Rare specialties in Alexandria
Cosmopolitan Grill offers Bosnian treats
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 28, 2010
What might be the best thing at Cosmopolitan Grill isn't listed on the menu. To get to the filled pastries called burek, you're asked to call the Bosnian restaurant in Alexandria at least 10 hours ahead of time and place an order for a minimum of six pieces of the same flavor.
The savory pastries, which probably have roots in the Ottoman Empire, take considerable time and effort. If you do burek right, you make the phyllo wrapper from scratch, and you stretch the dough so it's long and thin. You drop pinches of the filling -- ground beef, spinach, cheese, maybe a combination of accents -- in a line across the canvas and roll it up, tucking the end of the pliable tube into itself. The result, a fat white coil, is then baked or fried.
They do baked burek right at Cosmopolitan Grill. Unfortunately, the kitchen is small, and nothing else -- not the beef sausages, not the house-baked bread -- can be made until those pastries are finished. That frustrates Amela Svalina. As much she would like to offer burek on the standing menu of the restaurant she owns with her co-chef and husband, Ivica, and runs with the help of family members, the only way the Bosnian staple survives is as a special order.
Too bad. The Svalinas' burek is wonderful, no matter the filling. One version finds tunnels of zesty sausage beneath a flaky golden surface. Another recipe combines fresh-tasting spinach with eggs and feta and cottage cheese. Even the plain cheese version, its center pale yellow and slightly sour, is something to cheer.
Refugees from Doboj in northern Bosnia, the Svalinas opened their first restaurant in Alexandria in 2004, but it took them two moves to arrive at a location that delivered the customer traffic they wanted. Their current quarters are squeezed between a hair salon and a Gold's Gym, which explains the whir of blenders and the smoothies served at the bar of their restaurant, a charming mishmash of furniture and colors. The drinks are a holdover from the deli that previously operated here, as well as a show of hospitality. ("I didn't want to disappoint people" who were used to following their workouts with protein and other shakes, Amela says.)
Cosmopolitan Grill's menu is not long, but everything at this rare source for Bosnian flavors in the area shows care. That includes the pillowy bread known as lepina, which is baked early every morning and warmed on the grill before it leaves the kitchen.
The house salad costs almost $13. Without any prompting, a waiter explains the price. "It's big," he says, and he's right: The field of chopped romaine, peppers, tomatoes, onions, rectangles of feta cheese and (dull) fried mushrooms is enough to serve three. Similarly, a bowl of soup is sustenance for more than a solo diner. Goulash is a rib-sticker that packs in tender bits of beef (steak, in this case), carrots and celery in a tomato-sweetened broth.
If you can't have burek as an entree, go for cevapcici. It's another Bosnian specialty: juicy cigar-shaped sausages made from minced beef and garlic and packaged in that crisp-crusted lepina. The restaurant lets you order a little (five sausages for $7.90) or a lot (10 for $10.90). Onions, tomatoes and a drift of thick sour cream, or kajmak, nudge the already good construction into another realm.
Bosnian food tends to go easy on the heat and the spicing; onions, garlic and a seasoning mix called Vegeta, made from dehydrated vegetables, are the primary enhancements. The Cosmopolitan Grill's exception to that rule is the whole grilled trout, which comes to the table beneath a blizzard of minced garlic. The deboned, skin-on fish is fine; its accent necessitates a chaser of Listerine.
Just about everything is better if you add ajvar to it. Made from red peppers, eggplant and garlic, the pleasantly smoky relish is to Bosnia what salsa is to Mexico or ketchup is to America: an all-purpose flavor booster. Actually, it's more than that. You can spread the condiment on bread or slather it on meat, a waiter explains. Jars of the orange-red ajvar sit on display shelves near the kitchen and are available for purchase. Cosmopolitan Grill makes its own version, but only when red peppers are in season, for about a month at the end of summer or early fall, Amela says. Red peppers are expensive, and ajvar "uses a lot of them."
Wienerschnitzel? When they left their home at the start of the Bosnian war in 1992, the Svalinas went first to Germany, where Ivica got a job as head chef in a restaurant. His veal, pounded thin and lightly breaded, is golden and crisp, richer for the fries that accompany the main course. Germany is also summoned in a strapping plate of tender veal served beneath a blanket of creamy mushroom sauce. A mountain of grilled zucchini, mushrooms, peppers and asparagus looms to the side of the entree, suggesting that today's dinner will be tomorrow's, as well.
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A strong finish: Get the Turkish coffee, if only to remind yourself how gracious the beverage can be. It's dark and thick, poured from a tiny copper pot with a long handle, and it's the best way to close a meal here.