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.
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2011