Restaurant Reviews

Balkan Grill & Market

Balkanska plata mala, the "Balkan mixed plate" for two at the Balkan Grill, was a heaping platter of grilled chicken, burger patties, kebabs, sausages and French fries served with cut-up pieces of the thick pita-like Bosnian bread called somun in a basket on the side.

I was disappointed that the mixed grill wasn't served with my favorite Bosnian accompaniments — minced raw onions, the creamy cheese spread called ­kajmak and the bright red pepper-and-­eggplant spread called ajvar. So I sent the waitress back for all three. After she returned with the condiments, I proceeded to make petite two-bite sandwiches out of chunks of meat and bread, as is tradition. It was more food than three of us could eat.

The long, shiny smoked sausages called sudzuka were the stars of the show; they tasted like the long, thin breakfast sausages you find at Central Texas meat markets. But in fact, like most meat products from predominantly Muslim Bosnia, they were made with beef rather than pork.

The fat ground beef fingers called cevapcici are the most popular dish in Bosnia. The ones at Balkan Grill were wonderfully spicy but a little too rubbery. The chicken breast and chicken kebabs were bland, but the hamburger patty-like pleskavica was excellent. The beef kebabs were served on the skewer with charred onions, peppers and tomatoes, but the meat itself was overdone and dry. And unfortunately, the somun bread chunks had that unpleasant microwaved texture.

Now that we have two Bosnian restaurants in town, we actually have a basis for comparison. When I reviewed the other Bosnian restaurant, Pita + on Westheimer near Wilcrest ["Balkan Barbecue," April 5], I met some Bosnian friends there to see what they thought. So this time, I invited one of the same Bosnians to join me at Balkan Grill & Market for lunch. Then I asked her what she thought. She shared her opinions, but she didn't want me to use her name.

She was very impressed by the decor. It features mottled, mustard-colored plaster walls. The dining area is broken up by a split-level floor plan, with lots of little niches for privacy. The oversize chairs are very comfortable and seem to be designed for hanging out. There's a tiny bar in the back and a charming display case featuring a collection of the copper pots and decorated plates used to serve coffee in Bosnia and Turkey. The walls are covered with photographs of Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia. My Bosnian friend told me that Herzegovina is famous for its eels, in case you were wondering what to order the next time you are there.

"People in the Bosnian community in Houston love the food at Pita +," she said. "But this place is a lot fancier. The owner really put some money into fixing it up."

Cevaps and other grilled meats are the Bosnian foods that Americans usually love, and the Balkan Grill does a fine job with them, but I was much more interested in the rest of the menu. Maybe because I've eaten the sausages and burgers before, or maybe it was the cold weather, but I just couldn't get enough of Balkan Grill's soups and stewed dishes.

On a previous visit, I had sampled a steaming bowl of gulas (goulash) on a cold, rainy day. The spicy beef stew was made with ­falling-apart-tender beef chunks, piquant paprika and tomato sauce and served over our choice of rice, noodles or mashed potatoes. I went with the potatoes. The simple beef, pepper and tomato stew was very similar to Texas chili, and it made me wonder why I never eat chili con carne with ­potatoes.

I also tried the Bosnian beef, cabbage and vegetable stew called bosanski lonac. It reminded me of a bowl of smashed-up stuffed cabbage rolls in beef broth.

My Bosnian friend suggested we start our lunch by sharing a bowl of the intriguing begova corba. "Corba" means "soup," and "begova" refers to a Turkish military rank like lieutenant colonel, so in the Ottoman culture, the name means that this is a refined dish for officers rather than peasant fare, she said. The unusual soup contained tender meat chunks, the usual peas, carrots and potatoes, and lots of fluffy white things that looked like dumplings. They turned out to be soft-cooked cauliflower florets.

We also sampled the wonderful sogan dolma, which literally means "stuffed onions." Balkan Grill serves three small, cooked onions stuffed with a seasoned ground meat-and-rice mixture and then stewed in a brothy tomato sauce. It's not really a whole stuffed onion, but rather four or five of an onion's outer layers with a meatball shoved inside.

My mother called stuffed cabbage rolls "holupki." They were one of my favorite childhood foods, and I still make them all the time. Bosnian sarma are nearly identical. They're made with the same ground beef and rice-and-onion stuffing, and they're rolled up in cabbage leaves and stewed in a tomato sauce, just like Mom's holupki. Balkan Grill's sarma are excellent, although they are about half the size of the ones I am used to — to me, they look like miniature cabbage rolls.

When I first tasted sarma, I immediately felt an affinity for Bosnian food. But as I learned more, I realized that the Bosnians are far more advanced in making dolmas (stuffed things) than the bunch of peasants I am descended from.

Stuffed vegetables are the shining glory of Bosnian cuisine. They stuff cabbage leaves, grape leaves, tomatoes, eggplant, onions and anything else they can think of. My Bosnian friend described an original creation of hers in which a roasted eggplant is hollowed out and then a stuffed onion is set inside of it. It sounded like the Bosnian version of a ­turducken.

Stuffing most vegetables is pretty easy, she said, except for onions. Sogan dolma is the Ph.D exam for Bosnian vegetable stuffers. It's extremely difficult to cook the onion to the perfect point — flexible enough to stuff, but not so soft that it falls apart after being cooked again. As I cut one in half, I tried to pause to admire the craftsmanship before I shoved it in my mouth. Mostly, I just liked the way it tasted.

"I'll have a Bosnian coffee," my friend told the waitress.

"I'll have one too," I said. Having a Bosnian coffee is not like knocking back a quick cup of joe — it's a social occasion.

Coffee first arrived in Bosnia with the Turks, and during the 450 years of Ottoman rule, the coffeehouse became the center of the ­neighborhood.

The preparation of Turkish-style coffee is very complex. The powdery coffee grounds are slowly cooked with cold water over a gentle heat source in a ­single-­serving copper ewer until the highly desirable foam forms on top and the fine grounds sink to the bottom. There are various methodologies; some call for double or triple heating.

Our coffees arrived on two ornate copper platters. On each platter, there was a teaspoon and a saucer with a small, white cup with no handle. Inside the cup were two sugar cubes. There was also a long-handled copper ewer full of foamy hot coffee. On another small plate was a cube of the candy called lokum, or Turkish delight.

You pick up the ewer and pour your hot coffee over the sugar cubes and stir with the teaspoon to dissolve them. The unfiltered coffee is hellaciously strong. You're supposed to sip it slowly, pausing for sips of water to cleanse the palate. The rosewater-and-lemon-flavored lokum is like a big sweet jelly cube, and it makes a nice dessert.

"Are you supposed to drink this sludge?" I asked my Bosnian friend, looking at the thick layer of grounds in the bottom of the cup.

"No, you are supposed to turn the cup over onto the saucer so I can read your fortune," she said. I followed her ­instructions.

"Is this part of the Bosnian coffee ritual?" I asked.

"Absolutely," she said. "Among Bosnian women, anyway." After a couple of minutes, she picked up my cup. There were some rounded shapes on the saucer that matched the curve of the cup. "See the lips?" she said. "There are lots of kisses in your future."

She pointed to a glob of grounds inside the cup that bore an uncanny resemblance to a turtle head and said, "Something good is coming to you, but it is coming very slowly."

A little tasseomancy, as the witchcraft of coffee grounds is known, can turn a cup of coffee into a dreamy afternoon.

Share the grilled meat platter at the Balkan Grill with a few friends. Or visit on a cold winter day and try some of the terrific soups and stews. But if you're going to have a Bosnian coffee, be prepared to sit a spell.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh