Doing restaurant reviews has its dangers, especially at Yugoslav restaurants. I'm not talking about culinary retaliation for the NATO airstrikes on Belgrade not being from NATO countries, my dining partner and I were not worried on that account, anyway. No, the danger is entirely self-inflicted and comes from that fact that one's stomach can only hold so much food.
Before getting to the food, you come to a crossroads. On the one side, there is a small and rather Byzantine-looking church complete with ample-bearded priest and devout parishioners and on the other side, Boemi, where an attractive terrace is beginning to fill with diners in search of less holy pursuits. To walk into Boemi is to enter the doors of temptation, but the lure is strong; you give a quick and half-ashamed glance at the church and, before you know it, you're sitting at a laden table and making satisfied grunts of pleasure as you shovel the food inside.
And that's in the summer on the terrace, with the church still in sight. In the winter it must be even harder because the cozy and beautifully decorated rooms downstairs could easily trick diners into thinking they've been toiling in the fields all day and deserve nothing more than a great mountain of home-cooked delights. One of the rooms has something of an old monastery feel about it with its vaulted ceilings and stone walls. Another comes with a homely and enticing assortment of everyday objects and pictures of old Belgrade on the walls.
We two parasitic creatures had not done a minute's toil, unless you count the walk from the metro, but we nevertheless descended on the menu and soon had a good portion of it on our table. Our excuse was nostalgia. My personal quest was to see if these Yugoslavs could delight me with peppers and beans the way homesick Bulgarians had done back in my distant homeland. And my dining partner was obsessed by the bean soup with which a kind Montenegrin had sustained him during his hungry student years.
But first, we ordered the cheese plate (250 rubles) and sampled a salty feta-style cheese and a milder one that reminded me a bit of Georgian suluguni. My partner wanted vitamins and tried the shopsky salad (100 rubles) rather like a Greek salad with pieces of brinza cheese. I, meanwhile, assured myself that, yes, the Yugoslavs can compete with the Bulgarians in the pepper arena. The roast peppers cooked with oil, vinegar and garlic (170 rubles) were excellent.
And then came the beans. I have something of an obsession with beans as it is and when I saw prebranets, or white beans (170 rubles), on the menu, I knew what I had to eat. My partner had a similar feeling of destiny, when he came across the bean soup (160 rubles) with ham. I can't actually print verbatim what he said about the soup, but the adjectives were used in an unambiguously positive sense. Indeed, he pronounced the soup just as good as that of the Montenegrin who'd been doing it for 50 years. But then again, the head chef at Boemi is an authentic Serb and has probably also been cooking up his beans for quite some years.
The great thing about this food is that it's simple but eminently tasty. You might also call it hearty or a little heavy, depending on how much toiling you've done beforehand. It's not food for a sedentary lifestyle. It's also not a cuisine for vegetarians. I haven't ever met a Yugoslav vegetarian; the two things don't seem to go together. The main courses at Boemi are very meat-oriented, with a variety of lamb, beef, veal, pork and chicken dishes on offer. You can try them all if you take the meat plate (450 rubles).
My partner went for the beef wrapped in bacon (300 rubles), which he declared good but rather rich. I opted for a fish shashlyk from the smaller list of fish dishes. Served with garlic and potatoes, it was enjoyable, especially the chunks of salmon, which I found tastier than the sturgeon chunks.
By this time, however, we felt thoroughly weighed down in our gluttony and convinced that we were wallowing in enough oil to send OPEC prices tumbling. The answer, I proclaimed, was slivovitsa, the Balkan plum brandy with which I had washed down all those Bulgarian beans in the past. The odd thing was that slivovitsa was not on the drinks menu, which had an assortment of spirits, beers and wine, including Yugoslav wines. Nor did the waiter seem to know what it was. But a couple of Slavic brothers at the neighbouring table heard the note of desperation in my voice and told the waiter it was Yugoslav "samogon" moonshine.
The Yugoslav samogon promptly appeared and did wonders for our stomachs. It did such wonders that we had to have another shot. We already knew that we weren't going to sample Boemi's desserts. Had we wished to, the menu informed us that there was a choice between the succintly-put "tort" (110 rubles) or bliny (100 rubles), both of which suggested a distinct Russian influence.
It was at that point that we glanced again at the church, now deserted and sunk in darkness, and decided that there was wisdom in moderation. It was too late for our stomachs, of course, and for our wallets, too. One word of warning to those wishing to try the very real delights of Yugoslav samogon it comes at 160 rubles for a 50 gram shot over double the price for most of the other spirits on the menu.
But anyway, now I know why this restaurant's advertisement depicts a man looking as though he has just ploughed his way through the most extravagant feast and is about to slump over the table in replete bliss. It's a fair reflection of reality, but you might find yourself wanting to fast in penance the next day, or seized by a sudden urge to go toil in the fields.
1 Abrikovsky Per.