Stuffed Burek and Cevapi Live in Astoria


Ever since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, New York City has been flooded with Balkan restaurants. Bosnian establishments led the way, including some run by Bosniak Muslims who had survived the Siege of Sarajevo. But there were also Serbian, Montenegrin, and Croatian establishments, turning Western Queens into a destination for food of the Balkans; as animosities fade, we’re seeing new combinations on menus that would have been unlikely a decade ago.

Take Selo (“village” in Slavic), which opened well over a year ago at 3305 Broadway in Astoria two blocks east of the N train. The restaurant merges the food of the Balkans via hosts Suzana and Elvis Tominovic. She’s from Serbia and he’s from Montenegro; Ms. Tominovic’s sister, Sanja Colic, is the chef.

Pastas originating in Istria — where Lidia Bastianich is from — combining Balkan and Italian influences, form the bulk of the purely Croatian offerings on Selo’s menu. Fuzi ($19.50) is the most wonderful, pasta folded into envelopes and tossed on the plate like an explosion in the post office. The sauce is a light veal ragu, perfect to showcase the pasta’s slippery texture without overwhelming it. Selo’s take on Istrian gnocchi (spelled njoki) is also worth trying. Presented en casserole, it features bouncy potato knurls swimming in a heavy surf of cheese and cream. Ask for bread to sop up the sauce.

As you’re eating your Istrian pasta, cast your eye around the restaurant. The front room boasts a long bar from which Croatian, Slovenian, Portuguese, and Californian wines flow. There’s also a beguiling collection of Croatian and Serbian lagers, as well as indigenous aperitifs and digestifs, including strong Serbian fruit brandies. As far as I’m concerned, beer goes best with this grub.

Across from the brick-backed bar, the front dining area displays stout ropes zigzagging up the walls, in reference to Croatia’s Adriatic coastline. I prefer the back room, boasting a skylight through which one can often glimpse the moon, and a wall of tree trunks in cross-sections fitted together, perhaps apropos the forests of land-locked Serbia.

The dishes both countries have in common form the heart of the menu. While bureks —cheese-filled filo pastries — are often shaped and sized like spare tires, this variant is configured like a snail ($9.50). The cheese filling is particularly lush so that it oozes as guests break off sections and dip them in the accompanying yogurt.

At this point, the meal is likely to turn meaty. Cevapi are the stubby sausages of the Balkans: Five to an order ($10.50) and made from a combination of beef and veal, they come with ajvar (red pepper paste), a homemade pita, chopped raw onions, and, optionally, kajmak ($2.50 more) — a dense dairy product, like a cross between butter and sour cream.

A whorl of flaky pastry.
Snail-shaped burek filled with cheese at Selo.
Robert Sietsema/Eater NY
The same kajmak comes in the most unusual dish on Selo’s menu: karadjordjeva ($22.50). This veal schnitzel rolled into a tube looks innocent enough until you slice into it and a white filling spurts out. It’s a lot of meat and dairy for one person to eat, and the accompanying tartar sauce and shredded cabbage (go ahead, make coleslaw) and irresistible cubed potatoes constitute a voluminous feed. Other one-plate meals include a gorgeous yellow bell pepper stuffed with nothing but meat in a light sauce made of fresh tomatoes, and a giant hamburger of pork and beef filled with bacon, cheese, and onion — there’s nothing light about that, either.

You want light? Two excellent soups are offered, veal with vegetables in a milky emulsified broth or chicken noodle soup: Order one. There’s a notable salad, too, a marvelous affair of cubed tomatoes and cucumbers heaped with snowy cheese in a vinaigrette that is pretty near perfect. This shopska perhaps came from Turkey via the Ottoman Empire, which occupied the Balkans for centuries and left behind many of its foodways.

Like most new restaurants these days, the list of desserts is predictable and perfunctory, but one stands out. Walnut cake ($9.50) is made with crushed walnuts instead of flour, and lots of eggs and butter. The texture is sublimely nutty, a study in beige. And now it wouldn’t be out of place to have a glass of quince brandy: After such a voluminous and delicious meal, you’ll need it to settle your stomach.

A square of beige cake dusted with powdered sugar.
Don’t miss the walnut cake!

Source: eater