Food Fight: Battle Ajvar
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Bosnian and Serbian food is currently occupying the space that Ethiopian or Korean food did 10 or 20 years ago: Once considered obscure and highly exotic, it's now on the cusp of becoming mainstream. Similarly, one of the cuisine's most popular dishes -- the bright-red dip called ajvar -- is also becoming more common on tables and menus across the city.
We first came across ajvar when dining at Cafe Pita + a couple of short years ago. Since then, we've purchased a jar or two at Phoenicia whenever we make it out to the far west side and keep in the pantry and snack on, feeling indulgent but not unhealthy. It's made mostly of roasted red peppers and eggplant, pureed and mixed with garlic and olive oil. Slightly chunky and tinged with a hint of spice, NPR refers to it as "Serbian salsa." Unlike salsa, it's traditionally served with crusty bread and is very much a fall and winter dish.
Ajvar is cropping up in unlikely places these days, as seen in this week's food fight, as more people are coming to enjoy the sweet, slightly smoky, tangy dip with their food.
13 Celsius, 3000 Caroline
This wine bar in a renovated 1927 Midtown building sits next door to a fortune cookie factory, which rivals the Sunbeam Bakery for "best scent in town." The smell of baking fortune cookies might seem odd as you're quaffing a glass of semillon, but the menu at 13 Celsius is similarly diverse and the confluence of different sights, smells and cuisines somehow works perfectly.
One of the items for sale on the small but well-chosen bar menu is ajvar. It comes served in a ramekin that at first seems like it won't hold enough of the dip and several fat slices of freshly baked bread. It turns out that there is actually plenty of ajvar for both you and another person to split over a glass of similarly spicy red.
We asked sommelier Marc Borel if 13 Celsuis made its own ajvar in-house (this would be quite unusual). He shook his head no, and instead produced a glass jar of Roland-brand ajvar. We had never seen this type for sale, and Borel said that 13 Celsius imported it. The Roland-brand ajvar had a sweetness to it and a bit more heat than we'd tasted in previous ajvars, and we'll be seeking it out on our own soon enough.
Cafe Pita +, 10890 Westheimer
As it's been discussed at length in the Houston Press and elsewhere -- and even featured recently on the Food Network television show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives -- there isn't much left to be said about Cafe Pita that hasn't already been said. It's the most glorious kind of hole in the wall, serving excellent food at decent prices. It's as simple as that.
The ajvar served at Cafe Pita comes alongside triangles of gently fried, mild white cheese that's made at the restaurant. The cheese is slightly salty, which is a nice offset to the bright, sweet ajvar. Although we'd prefer more ajvar (the cheese-to-dip ratio is slightly off), it's an excellent start to a hearty meal of cevap or burek.
Like 13 Celsuis, Cafe Pita also serves a jarred ajvar: the ZerGut brand, which is what we purchase for ourselves at Phoenicia. It's excellent, and barely differs from the Roland brand that we tried at 13 Celsius. Both are bright, slightly chunky and zesty, although the ZerGut brand is definitely the more mild of the two.
There's no clear-cut winner here. As both establishments use jarred ajvar, the dip is too similar to have a clear favorite. And both places are charming and inviting in their own ways. It's really up to you at this point: 13 Celsius allows you to enjoy your ajvar in an elegant yet relaxed setting with excellent wine or cocktails, before moving on to a Spanish meat plate or an Italian-inspired panini. Cafe Pita allows you to enjoy it in a cozy, homey atmosphere soaked in authenticity and as comfortable as eating dinner in your own living room. What's your pick?
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