Belgrade’s restaurant revolution
A new breed of eateries is revolutionizing Belgrade's culinary scene. (Doug McKinlay/LPI)
If it wasn’t for the notably youthful and moneyed-up crowd, Belgrade’s Restaurant Talas (Kej Oslobođenja 37, Zemun; 00-381-63-556-678) would be utterly traditional. The band in the buzzing riverside duplex played soulful Balkan folk tunes that everyone seemed to know, and nearby, a waiter replaced an enormous starter of meats and cheeses with a gigantic seafood feast. Adhering to the request for something light, it was apparently only two thirds the size of a usual platter.
This absurd festival of eating cost just 3,000 dinar for two people, confirming something that becomes quickly apparent in Belgrade. There is probably no other major European city where it is possible to eat so consistently well for so little -- or perhaps, that should be eat so much. Stroll down Skadarska, the cobbled restaurant strip that exemplifies the traditional old kafana (tavern) vibe, and the formula is largely the same: meat piled high and beautifully cooked – especially the rissole-like ćevapčići (minced meat), which is a ubiquitous contender for the title of national dish.
But elsewhere in Belgrade, things are beginning to change as a new breed of restaurants is leaving the Herculean meaty feasts behind, tightening portion sizes, modernising menus and bringing in ingredients from across the world to complement the city’s world-class produce.
Supermarket is one of the restaurants leading this culinary revolution. In an all or nothing city where the place to be can suddenly stand empty next to a thriving new rival, Supermarket has stayed popular since its opening in November 2008.
It is an odd place -- essentially a department store that focuses on independent designers and young Serbian artists – where you can buy “terrorist teapots” with balaclava-shaped cosies or umbrellas that are pulled out of sword holsters. The restaurant merges into the shop, an odd next step from the shelves of homewares, books and wines, yet it feels knowingly relaxed in an attempt to create a fashionable community hub. The menu has an Asian influence – sushi and Thai dishes are heavily promoted -- and the European meaty dishes are far from traditional. The beef fillet, for example, comes with caramelised shallots, tempura celery and balsamic sauce. It is exceptionally good, and at 1,210 dinars, served at a scarcely believable value.
Plus, it is not a mountain of beef. “We’ve cut servings of meat down from 400 grams to 220 grams – which is still large by international standards,” said Sem Velditeer, Supermarket’s “food consultant”. “It’s about changing the way people look at eating. Some Serbian restaurants will serve up a kilogram of meat, and the body just can’t digest that.”
Velditeer reckons that Belgrade’s restaurant scene is about to explode. “Being a chef is seen as being cool,” he said. “There is high unemployment in Serbia, and cooking is seen as a great way to become rich.”
This explosion is most noticeable in leafy Vračar. Once a purely residential suburb, the neighbourhood got a boost when Đorđe, long one of Belgrade’s finest restaurants, reopened in a former ambassador’s villa in 2008.
Co-owner Aleksandar Stefanovic said they are trying to marry old-fashioned continental European cuisine with fine dining. “We’re presenting traditional Serbian dishes in different ways; going for quality rather than quantity,” he said.
A clear emphasis is put on presentation, and standards are high. But they have to be – there is plenty of competition around. “Three of four restaurants opened nearby in the last year,” Stefanovic said. “From nothing four or five years ago, there are now seven or eight very good restaurants in the area.”
A few blocks away from Đorđe, Maska effortlessly blurs the lines between bar, restaurant and club. Indoors it is mirrorballs, lights, exposed brick and draped curtains; outside it is a garden decked out with Chinese lanterns. It is the sort of place where people meet for a beer, grab something casual to eat and find themselves stumbling out at 1 am. Nearby, Zaplet 2.0 feels like an exhibition space as well as a restaurant. A giant red ball hangs down from the ceiling and contemporary art is plastered over the walls. The menu leans towards game and takes the locally-sourced meat in unexpected directions. Dishes include venison steak in a butter-cognac sauce with coffee caviar, and a rabbit roll with wild rice and curry sauce. The nods to time-honoured Serbian dishes are there, but the setting and the attitude is very different. Clearly, Belgrade is on its way from kafana to culinary cool.