REVIEW w/ pics: Secret Balkan Menu at Metro Diner
From the outside, Metro Diner looks just as it seems, a diner. Breakfast and lunch offer the standard fare of eggs, omelets and pancakes or salads and sandwiches respectively. It's around dinner time that it gets a little more interesting. No, we're not talking about the Mediterranean and Italian dishes nor the burgers choices that customers can choose from.
It's more about asking your server about the "specials" for the night, with these "specials" referring to Restaurant Owners, Aleks' and Sasa's Serbian dishes, a couple that are on the menu, but some that are part of a secret "off menu" available to those in the know. These specials change daily, but thankfully, my friend, Cecilia, went to Metro Diner and made arrangements for about 20 of us to have a 8 course Balkan meal, a meal that certainly had its highs and lows.
Though not really Balkan, the first to arrive was half loaves of bread that were wonderfully crusty on the outside; yet, soft on the inside. The plate arrived with this little bowl of a very addictive spread. I think it was made of red bell peppers and I could easily see this as a perfect dip for raw veggies.
The first of the Balkan dishes came in the form of a White Bean Soup with Smoked Pork Ribs. It's a perfect stick to your ribs, cold weather soup. Thick, hearty and with pork rib meat that was tender, this soup was a definite winner.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the Cabbage Salad with Red Beets that came after the soup. I enjoyed the crunchiness of the cabbage and the sweetness of the red beets, but I expected the whole dish to be more vinegary. I could taste hints of sourness, but overall, it was pretty bland. Was I wrong to expect something more like sauerkraut? Maybe, Balkan cabbage salads aren't meant to be that strongly flavored?
The meal went on a high again when the Gibanica hit the table. Gibanica is made up of filo dough with ricotta and feta cheese. Although a tad greasy, it was one of the highlights of the meal. The pastry was flaky and buttery and paired well with the salty hits coming from the layers of cheese throughout the Gibanica.
Next to arrive was the Serbian Salad. Honestly, it looked like any other Greek or Mediterranean salad I've seen before and tasted the same. Don't get me wrong. It was still a good salad. All the vegetables were fresh and crunchy. I liked how they didn't overdo it with too much dressing, but there was really nothing special about it.
After the Serbian Salad, we got to savor the Sarma, which are collard greens stuffed with rice and ground pork. I've had stuffed cabbage before, but those have nothing on Sarma. I really loved the use of the collard greens and how well it was cooked so that it wasn't too mushy, but still had a little chew to it. The rice and pork filling was flavorful and the dollop of a yogurt based sauce added a nice freshness to the whole dish.
More than halfway through our courses and next to arrive was Chevapchichi with Fried Potatoes. The Chevapchici is ground beef that was shaped like a sausage and than fried. While I liked the flavor of the meat, I did not like the texture. It was too spongy when I would have preferred the meat to be more dense. I should note that I was part of the minority of the group. Most people really enjoyed the Chevapchici. However, what did it for me were the fried potatoes. Wow! They were crispy and golden on the outside and soft and moist in the inside. If I had to choose between the Chevapchici and the potatoes, I'd choose those potatoes each and every time.
The last dish before dessert was the Goulash with Mushrooms. One bite and I tell you, I could have easily swam in a pool of that goulash and ate my way out. It was just that good and was my absolute favorite course of the night. The beef was tender, the sauce was tasty and when both were eaten with the light and fluffy mashed potatoes, I felt like it couldn't get any better.
Our meal ended with the House Crepes with Raspberry and Nutella. By no means, this wasn't a very original dessert, but it was done well. I actually liked how the crepes had more of a pancake thickness as opposed to its usual thinner texture. It's hard to go wrong with nutella and raspberry and in general, this was a nice way to end our multi-course Balkan dinner.
In the end, it was a fun evening. I got to spend it with friends who share my same foodie passion. As for the food, the meal was indeed like a roller coaster. It had its dips and its heights, but I do appreciate Metro Diner's willingness to let us experience their home food with this special menu. Now if I happen to walk in and am craving that Sarma or the Goulash, I'll know to ask if they're available. Perhaps this "secret menu" has even more items than what was included in our meal, but hey, you got to start somewhere.
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11188 Washington Pl
Culver City, CA 90232
Great write-up! Metro is one of our go-to places when we want some good quality food and wine, when no one can agree on what to eat, when we don't want to dress up (dressing up for me is having to put on any form of long pants), want to stay in the Westside, and where we can just blindly point at the menu and pretty much pick a winner.
That "very addictive spread" was probably avjar, a condiment made primarily of roasted red peppers and eggplant. It is very addictive and I believe it is very Serbian/Balkans. Trader Joe's carries/carried jarred avjar but don't waste your money - it doesn't compare.
you can get decent ajvar in a jar (it comes in hot and mild varieties) from many ethnic markets.
elat market on pico
the persian market on artesia next door to the good will store
i believe that it is even carried by cost plus world markets.
you are right--the trader joe's brand is vile.
the brands that i normally get are: Sadef, and Zeergut.
I know what you mean by 'ups and downs'. The last time I ordered the cevapcici it came with .......... nothing else. No bread, no condiments (say ajvar, ljutenica or even mustard), very strange.
I really miss the Serbian market formerly near me that sold these - they were spiced and a little bit aged dry.