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Saro Bistro Seeks Out Grandma's Lost Empire

The Balkans find a new home on the Lower East Side

Saro Bistro Seeks Out Grandma's Lost Empire
Michelle Kondrich

Never had Balkan food? Fear not—it's damn bland.

Maybe I'm being unfair to the culinary legacy of a region marred by centuries of strife. But even my waitress at Saro Bistro, a new Lower East Side restaurant, agreed. She explained that the bright green peppers in the glass in front of our mismatched antique plates weren't just decoration, but should be chomped on with the meal. "The cuisine isn't highly spiced," she said. "So they help add some heat."

At Saro, chef Eran Elhalal celebrates the "lost empires" (Austro-Hungarian plus Ottoman equals Balkan, get it?) while championing the home cooking of his grandmother Sara, the restaurant's namesake. The cozy dining room would have impressed her. A soft glow from hanging pendant lights envelops the dozen wooden tables. Brocade-patterned wallpaper adorns the walls, and a small bar tucks into a corner. Charming, informed waiters canvass the space, checking on the hip locals who've happily left their pretensions at the door.

ARTIST: Michelle Kondrich can be found at michellekondrich.com, and prints of her work are available here
Michelle Kondrich
ARTIST: Michelle Kondrich can be found at michellekondrich.com, and prints of her work are available here

Hints of life do peek out from the kitchen. The overplayed lettuce-fruit-cheese trifecta graces the menu here, but in an upgraded version. Escarole unites with arugula, basil, mint, caramelized pears, and gorgonzola, all under the spell of a pomegranate molasses–based vinaigrette ($12). The dressing whimpers for more acidity, but this salad still gives greens a good name. Pastel ($12) helps pastry get a leg up in the never-ending pie-vs.-cake debate, stuffing seasoned minced meat between two sheets of flaky dough. Beats a beef-studded cupcake, doesn't it?

The burratina ($15) fights to delight, filling a homemade mozzarella shell with ricotta. Conceptually, it succeeds: cheese-stuffed cheese—genius! Unfortunately a stringy texture ruins the outer layer, while attending out-of-season tomatoes taste watery (time to jump on the locavore trend, chef). The whole dish clamors for bread—mouthful upon mouthful of dairy excites only suckling babies. True, you could order the $6 breadbasket, but this act of highway robbery ironically arrives with even more cheese!

Stave off the briskness of early spring with the hearty lamb entrée ($22). Think rosy-cheeked farmwife fare—slices of tender shoulder stretch over fingerling potatoes and sweet-tart braised red cabbage. Braised short ribs ($20) also supply tummy-warming, but the crunchy egg noodles and shredded green lettuce prove odd and not very palatable sidekicks. Karadjordeva ($16), meanwhile, reinvents chicken Kiev with kashkaval cheese and super-smoky ham, but this dry and flavorless version failed to convert me from its Slavic sister.

Forget that paltry poultry, however, and take joy in what Slovenia has to offer (besides Tito's former vacation home) with the $42 Pullus Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp and dry with a deep mineral kick, the wine comes with a vintage pedigree: The winery's cellars date to 1239. Hey, it only took the Slovenes 772 years to spread the word about their terroir!

Attuned to his weaknesses, Elhalal limits dessert options ($8) to doughnuts, hazelnut and chocolate cake, and a plate of assorted cookies and truffles. While the doughnuts capture the sugary bliss of a dinner's end, you'll likely forget the others (and, really, most of the meal) by the time you turn the corner after leaving the restaurant. But at least for a fleeting moment, Balkan cuisine edges slightly farther away from the pit of obscurity.

lshockey@villagevoice.com

 
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8 comments
JamieOwe
JamieOwe

The Micheline Guide featured Saro Bistro in 2012 and 2013

stina
stina

Saro is delicious and charming and the writer sounds like he has issues and might need to get l a i d

Lower East Sider
Lower East Sider like.author.displayName 1 Like

Having eaten my fourth wonderful meal at Saro Bistro this morning, I was shocked by the sarcastic tone and the free-flowing insults in the Voice's review. It feels like the reviewer has an axe to grind. Isn't it strange that so many Yelp reviewers are crazy about this place, and yet the Voice reviewer has nothing positive at all to write.

The food at Saro Bistro is not at all bland- quite the opposite. It is uniquely delicious. Certainly the Voice reviewer has demonstrated his lack of knowledge about Balkan food and fine dining.

Michelle Winston
Michelle Winston like.author.displayName 1 Like

I find this cute little bistro to be one of the best restaurants in the LES and a great addition to the neighborhood. We live close by and have been to Saro Bistro 3 times by now, once for brunch and twice for dinner. I disagree with every single word in this article. The food is anything but bland, and the Burratina is my favorite, it is amazing! and the doughnuts are to die for !This sweeping angry tone and close mindedness to a cuisine the writer clearly knows very little about , makes me feel the writers' review was at best pre-determined.I have come to expect more from The Village Voice.

Jamie Owens
Jamie Owens

I have to say I disagree and am quite surprised by the writer's unbalanced negativity. I went to the place last week with my husband after getting raving recommendations from friends in the neighborhood and we both had a lovely time and thought it was a great addition to the LES.

Balkansarecrying
Balkansarecrying like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great tone for this article: "Let me mock this region of the world. It must be unimportant, because I'm totally ignorant of it."

First, I'd be curious what you or the restaurant means by Balkan. The term "Balkanization" is a big hint it might be a somewhat fractured place. Greek? Bulgarian? Macedonian? Croatian? They must all seem the same to you since you're ignorant to each.

I see Slovenia comes up in the article. Are we talking about the cuisine of the former Yugoslavia, to the extent you can speak to such a thing? I don't think so, since it's not bland. I can give you some ajvar to prove it. If Croatain is bland, then so is Italian. But you'd never say such a thing. And who knew Slovenian wine was good? People who have tried Slovenian wine. And people who know about food, and drinks, and don't just write while pretending they do. I guess I'll have to wait for a real article on this place to find out what it's all about.

VSKobanyai
VSKobanyai

Escarole unites with arugula, basil, mint, caramelized pears, and gorgonzola, all under the spell of a pomegranate molasses–based vinaigrette ($12)

Gives the game away - if THIS pretentious pseudo-Continental mess is "Balkan cuisine" then Radovan Karadžić is Mahatma Gandhi.

tony
tony

try to read the full menu if that's not to difficult for you....

homemade aivar, krofne, sarma, cevapcici,prebranac, pasule....balkan enough? douche!

 

 
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