Monday, April 25, 2011

Ready, Set, Balkanize!

All you have to do to make some friends happy is surprise them.

So when my dinner companion picked me up and asked where we were going, I delighted him by saying it was a surprise. I directed him west on Monument before switching over to Patterson.

"We're going into the county?" he asked incredulously. "Isn't there a checkpoint? Don't we need to show our papers or something?"

I could tell; he was afraid I was taking him to Short Pump. Fear not, my friend.

Instead, we stopped at one of the ubiquitous strip malls that define the counties when I told him to pull in by the Papa John's.

All he saw was the giant Chinese place on the other side of PJ's until I pointed out the Balkan Restaurant. His grin was worthy of the Cheshire Cat.

On a Monday evening it was easy to choose a table in the middle of the restaurant, between the four top of white-haired men (two with delightful accents) and a single diner who was just finishing up by declining dessert.

We each had views of opposing walls covered in photographs of the Balkan region while Balkan music played overhead.

Being Balkan amateurs, though, we needed some time with the menu to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients and the terminology before going forward.

But being hungry, we ordered the spinach and cheese burek (hand-stretched puff pastry with various fillings) to tide us over in the meantime.

In the blink of an eye, five 6"-long pieces of stuffed puffs arrived steaming. The soft pastry tasted of egg and butter and the filling of chopped spinach and Kajmak (cottage cheese) brought to mind spanikopita.

Needless to say, we loved it. Surely this is what Balkan comfort food tastes like.

Our lovely server was Bulgarian and landed at the restaurant because she is a friend of the owners.

She tolerated our mispronunciations and, at our request, corrected our ugly American mangling of foreign terms as we ordered. It was eating as learning experience.

A big part of the pleasure of eating with this friend is his willingness to share dishes. With that in mind, we got the Bulgarian feta cheese salad (cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, red onions and grilled red peppers topped with Bulgarian Feta cheese and Kalamata olives) and served with a generous helping of house-baked Lepinja bread (similar to pita but thicker and doughier).

Our other choice was the cevapi sandwich, made of ground beef mixed with flavorful spices in skinless  link-style sausages.

Served on Lepinja bread with fresh onions and Kajmak, it had both of us raving about the spiced meat and fluffy bread. My friend loved how savory the sausages were without being spicy at all.

We both had world-class onion breath by the time we finished with these two dishes. Balkan cuisine is nothing if not generous with raw onions, something that made both of us very happy, if a bit fragrant during conversation. Even the Lepinja bread couldn't deaden how pungent we were.

As we sat reflecting on such an enjoyable meal, my friend informed me that my winning streak of taking him to interesting restaurants was further bolstered by tonight's choice.

Maybe the onions were clouding his judgement, but the guy who loves surprises didn't seem surprised by that at all.

It all comes down to you gotta eat, I gotta eat. Might as well eat together.


  1. So, I guess we'll see you at vmfa this Friday for Balkanize at the Cafe?

  2. Friday is CRAZY!

    Disrobed at Gallery 5 (love painted naked people)

    "Basquiat" at VMFA (just heard director Schnabel talk and now dying to see this)

    Sleigh Bells at the National (already have ticket)

    And that's just the three I've narrowed it down to! No idea where I'll end up...