Like dips? A friend of mine loves them, and she’s never happier than when plunging pitas into a bowl of smoky baba ghanoush or spooning some garlicky tzatziki over a side of oiled rice. Usually, a menu might list two or three of these quaking, multipurpose concoctions. But imagine her excitement when I conducted her to the glass case at Balkanika, where 18 dips are neatly displayed in tubs, glowing in a palette of colors that range from deep yellow to scarlet to teal to purest white. You’ll find yourself wanting to mix them like a painter just to see what hues emerge.
The dips—which come from all over the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as from Balkan countries—are available individually (one for $6), or ganged up in combinations (four for $12). But why not get all 18 on a platter with a generous basket of warm toasted pitas for $18? It’s a dipper’s paradise, and easily enough to furnish a complete meal for two. Included are all the obvious examples you know from Greek, Lebanese, and Turkish joints, plus what are clearly invented ones—such as a nutty-tasting almond-tumeric hummus, a pleasantly muddy pesto of porcini mushrooms, and a mustardy celeriac purée for which no name has yet been coined. (Celeritard? Puréeciac?) The platter is so beautiful, your hand will waver before making a first assault.
As the name implies, Balkanika is a Balkan restaurant that uses the cooking of the former Yugoslavia and other Slavic countries as a gastronomic launchpad, a region whose fare includes grilled ground meats, myriad goulashes, chopped salads, and flaky pastries stuffed with cheese, dairy, and vegetables. Located in Hell’s Kitchen, the restaurant is descended from Kashkaval a few blocks north on Ninth Avenue, offering a similar mix of cured meats, cheeses, composed salads, and bread dips in a wine-bar context. What Balkanika adds is a passel of Balkan hot dishes served as main courses. The cheeses and charcuterie also emphasize Eastern European products, as does the wine list.
This is all to the good, because the food of the Balkans is exceedingly agreeable, and severely underrepresented among Manhattan restaurants—though you can find plenty of Serbian, Albanian, Croatian, and Bosnian places in Astoria, while the East Village boasts a Serbian café (Kafana) and Slovakian hamburger joint (Korzo Haus). While Slav spots almost always represent single countries, Balkanika is resolutely pan-national, as if Yugoslavia were never sundered, and there was still a country called Czechoslovakia. The waitresses tend to be Slovenian—as one told me on a recent afternoon—while the owner is Macedonian.
The restaurant is deep and narrow, the walls plastered with random objects such as coffee grinders, blown-glass lamps, farm implements, basketed Chianti bottles, and musical instruments. A bar lies in back, where small tables are fitted into nooks, and trencher tables in the center accommodate extended Eastern European families and pre-theatergoers.
Watch the families dive into Balkan entrées like cevapcici ($14), skewers of onion-scented ground beef cooked over flame and oozing flavor. They come with a thick Turkish flatbread something like pizza bianco, along with ajvar (a red pepper paste) and kimek (a cultured dairy product similar to crème fraîche). Also fabulous are sarma—cabbage and grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice—and pepper dolma ($13), bell peppers bulging with the same mixture. But beware goulash’s starchiness: Tiny beef cubes are interspersed with lots of cubed potatoes and also lie atop mashed potatoes. If you love spuds, this dish is for you, bud.
Other hard-to-find Balkan specialties include bureks, flaky spiral pastries filled with beef, spinach, cheese, or leeks (pick the latter); and moussaka ($12), a makeshift lasagna that substitutes potatoes for noodles, attributed to Macedonia and quite a bit different from the Greek rendition. I’m not as fond of the composed salads here, because they tend to be blandly spiced, but love the charcuterie, which runs to such Balkan cured meats as basturma, cajna, alpino, soujuk, kobasica, and kulen—the first two are types of air-dried beef, the last four an intriguing collection of salami-like pork and beef sausages.
For the vino lover, though, the greatest utility of Balkanika might lie in its advocacy of Eastern European wines, sometimes at budget prices as low as $30 per bottle. While I couldn’t sample the whole list—which features 15 from Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Romania—I particularly dug a white Welschriesling from the Slavonia region of Croatia ($35). Less fragrant than Riesling, but with plenty of body, this ancient grape may have originated in the Champagne region of France.
Why did it migrate to the Balkans? It may have wanted to get a shot at accompanying some of those amazing bread dips.