Take a moment and think back to the last time you tried an entirely new cuisine from a region you knew little about. West Africa. Burma. Vietnam. What a revelation.
Now home cooking from the Balkan Peninsula has reached Lake Erie’s shores, and we’ve struck Cheap Eats gold with Balkan Dining’s fresh take on a diverse and delicious region.
Bosnia sits squarely between Croatia and Serbia, not far from the Adriatic Sea. With Slavic roots leading back to the Ottoman Empire, Bosnian dishes borrow elements from Central Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Senad Soteli, owner of Balkan Dining, mans the grill six days a week inside the small restaurant at the corner of Kenmore and Starin. His wife, Amela, attends the tables with a friendly professionalism, popping open bottles of wine (they are BYOB) and explaining dishes.
Aida, Amela’s sister-in-law, is the baker, maker of salads and Mistress of Delicious Desserts. Her desserts are great, but more on that later.
The Soteli family hails from Zenica (Zen-EET-sa) in central Bosnia, and their menu reflects the city’s unique mixture of Western and Eastern flavors: the coffee is strong and dark, like Turkey’s, there is Greek baklava infused with honey, and beef and lamb sausages come from the Austro-Hungarians.
Dishes often are served with several condiments, including a sour cream called pavlaka and ajvar, a roasted pepper and garlic spread. While many recipes are meat-centric, all include fresh or roasted vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and spinach.
A Bosnian specialty, burek, is a flaky pastry Balkan Dining calls “pita” stuffed with combinations of meat, cheeses and vegetables.
Nearly everything is made in-house every day, including the desserts, the burek and another airy bread Aida calls lepina. More familiar choices include Hungarian “gulash” ($6.99), a Greek salad ($5.99), grilled chicken breast with french fries ($7.50) and tiramisu ($3).
“We have a little bit of everything, because people like it,” Aida said, adding that business has been steady since the place opened last December. The former pizzeria now draws a diverse crowd from nearby neighborhoods. “There are Bosnians, Russians, Turks, Chinese and Americans, of course … we’re giving them something new and fresh,” she said.
New and fresh, indeed. On a warm Friday evening, my husband and I stopped by for dinner with another couple who were fans of the place. We sat outside to escape the hot kitchen, and our friends helped us navigate the menu.
We focused on the traditional dishes, starting with the Sopska salad ($5.99) made with tomato, green peppers, cucumber and onion, and sprinkled with a delicately mild, feta-like cheese. We also ordered the Bosnian musaka ($6.50), which was a gorgeous baked casserole of sliced potato, ground beef and light layers of egg and cheese. An order of pita ($4.99) came stuffed with cheese and spinach, followed by a plate of thin beef sausages called sudzukice.
If you order anything here, get the mixed meat plate ($14.99). Balkan is a great deal, given the care and authenticity of the cooking, and this platter was piled high with more sudzukice, cevapi (skinless ground beef sausages) and skewers of tender veal and chicken breast. It was served with fresh lepina, sour cream and onions.
Everything was perfectly cooked, flavorful and quickly polished off. Balkan also serves spaghetti three ways ($10.99 each), cod and tilapia dinners ($14.99) and several weekend and weekly specials, such as three courses of comfort food for $15.99: homemade soup, salad and roasted lamb or chicken with baked potatoes or rice.
On to dessert. Under the pretense of sampling, we plunged ahead and ordered four to share, all ranging from $3-$4. The baklava was warm, sweet and gooey as expected, and we loved the saher cake’s chocolate and raspberry layers just slightly more than the mimoza cake, which had a custard layer topped with several generous inches of neon-red strawberry gelatin and fresh berries. Oh, but then there was the poached apple, called tufahija, stuffed with brown sugar and walnuts.
We eventually pushed our plates away, excited by what we’d tasted and appreciative of the value ($60 for four, minus the booze). Balkan Dining is a delicious, unpretentious treat for the adventurous; most of the seasonings aren’t hot, and nothing we ordered was heavy or the least bit greasy. If anything, the balance of flavors whetted our appetites, and we’re already planning a return visit. It was truly out of this world – or at least out of this country.
Where: 687 Kenmore Ave. (834-0462, www.balkandining.com)
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.