In addition to my New York restaurant reviews, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on random Eastern European restaurants I visit during my various trips. These posts may not always have the depth of my traditional reviews, so I won’t provide any ratings. I’m also unlikely to write about a place if it’s not noteworthy in some capacity.
Once upon a time during the Cold War, Paris had a fair number of Russian restaurants, selling the image of an early-20th century White Russia gorging on caviar and vodka while singing and dancing. The collapse of the U.S.S.R., however, was followed by a progressive loss of interest in (and a brutal update on the reality of) Russian culture, and most of these restaurants eventually closed. At the same time, the mass exodus from Eastern Europe to the West brought a variety of nationalities to Paris and elsewhere. Which is probably how we end up today with a place like Resto Ukraine, a restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, with a Ukrainian chef and an Uzbek waiter.
Call it my resolution for 2015: I’ve decided to extend (complete?) my collection of national dishes this year. I’ve already covered Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, maybe a couple more, so I’ve got, what, a mere 20 countries left? Today is Bosnia’s turn, with Bosanski Lonac.
Bosanski Lonac simply means “Bosnian pot”, which makes me wonder if locals really call it that. After all, French fries are simply called fries in France, and Belgian waffles are just waffles in Belgium. Anyway, this is essentially a stew prepared by alternating layers of large pieces of meat and vegetables into a deep pot, and covering the whole thing with water.
In Alija Lakišić’s Bosanski kuhar, a lengthy tome dedicated to the cuisine of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one can learn more about the origins of the dish. Bosnia has long been a mining area, and lonac was created in the Middle Ages by coal miners for practical reasons. The miners had to prepare their own meals, so while they were working they would leave a ceramic pot filled with a simple but hearty affair of meat chunks, potatoes, and a few vegetables, thrown in in layers, to cook slowly over a fire hearth, until lunch break. Pots were typically prepared for a group of people, and each pot was marked with the name of the group to avoid confusion. Later on, the dish spread beyond coal miners, and people started bringing their pots to bakeries, where they could be cooked slowly in the bread ovens once the baking was done.
I can’t believe I reviewed only six restaurants this year! That’s four less than last year, even though I still feel like I spent all my time eating Eastern European food. However, I can comfort myself by saying that my reviews are getting more thorough, and by looking at all of the many shorter restaurant reports and Red Alerts.
As a reminder, I rate the food on a scale from 0 to 10, and eateries are grouped into three categories: Recommended (rating > 6), Not worth a special visit (rating between 5 and 6), and Avoid (rating < 5). But this year, all the restaurants I’ve visited scored above 6! No disasters like Nasha Rasha (which is now closed, by the way), so I’m definitely not complaining.
Drawing by G. Valk
Before heading to France and Czech Republic for the next two weeks, I’d like to wish you all happy holidays! I plan to come back with enthusiastic (I hope!) reports on modern Czech cuisine, but in the meantime, if you’re still looking for ideas for your dinner parties, here’s a small selection of some of the finest recipes I posted this year.
A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!
When I reviewed Hospoda over three years ago, it got the best rating I ever gave on this blog. Unfortunately, the high quality of the food wasn’t enough to draw crowds, and the restaurant closed its doors last spring. It could have been the strange combination of fine dining, beer, and lack of white tablecloths. Or maybe the less than ideal location on a quiet street on the Upper East Side. But I think the most likely cause is that the phrase “Czech cuisine” conjures in New Yorkers minds’ images of afternoons in the boroughs at beer gardens, eating greasy sausages or bad goulash with their serial pitchers of brew.
Now Hospoda, still a part of Ambiente‘s Czech restaurant empire, has re-opened with a new model that meshes more closely with the local low standards. Chichi potato variations and obscure beef oyster blades are out; sausages and burgers are in. Will the beer grub have New York foaming at the mouth?
I have not yet started writing stories about my recent trip to Albania, but one of my surprising discoveries there was definitely the food. Albanian cuisine reflects the country’s geographical variety (from sea to mountain) and the cultural influences of its neighbors (Greece, former Yugoslavia, and Italy, just across the Straight of Otranto).
Today’s recipe is inspired by a dinner I had in Gjirokastra, at the restaurant Kujtimi. Although Gjirokastra is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River in southern Albania, it’s only an hour away from the sea line, and the menu at Kujtimi offers grilled meats, as well as fried mussels, trout, and frogs’ legs. There are also a few local specialties, such as qifqi, rice balls with egg and herbs. Since most of these dishes are prepared very simply and served without garnish, I chose to combine several of them on a single plate, with a few personal additions.
OK, OK, I promise I won’t bug you with my off-topic work stuff for a while after this, but I just published a piece about Chef Watson on MUNCHIES: I’m Happy to Have a Computer Help Me Cook Better. The article focuses on the history of cookbooks, which you might find interesting even if you don’t care about Cognitive Cooking. (Reminder: you can request access to the app here.)
Aaah, Odessa: the legendary Potemkin Stairs, the mail-order brides, the mafia… and the Privoz Market.
The Privoz was created in 1827, originally as a handful of horse-driven carts next to the older Stary bazaar. As more buildings were constructed, it slowly became the largest food market in Odessa, and it remains so. Don’t expect any neoclassical splendor like Saint-Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor, however. Privoz nowadays is a chaotic, busy market that sells food, clothes, and everything else, in a maze of outdoor food stalls and covered halls that won’t impress you with their architecture.
What might surprise you, though, is the variety of food on display. Especially seafood.
You might remember that apart from this blog, my day job as a software engineer has been all about Chef Watson — the app that helps you discover never-seen-before recipe ideas — and I have a couple of announcements to share just in time for the start of the holiday season:
- We just released a new interface for Chef Watson. You can read all about it here, and sign up here. So go ahead, answer the quick survey, and start making some crazy recipes!
And since this is a Russian food blog and not some sponsored content provided by IBM, here’s a recipe for Eastern European Salmon Kebab. The instructions might need some minor tweaks, but the ingredients don’t sound half-bad:
Here’s a bite-sized dish to kick-off the holiday season in style! This very Russian combination seamlessly mixes poor and rich man’s ingredients, with potato and brains on one hand, and king crab and sturgeon caviar on the other. It’s not the first time I’ve paired crab and caviar (see here), and I’ve also posted recipes for pork brains and veal brains before. Combining the brains with crab, however, proves to be particularly successful, resulting in a creamy mixture that’s both delicious and approachable — the brains are nearly unrecognizable.
This makes for a great amuse-bouche with a drink before dinner. It’s just salty enough to make you thirsty, and rich enough to help you absorb the alcohol. And so you won’t be mistaken, this is to be consumed with moderation: after excluding water content, almost 50% of both pork brains and caviar is fat. And I won’t even talk about the potato chips and butter…