Over 100 years ago, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University sat in his favourite chair, made of cedar wood, as his loving and demure wife served him his favourite noodle udon noodle dish for dinner. He lovingly patted her on her small, Asian bottom, and sent her away to the kitchen. After taking a loud, sloppy slurp of his noodle broth, and chewing carefully, he swallowed, and a look of surprised consternation dawned across his face. He hurriedly drank some more and chopsticked another serving of floury noodles into his mouth, his chewing motions wide-eyed and cow-like, then flung his bowl across the room where it shattered into a thousand pieces, noodles and broth everywhere.
‘Aaiiiiiiiii…. Husband, what is the matter?’ Akari, his flat-bottomed wife cowered in the corner, well seasoned udon noodles sticking to her hair bun.
‘Shut up, woman!’ Kikunae exclaimed. ‘What have you done differently to my udon noodle soup?’ He ran over to her and closed his hands around her throat.
Akari whimpered, tears running down her face. ‘I….I added some kelp leaves, to try something different…. I’m sorry!!’
Kikunae’s crazed face broke out into a wide maniacal grin. ‘Noooo…’ He kissed her joyfully on her cheek. ‘You’re a genius! I have finally discovered to chemical properties of the human glutamate receptors. Take an extra thousand Yen with you to the household shopping trip tomorrow, you deserve it..!’ With another flourished kiss, he released her and ran, bounding ecstatically back to the university lab. Akari filed for divorce the following morning.
This was the moment in culinary history when the ‘umami’ flavour was identified, awarded its own status as one of the 5 main basic tastes and eventually synthesized into a distilled artificial additive. Monosodium glutamate or MSG, as its more commonly known, exists naturally, and despite its use as a flavour enhancer, occurs in many types of food as a savory element. What the Japanese might not expect, is that many of those foods are staples of Serbian cuisine. This knowledge has not escaped the head chef at New Balkan Cuisine (henceforth known as NBC), who has built his main dishes and large parts of his menu around this special aromatic essence, this elusive and much sought after savory taste.
This restaurant is not quite the second coming of the Messiah, but almost. In fact, it means much more to me that this place has finally opened up than any religiosity. I have wondered for many years as to why the unique nature of the Balkan kitchen doesn’t have its modern, molecular interpretation. I’ve often lamented that many of the national dishes, and much of the special nature and strongly held notions of the northern Balkan kitchen have remained in the doldrums for so long. The Greeks have theirs… I worked in the kitchen of the flagship Michelin establishment in Micro Limano called Varoulko, a restaurant with two stars that showcased the Greek national kitchen in the most favourable light, and ever since then have wondered when we would have our Serbian counterpart. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s here, and it’s on Sarajevska Ulica. Number 54, to be exact, on the first floor of an apartment building. No bulletproof gangster wagons outside, no silicon hookers (despite the fact that the red lights outside and subdued balcony actually make it look like a high class brothel from the outside… for me, points in its favour), and it will stay that way because posers won’t be able to park their flash mobiles outside where anyone can see them. Off to Diagonala they go… and good riddance. NBC is a temple, a temple of flavour.
The door is opened and you are welcomed by a Maitre’d who notices my obvious visual appreciation of her neon green Asics sneakers… I’m wearing my black on blacks. She informs me that it is actually part of the uniform for the staff to wear them. I could have been served a Big Mac after this statement and still loved the place.
The atmosphere here is young, unpretentious, and artless. Literally artless, seeing as the walls, floor, tables and furnishings are all completely bare; there’s nothing to distract you from the plates here. The bathroom is so welcoming i didn’t mind even sharing a bar of soap with the patrons to wash my hands. Judging by the clientele we’d probably all shared each other’s DNA by now anyway. Minimalism is a religion here, and whatever chants, donations or silly hats they’d want to wear I’d sign up my soul in an instant.
The sommelier approached and did an excellent job of being the nicest guy in the world without pissing me off with intrusiveness (every French cunt ever, take note). There are nothing but Balkan wines on the menu, and yes, regional pride (emoji fist) but this precludes them from ever being awarded a Michelin star. I would wager heavily the chef, in true Serbian style, ga baš boli. Despite the Balkans being far from ideal grape cultivation territory and the winery tradition heavily focused on fresh and young, unrefined wines, there are some middle range bottles produced in this region, and every one of the decent vintages are available here; the sommelier knows his business, despite his limited choice.
I am aware that NBC adapts the menu each month, according to the seasonal availability of ingredients. This means I have come at the most meager time of the year to test his skills, in the very depths of winter. Far from shuddering the role aside the chef embraces his resources and offers up the most wintery flavours and truly mid-season presentation also. Bare twigs, pinecones, the tiniest green saplings and active charcoal make up the garnishes. Presentation of the beef heart is served up on a giant, and I mean half a meter long, charred slab of wood with the entire bleached collarbone of the cow acting as a plate for the proja and pate, strawberry caviar dish. Creative, over the top, out of this world, fun, and sensory input inspired.
The amuse bouche is a bite of wafer, watery jelly and saturated with strong, goaty cheese. The forest jumps and stings… My bouche was genuinely amused. Mercifully the second course was served with cutlery so I, and my dinner companion, were not forced to devour our meal with our hands. A savory tart, which is truly among the top three bites I have ever placed in my mouth (and that includes an In ‘n Out burger), with the pinecone saying hello over on the side of the plate. Flaky, crispy, not overly salty, in fact, verging on the sweet. Incredibly well balanced, cheesy, airy, and FUN. The pinecone is a comical (conical??) touch. I kept it, like the squirrel from Ice Age, the metaphor of the desperately hungry rodent ran strongly in my mind, as so far NBC more and more seemingly occupied the role of my holy grail, my precious, my sought after dream.
Next, sharp and meaty chicken liver, puffed and flavoured beetroot pastry crisps, in a mini Oreo sandwich. The tiny, baby sprig of garnish balanced both the color and taste palates perfectly. The flavours of this particular bite took me on a magic carpet ride, replete with thieving Arab peasant vocalist and screechy monkey. Shocking savory delivery, ultimately sweet and caramel satisfaction; the aftertaste lingers, thankfully, for its delectable degustation is matched only by the sudden knowledge that, despite the urge to eat a bucket of these, Colonol Sanders style, would be excessive for it was rich and indulgent to the point of arterial collapse. Thank heavens, because this threesome outranks any erotically similar experience I’ve ever had. Forest strawberry sweetness, beetroot sharpness, and chicken liver buttery umame stability punched me in the face, then apologized, then massaged my prostate.
The second meat course was delivered to me with an explanation that the endangered species of cow that was used to make the heart pate was now, thankfully, being slaughtered once again for our consumption. Hoorah. Eat it to save it. Incidentally, NBC partners with an organic micro-producing dairy farm, which supplies them with the finest cheeses and meats available anywhere in the country, and are organically certified. Meaty. Corn bread, satisfying, grandmas goodness. Mini disc upon proja upon buttery, rich, wintery heaven. Again, perfectly balanced, the tiniest touch of sweetness coming from a strawberry caviar that both splashed the dish with color and lifted the note of butter to a tiny reminiscence of jammy lightness.
Who in Serbia would tolerate a fucking sorbet?? Bring me some SOUP. Marrow stock (a single, not a double stock, no Blumenthal fakery here), served table side and incredibly fragrant. Mountain tea flowers, ebullient flavours and elements, maintaining the wintery feel and rich, savory context. Like all Michelin quality ravioli, this solitary piece is flawless and exemplary of the quality experienced throughout my meal so far. That is to say, FLAWLESS. The question began to pervade me… what the fuck is going on here? I’m just waiting for the disaster…. there has to be a failure incoming, there just has to. We’re on course for a full 10 out of 10 so far, and this simply cannot happen. We’re in SERBIA for god’s sake, something has to disappoint me.
I am served the ultimate egg Mcmuffin. A perfectly cooked egg, on top of a slice of homemade white bread, spread with ajvar, topped with fried vegetable crisps. I could eat this for breakfast every day. I could almost hear the skeptical majmun exclaiming, ‘pa moja baba pravi bolje’. I don’t even know your grandma and brother, no she doesn’t. Still, eggs on bread, if it wasn’t so representative of Serbian cuisine, it would seem out of place by comparison. It’s inclusion on the menu is perhaps surprising, as breakfast food is not usually served in this fashion. At the Fat Duck in Bray, however, I was served bacon and egg ice cream and told that seeing as I had been there for four hours eating, it was now in fact, time for breakfast. I think we all know Serbs who wake up at 5.00pm, so in keeping with the authenticity, I suppose.
The main course was a triple mushroom ravioli. Serbia has world class mushrooms, the perfect climate for producing truly excellent fungi; this dish exhibits them. Artichokes, vegetable gel, steamed milk gel, springy, resilient, meaty ravioli offset by a perfect sized portion. Filling, and gently so. Seasoned, not salted, with umame EEEEEeeeverywhere.
The very best restaurants in the world bridge their savory dishes with neutrals, sometimes copping out with sorbets; I was not expecting a pre-desert, and I think I played it cool. The waitress didn’t notice me wipe away a tear from my eye and sob gently into a little Serbian flag napkin. The pride one must feel watching their infant son go off to kindergarten for the first time resonated with me as I was served mature, world-class fare… Go, run, be free with the animals, Serbia, you have stood on two legs and joined the pride. Elton John could write the symphonic piece for a Disney musical version of my dinner experience at NBC, so full of emotion was I at all moments.
It was the ideal pre desert…. in keeping with the restrained use of salt everywhere previously, this is a golden gate between the savory and the sweet. No excess of sugar here, the sweetness is provided by the crunchy cocoa flakes. Beetroot sorbet, protected under a snug blanket of stiff yoghurt, bursting forth with its menstrual-esque appearance and chilled, soft texture. Eat me, even surfing the crimson wave.
I will refrain from describing the desert, I wish to leave some surprises for anyone who makes the superb decision to visit this establishment. Chefs with balls come to greet their customers and bask in the well-deserved glory of exuberant compliments, and the CHILD who came to greet me who cannot even be 30 years old has a truly glittering career ahead of him. If the neo-con and Western oppressive establishment would release their death-grip on Serbian exports, we could have a superstar of culinary excellence on our hands. The passion with which the kitchen executes their menu here is intense… It is evident in every bite. I don’t make friends with owners and chefs in this country, I make my reservations over the phone, I don’t ask for special treatment, and ne kurčim se with people. I don’t give a shit. I am an exacting, demanding asshole, and I tolerate no slipups with food preparation. Apologies to all the Homa-sexuals out there (see previous article) I love you, and you’re great, but there’s a new Tzar, and all must bow before the NBC.