Monday, February 21, 2011
Saro Bistro - Your Croatian Grandma Knows Best
Saro Bistro - 102 Norfolk Street, New York NY 10002
F Train to Delancey Street
As you can tell, I've been on a Balkan food kick lately, visiting Veslo last week and this week trying out an interesting newcomer on the Lower East Side called Saro Bistro. I first read about Saro from my daily dose of Scoutmob mail. The minute I saw mention of Balkan cuisine, I was captivated and took the opportunity to try it through a tasting.
Not long after setting foot in Saro Bistro did I feel completely comfortable and excited about my upcoming meal. It's true that the square dining room is on the intimate side, seating about 25 to 30 people - but in my book that's an advantage, personalizing the experience and helping to focus my attention on all the amazing details that make Saro memorable.
Headed by Chef Eran Elhalal, who is Israeli born and raised with deeply seated Eastern European roots, Saro is named after his beloved grandmother Sara (affectionately nicknamed Saro by his grandfather). Growing up in the former Yugoslavia, Saro's influence helped shape not only the menu but also the bistro's decor.
Even though I don't know Saro personally, I can confidently say that her essence and influence is deeply felt in the space. Mismatched antique plates, cups and silverware, rustic wooden credenzas, old books, maps and of course a lovely picture of Saro herself effectively communicate Eran's clear inspiration for this deeply personal restaurant.
Overall, I'd describe Saro's menu as comforting and nostalgic. And though we all have different cultural pasts, we can on a common level appreciate the feel-good nature of a grandmother's kitchen. As I mentioned, we indulged in an eight-course tasting, which allowed us to try a variety of dishes.
Appetizers - Starting out with a warm squash soup was a home run for me, as it's the way Eastern Europeans start any big meal. Saro's was thoughtfully presented in a delicate tea cup (pictured above) that made it not only appetizing but also very endearing. I loved the spice that the red pepper flakes incorporated into the squash and a sprinkling of crushed pistachios added a lovely crunch at the end. The soup was also served with corn fritters, which had feta cheese in the middle - Saro's own version of croquettes if you will.
Our second appetizer was the burratina, which consisted of freshly made burrata cheese stuffed with ricotta and then topped with smoky prsute (Balkan version of prosciutto). The whole thing rested on a bed of gorgeously yellow heirloom tomatoes, which infused freshness and acid into a decadent dish. One more note about the cheese - it was so soft and so creamy that it was almost spreadable. I enjoyed the ultra-smoky prsute but preferred eating it solo, as I felt it didn't need the cheese, rather it shined on its own.
Saro's crabcakes were also delightful yet simple in their own right. Made of high quality crabmeat and not much else, they did a great job of highlighting the main and most important ingredient. I loved the hint of spice from the cayenne and texturally, the crabcake was tender as can be on the inside with a perfectly crunchy outside.
We enjoyed a palate cleanser between courses, a peppery arugula salad with blue cheese and poached pears, encrusted in brown sugar. I loved the combination of savory and sweet and looked forward to scooping up a deliciously tender pear and pairing it (pun intended) with the tangy blue cheese.
Entrees - I was most excited about trying Saro's cevapcici, which I'm familiar with from my own childhood (Slovak and Yugoslavian cuisine sometimes intersects). It was exciting to see the medley on our plate - four glistening, oval beef kebobs with a side of paper-thin onion shavings, fresh ricotta cheese and homemade zucchini fritters, which oddly looked like my mom's potato latkes. The combination of flavors worked harmoniously to create a little taste of the Balkans - the tender salty bite of the meat, combined with the creaminess of the cheese and the warm gooeyness of the zucchini fritters was like a visit to the Dalmatian coast.
Our second entree was a veggie pasta dish, made with homemade fettuccine noodles. You can immediately taste the difference with the freshly made pasta - it had a nice bite to it but also a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Dressed with seasonal veggies such as acorn squash, collard greens and wild mushrooms, the dish had a pungently earthy quality that was perfectly appropriate for winter.
We rounded out the entree course with Saro's twelve-hour braised short ribs, served with traditional egg noodles (also homemade), feta cheese and a shredded greens salad. I enjoyed the meat and its rich sauce, but my favorite were those egg noodles, which also reminded me of the rezance my grandma makes with either sweet cabbage or tangy farmer cheese.
Dessert - It was nice to see that dessert was a simple affair with mini sugar doughnuts, which resembled Italian bomboloni and in my culture, the miniature version of fanky (fried doughnuts stuffed with jelly). Despite being fried, Saro's rendition felt wonderfully light and airy - it was a nice way to change the flavor profile from savory to sweet.
The grand finale was sealed with a slice of gluten-free hazelnut chocolate cake, which is apparently the thing grandma Saro would serve at the end of a meal. I liked that the cake was on the cold side and reminded me very much of an old recipe for walnut cake my great uncle Simon makes. The chocolate is a big component and even though Saro's didn't skimp out, it wasn't too heavy handed either.
Wine & Beer - All the above mentioned food was intelligently paired with Eastern European wine, a lot of it being from Croatia, Slovenia, even Romania. I was intrigued to try a lot of these obscure wines, which paired well with each food course.
On the beer front, I was impressed that they had my beloved Zlaty Bazant, a Slovak beer, which is referred to here as Golden Pheasant. You have to try it!
Service and Cost:
Just like the atmosphere and the food at Saro, the service was also very personal and thoughtful. The staff is knowledgeable about all aspects of their menu, including pronunciation of each dish (some of which are really difficult - i.e. karadjordjeva). Chef Eran is not only passionate about the menu, he's well versed in the history behind each dish and his enthusiasm for Balkan cuisine pours out like water from a spout.
Costs are moderate and fairly priced for the level of sophistication infused into each dish:
Appetizers - $12 - $24
Entrees - $14 - $22
Sides - $6
Dessert - $8