In 1855 a two legged, cloven hoofed creature left footprints in fresh snow that stretched over 100 miles in a small village in Devon, South England. People awoke to mass religious hysteria and claimed that the devil had risen from hell to roam their gardens, leaving prints on either side of solid concrete walls and locked doors. The ‘Mystery of the Devils Footprints’ was never solved, and remains a fascinating riddle with no answer to this day.
Why in the name of all that is still holy Madera Restaurant is as popular as it is, however, is a far greater mystery. Week after week, day after day, the place is packed with people celebrating, hobnobbing, scheming, drinking and unfortunately for them, eating.
I will not enter into the full litany of catastrophic failures on the part of this establishment (and it is an establishment, a Belgrade institution in fact, as much a part of the culture of the city as corner kiosk Pljeka stands) because I have limited space and no-one on earth has that much time, even Serbs. The highlights of my misery though, began with making the mistake of allowing the waiter to persuade me to order the ‘special’ (kitchen trickery for offloading what’s about to go bad) which was Monkfish wrapped in bacon with polenta. Oh, what a time I had dissecting this dish! Actual, full-blown LOL’s erupted from me when this grey, shapeless, foul-smelling plate of ‘food’ was laid before me.
Over cooked fish takes on a rubbery texture; luckily for the many dignitaries with bulletproof cars outside they could freely have borrowed my kevlar monkfish to repair any punctures caused by stray bullets. The bacon was of the heavily smoked variety so favoured by cooks here and fatty, watery and undercooked; which is ironic considering the amount of time the fish had obviously spent in the oven. Apart from the near toxic levels of sodium present seasoning consisted of black pepper, of the variety that is pre-ground, laced with preservatives and distributed in supermarket-friendly sealed packets. One lonely, solitary, sad little mushroom stood by, desperately trying to lift the dish. It was like a well-dressed lady at a funeral; it gave me something to look at amidst all the suffering.
To the restaurant’s credit, the service is excellent, and not by the usual Belgrade standards. The staff are quick and attentive and the waiter appeared and asked if I was enjoying my Monkfish. After explaining why I’d rather watch Hilary and Donald fist each other with Crisco than consume this debacle he whisked it away and presented me with Leskovacki Cevapcici. Ah, frozen chips, still raw inside, the nostalgia to my school days in England that you evoke! I do like my meat rare, but cevapcici which are solid pink in the middle and not exactly hot all the way through and still microwave soggy is not acceptable. They didn’t charge me for either dish, and apologised, more points in their favour.
Literally across the street, on the other side of a confusing junction, stands the bastion of consistency, the old standby, McDonalds. I heartily recommend the far more enjoyable trip for a Big Tasty burger and fries. I’ve often contended that the Serbian McDonalds is the best in the world. In London and New York only homeless people work there and you’re given true garbage. Here, you get exactly what you’re promised on the pictures and billboard commercials, and you get it with pretty Serbian smiling lips, with no crack-pipe burns.
People have told me, you don’t go to Madera for the food, you go for the atmosphere. And what atmosphere might that be, fear? Microphones in the flower pots? The faint aroma of the 90’s still wafting through the place? The ghost of communism past?
In Madera the waiter presented me with a wine list, leather bound and weighing one and a half kilos, with pages and pages of wines from all over the world, then turned to the last page with the title ‘Serbia and Montenegro’ declaring, “These are all we have in stock at the moment.” When I go to a kafana, I get a litre of table wine, a big penis shaped karadjordjeva snicla, and a sopska salata. Im not expecting a wine list, or imported olive oil. And they don’t pretend to have one.
As an Englishman living in Serbia, I can see that the strength of this country lies in its authenticity. When it’s being real, it’s at its best. When they fake it, it sucks. Sava Mala or Sava Nova, anyone? Every ‘fancy’ spot in town is guilty of this fronting. Unfortunately for this place, down to the very last consumable item on the menu, including the burnt, watery, bitter coffee, stale biscuits, congealed, refrigerated desserts and actually even the glass of water I was given, there is not a scale of judgement on earth that I can employ that has a sliding level low enough in order to award it some kind of score. Perhaps the global collective of theoretical physicists might one day dream up an alternative dimension or two that includes a number far below absolute zero, in which case I might feel comfortable awarding it. I assure you however, I will not be dining, or even entering into this establishment in any of them.