take home!
Not everything on the menu is stellar (the teleca supa - veal soup - not so much). But the stuffed cabbage was yummy as was the mixed meat plate. The cevapi was also divine (and seemed to be what most folks were ordering).
For dessert, we ordered 4 different classic items to see which things each of us liked best. Was a fun experiment! The Hurmasica is wonderful!
The server recommened the Tufahije (nut filled apple), but we had all just been apple picking and couldn't take any more apples.
You can pick up some great Bulgarian Feta from Fairway on the Upper West Side (I prefer 125th, because it is cheaper than the 79th St location). They also sell vegeta.
And you really won't find a quality place that sells burek in Manhattan. They're all out in Astoria (ESPECIALLY UKUS! (42-08 30th Avenue) and Stari Most (Old Bridge) just around the corner). The Bronx also has some considerably nice places. Not for dining per se, but there is this indoor flea market (its not the right term, but that's what I'm reminded of) that sells great meats and there's even a place that sells a sandwich called the Albanian Special (the name is wrong, really). It's basically like Prosciutto di Parma, but with Sujo Meso!