Dining: Balkan culinary treasures

Rediscovering the cuisines of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Eatwith Balkan culinary experience. (photo credit: PR)
Eatwith Balkan culinary experience.
(photo credit: PR)
Eran Elhalal made a long detour on his way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, much to the delight of diners who partake of the feasts he serves up in his home several times a month.
From his Sarajevan grandmother’s kitchen, to New York’s CIA, to Manhattan’s theater and Soho districts, the chef of the acclaimed Saro Bistro has joined forces with Eatwith.com to celebrate the gastronomic legacy of two great empires that once ruled the Balkan states.
“The conflict between the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the rival Ottoman Empire left its influences from both cultures on the Balkan region,” Elhalal explains. “My dishes have their origin primarily in Bosnian cuisine, and especially the Dalmatian coast. In the winter months, I tend more towards the former, with its emphasis on stews. In warmer weather, I lean more toward the Ottoman, whose climate is closer to ours in Israel.”
Elhalal (who sold Saro in 2014 in order to return to Israel, where he now imports wines and spirits from the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia) sums up his niche as "comfort food you didn’t eat when you grew up.”
At the dinner I attended, we numbered 10, the minimum Elhalal will cook for (the maximum is 16). We fit comfortably around one long table, and the mood was extremely convivial.
I arrived early to chat with the chef and watched him braid mini-loaves of halla, which he makes from the dough of lepinja, Bosnian flatbread.
Lepinja is served at every meal to accompany the first course (there are always seven or eight), but Elhalal likes to vary the shape the bread will take.
By the time the first diners arrived, the table was already set with a platter of exotic charcuterie and cheeses, to be eaten with the lepinja – but only after an opening toast with a rakija (or rakia) aperitif, a spirit distilled from fruits (apricots in this instance). We drank it straight from authentic, imported small carafes; the pleasant, glowing warmth was felt immediately.
The charcuterie was accompanied by two kinds of white cheese: a Bulgarian kashkaval and Dishonit, perked up by a homemade relish called aljvar – a vegetarian caviar made of chopped red peppers and eggplant.
Because there were to be two more servings of alcoholic spirits during the meal, wine was not offered by our host but diners were invited to bring their own. Three couples did just that and were willing to share with everyone else.
The second course was gibanica, a generic term for a baked cheese dish that can be either savory or sweet. In our case, the muffin-shaped treat fell into the former category. Served with kefir, a liquidy yogurt playing the role of a dipping sauce, the gibanica was light and airy yet substantial. If I didn’t know that six more courses were coming, I would have devoured half a dozen more.
Next came sopska, a crunchy vegetable salad garnished with grated white cheese and dressed with a slightly spicy red wine vinegar and oil dressing. It was refreshing and ideally portioned as a prelude to course number four, which was a nod to the region of the Balkans that abuts Italy, but only after another shot of rakija, this time made from quince. It was a nice palate cleanser.
The pasta course consisted of handcrafted Istrian Peninsula fettuccine with green ful (fava beans). Perfectly al dente, it was paired handsomely with Elhalal’s homemade wine and basil sauce and imported aged Parmesan cheese.
Course number five was braised beef, cooked for 12 hours in a rich sauce combining red wine, dark molasses and a stock made from root vegetables. The beef melted in our mouths, while the sauce cried out for mopping up with more lepinja.
The next course continued the slow-cooked theme: a delicious dish of lamb roasted for eight hours, with broad beans and red cabbage.
Our dessert course was krofne, a Bosnian version of miniature doughnuts with apricot jam on the side – excellent for dredging up the sweet balls of fried dough dusted with sugar.
Naturally, dessert would be incomplete without our host’s digestif: pelinkovac, a Balkan version of slivovitz, distilled from grapes and grape seed and steeped with a twig of juniper. (Warning: the resulting concoction is 60% alcohol.) The bonus course was another dessert: homemade marzipan, just right with the slightly bitter demitasse of Turkish coffee. Rather than the gooey consistency I was used to, this marzipan was like a crispy, almond-based halva.
As with all Eatwith meals, dinner is prepaid with your reservation. The cost of the feast is NIS 225.
Exploring Culinary Treasures Left by Long-Lost Empires, Not kosher
http://www.eatwith.com/ host/9180/