FOOD AND DRINK
Balkan Bites in the Big Apple
New York may have countless cuisines on offer, but to most diners, Croatia, Bosnia and other Balkan lands are among the few undiscovered countries
Whether you’re in the mood for Serbian grilled meat, Bosnian cheese pies or Croatian-style grilled fish, New York has many authentic options from the former Yugoslavia. It is no coincidence that most of these Balkan restaurants are located in the Queens neighbourhood of Astoria – many residents from this region live here.
Most of these places are sparse-looking dives in non-trendy areas, but they have family-run kitchens using recipes passed down generations. If you’ve never been to the Balkans, they’ll give you a feel for its residents; chances are that you’ll see groups of soccer-loving men and many unusually tall patrons stepping out for a smoke. There is a healthy dose of bluntness in the Balkan culture; don’t expect the wait staff to frequently ask you whether you’re enjoying your meal, as is common in Canadian and American restaurants.
Istria Sport Club
Don’t be put off by the uninviting red brick building and the hard-to-spot “Istria S.C.” sign – you’re in the right place. Founded in 1959 by immigrants from Istria, the northern part of Croatia, this is a members-only social club, but anyone can enjoy a great meal in the downstairs dining area. There is a good chance you’ll see a soccer match on TV, pass by a group of men playing cards near the entrance, or spot a couple of women preparing homemade pasta in the kitchen area. If that’s not enough to convince you this place is authentic, the Eastern European accents flying from every direction will do the trick. Whether sitting inside or outside, the décor leaves a lot to be desired, but the food is consistently great. The chicken and beef broth soups makenice appetizers, or you can opt for the hearty prosciutto plate. The house white wine went great with it; though it was hard for this guest to tell if it was filled to the brim because the order came in Croatian.For entrees, the staple is the homemade fuzi pasta, which is served in a rich brown veal sauce. The homemade gnocchi is just as good. If you’re in mood for fish, the grilled branzino is served with its head and tail attached – don’t even think about mentioning fillets to Croats. For dessert, try palacinke, crepes stuffed with jam or chocolate. Istria Sport Club is great at accommodating large groups, and don’t be afraid to ask for various combinations of appetizers and platters, a common thing to do in Croatia.
28-09 Astoria Blvd., Astoria (Queens), 718-728-3181
Founded by Bosnian refugees who came to the United States in the early 1990s, this small group of affordable restaurants specializes in burek – slices, pies or rolls made from homemade phyllo dough and stuffed with beef, cheese, spinach or potato. The original Astoria location is truly no-frills – you may spot a cord hanging from a TV or a bucket of soaking peeled potatoes. That’s all part of the genuine charm. You can trust the sign outside that says: “Ovdje se dobro jede,” which means “Here we eat well” in Bosnian/Croatian. Try the cheese or meat burek – depending on what you’re in the mood for, they pair nicely with a glass of drinkable yogurt or a beer (beer and wine is only available at the Astoria location, which also has the biggest food menu). If you also get a salad such as sopska (mixed greens with plenty of feta cheese on top), you will probably be full. If not, there are plenty of grilled meat dishes or cooked meals such as Bosanski lonac, a filling veal stew with vegetables, cabbage and potatoes that is the perfect comfort food. For dessert, you can walk up to the glass fridge and see what appeals. Pieces start at $1.75, and if you really like them, you can order a full tray.
34-04A 31st Avenue, Astoria (Queens), 888-462-8735
The rustic décor, dim lighting and cosy atmosphere make this the best option for a date night, whether you snag one of several outdoor tables or sit inside. The brick walls have several signs in Cyrillic and are adorned with framed photographers of the Serbian owner’s family on one side, and pictures of Belgrade, the country’s capital, on the other. The Avenue C location in Manhattan’s Alphabet City is a bit of a trek from the nearest subway, but worth it if you’re in mood for meat. You’ll start with bread and ajvar, a red pepper dip that complements any meat.
The waitress was happy to bring seconds upon request. For a couple of undecided meat lovers, the mixed grill will give you two pieces of the various options, including classic dishes like cevapi, the minced meat mini sausages that are as popular in the former Yugoslavia as hot dogs are in America. But the real standouts were prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese and rolled in bacon with chicken liver, and (again) rolled in bacon. If ordering any grilled meat, get a side of kajmak, a creamy cheese spread. A portion of blitva (swiss chard mixed with potatoes and garlic) or the refreshing thinly sliced cabbage salad nicely accompany any meat entree. If you have room for dessert, the reforma cake is a satisfying option for chocolate lovers. The wine menu has upwards of 100 options, including a large selection of orange wine – white wines that are fermented by leaving the skin of the grapes on. Kafana is cash-only, which is not unusual in this nook of Manhattan, and the staff is used to directing customers to the cash machine across the street.
116 Avenue C, 212-353-8000
Much like Djerdan, this is another basic and affordable Bosnian option where the food is looked after with more care than the décor. You don’t have to be Bosnian to know that when a place is named after cevapi, the mini sausages, that’s what you should order. They come in portions of five or ten, and are served the same way as back home – with ajvar, the vegetable spread, chopped onions and lepinja, the Balkan version of pita bread. The cooked homemade dishes are also great, including sarma, or stuffed cabbage, an Eastern European staple. Don’t be surprised if you’re the only person speaking English at this restaurant, which opened its doors in 1976.
37-18 34th Ave., Astoria, 718-752-9528
Anable Basin Sailing
Located in Long Island City – a former industrial area in the Queens borough that is now dotted with luxury condos – Anable Basin is a casual outdoor spot with a beer garden feel. While this is not a Balkan restaurant per se, it is worth coming for the view and cevapi, the Balkan choice on the international menu. On a nice summer afternoon or evening, this is a great place to share a picnic table and enjoy views of the East River and Manhattan without all the waiting and hassle of a downtown hotspot. After ordering, drop your ticket off at the kitchen window, then look out for your number, as there is no wait staff. You can tell the manager is from Bosnia, because the cevapi here are consistently good. You’ll get five of these mini sausages, along with chopped onions, ajvar and lepinja; you may also want a side salad or some corn. The outdoor restaurant is currently open from May through November, but plans are in the works to build an enclosed area that would keep it open year-round. It is a friendly place for families, and on a typical day, you’ll hear many kids easily switching between English and Croatian or Bosnian.
4-40 44th Drive, Long Island City (Queens), 646-207-1333
• Rudar Social Club (34-01 45th Street, Astoria): Like Istria Sport Club, this is a members’ club that will leave you wondering if you are in the right place, but the basement dining room offers authentic Croatian food.
• Ukus (4208 30th Ave., Astoria) is a 20-seat restaurant whose only decorations are two TVs often showing soccer. Much like Djerdan Burek and Cevabdzinica Sarajevo, it looks like a fast-food joint and serves standard fare such as burek, cevapi, pljeskavia (the Balkan version of a hamburger) and cooked meals such as a bean and beef soup.
• For one of the rare Balkan fine dining options, head to Villa Berulia (107 East 34th St.). It’s a Croatian/Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Murray Hill section.
• Finally, if you find yourself in the suburbs north of New York City, Dubrovnik restaurant (721 Main St., New Rochelle, N.Y.) is worth visiting. In addition to the well-decorated interior with a nautical theme, there are outdoor seats overlooking a small garden where some of the herbs and vegetables in your meal come from.