Friday, September 19, 2008

Austro-Hungarian Lunch

This noon I decided to revisit a Bosnian restaurant where I dined a few times several years ago. It's called Grbic Restaurant, and it's located at 4871 Keokuk Street in St. Louis city. That's a block north of Gravois on Meramec Street, at a corner where Keokuk meets Meramec at a weird angle, in what I believe used to be a dairy. The front is practically all glass, letting lots of light into the street side of the restaurant, but inside is a cool, attractive dimness full of stone floors, brick arches, hardwood ceilings, and mural paintings. The bar is pleasantly appointed; a huge and ambitious still-life of food stretches across the back wall of the dining room; and somewhere in the old dairy complex there is a banquet hall as well.

It's the class of restaurant that has linen tablecloths and that serves glasses of ice-water and baskets of bread without being asked. They have one menu for dinner and another, somewhat abridged, for lunch. If you like good, old-fashioned, Austro-Hungarian food - authentic goulash (with emphasis on the paprika), paprikas, wiener schnitzel (not a hot dog), spicy sausage, apple strudel, etc. - you must visit this place. Even if you're not sure, give it a try. You might find it strangely addictive, somewhat like the way curry can be addictive.

Today I ordered the "special of the day." It came with a choice of a salad or the "soup of the day." I chose soup. It turned out to be something called Trhana. Note that, as in the name Grbic, the "r" is rolled and holds the place of a vowel in the first syllable. Trhana is a zesty golden broth filled with really tiny pieces of ground sausage, noodles, and vegetables. The bowl - served on top of a plate with a napkin in between, since you're interested in local color - had crushed herbs sprinkled around its broad rim. I liked this soup so well that I used a couple slices of bread to soak up what my spoon couldn't get at. I must confess, however, that it made me sweat. It had that indescribable combination of subtle, interesting flavor and searing, spicy heat that one associates with either Balkan or Indochinese food - not at all like curry, but as fascinatingly unlike any other taste as curry is.

My soup was joined by a beer imported from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In its homeland it is labeled Sarajevsko Pivo, but in America the label bears the English translation Sarajevo Beer. It was a hoppy, light-colored brew, like a lager but with more bite than our local swill. After the soup came a plate of Chicken Jägerschnitzel: a pounded chicken breast, rubbed with spices and grilled to perfection, and served overlapping a puddle of dark mushroom sauce, with a huge side of buttery Spätzle. The latter are short, knobbly egg noodles; in Grbic's version they come with little specks of spice on them, and I believe I could detect the influence of garlic as well.

I am glad I was dining alone, because I would have made a very dull conversationalist while I greedily inhaled this fare. It was irresistably, indescribably good. The chicken was good with or without the sauce. The noodles were also good by themselves, but I had enough sauce left over after the chicken disappeared that I mixed the spätzle in - and still had enough sauce left to sop up with some bread afterward. We're not talking about "cream of mushroom soup" sauce with tiny flakes of mushroom in it, but a rich, dark, creamy sauce, strong in mushroom flavor, and filled with thick mushroom slices.

All this put me in such good spirits that I decided to spring for dessert. I asked what they had with chocolate in it, and the waiter recommended Palacinke (here the c is pronounced like the "ch" in "chin," and the "e" is a shwa). This proved to be a couple of cool, tender crepes, elaborately folded around a filling of fluffy whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and bits of chopped walnut. It took up a surprising amount of real estate, dominating a large plate that came dusted with fine white sugar and drizzled with a bit of extra chocolate, with a similarly-drizzled mound of whipped cream in the center of the plate. I devoured it all, and chased it with an eminently sippable shot of Slivovitz.

Though it wasn't the cheapest lunch I have had all summer, it did put me in a very complacent frame of mind - as I am sure you can tell from my manner of writing. I believe I won't wait two years until my next visit.

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