Here’s something you don’t see everyday–a restaurant specializing in Balkan food, a “cuisine of the long lost empires!” The only Balkan I know is the Balkan crisis, and that certainly doesn’t have any positive associations with it. The long lost empires tagline didn’t help either. Is this stuff that aristocrats like Anna Karenina would have eaten? Which would be…again, I don’t know. Caviar and vodka? All I know is that she killed herself–clearly the food wasn’t worth living for.
When the server at Saro Bistro in the Lower East Side described the food here as such, I was a little apprehensive. The word Balkan as I indicated isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy one. I was expecting some very bare bones meat-and-potatoes type dishes to come my way, but the mood and atmosphere of Saro Bistro indicated otherwise, which put me at a little more ease. How could such a charming and whimsical place with pretty walls and lights serve anything dark and sad? This is a place where Eastern European hipsters brunch, you can’t please this clientele with cabbage and boiled meat. Again, I have had no exposure to Balkan cuisine, but cabbage and boiled meat is kind of what I imagined it to be.
Luckily the food did live up to its surroundings. I wasn’t totally wrong about the meat and potatoes theme here. The dishes are definitely hearty and homey in nature–there’s even a humble “peasant breakfast” option on the menu–but Saro provides some modern updates to the traditional cuisine so that everything is bright and balanced.
Brunch started off with a plate of Saro’s doughnuts–nice, small sugary bites that prepared the palate for the savory dishes that would follow.
How could you not order something Balkan at a Balkan restaurant? To check the box on this, we ordered the prebranac, a traditional and unique dish that serves two eggs on top of baked beans and sausage. A hash of legumes and meat initially sounds dense and a bit overbearing, but the lemon zest and parsley helped to lighten the flavors. There’s nothing more satisfying than swirling around soft ribbons of egg yolk into a chunky terrain of seasoned pork and chubby beans, and it’s even better when you sop everything up with some bread. My first foray into Balkan cuisine was a success.
We also ordered the saro’s crab cakes benedict, which obviously isn’t the most traditional dish, but it came highly recommended by the server. The crab cakes were well seasoned, and the ratio of meat to bread crumbs was just right. I liked how the hollandaise was a little smokey, which was an interesting take on the normally tangy and lemony sauce, and which lent the crab cakes with extra flavor.
As opposed to using English muffins, Saro serves the poached eggs on top of lepinja, a homemade Yugoslavian flatbread that looks like a baguette but with a much softer crust. I actually thought the dish needed a stiffer bread to absorb all the moisture from the cream and egg yolk, because the lepinja disintegrated into a sad, soggy state. Taking a fresh piece of lepinja from the bread bowl and dipping it into the sauce yielded much more successful results.
Much like its homeland, Saro Bistro is a bit out of the way in the Lower East Side, residing on a section of Norfolk St that gets little foot traffic. The location is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a bit of a trek to get out there, but that also weeds out a lot of brunch competition, so it’s possible to get a table as a walk-in during early brunch service. But the trip is worth it–Balkan cuisine is a very under-the-radar category that should get more recognition. The Michelin Guide certainly agrees and included Saro Bistro in its guide of recommended restaurants. Now it’s up to others to catch on.
102 Norfolk Street
New York, NY 10002