High in the mountainous Cajetina region of Serbia, days don't begin without kajmak. Traditionally, the Serbian delicacy is made by slowly boiling milk, simmering it, and then skimming the cream and leaving it to ferment for a few hours, or even days.
Some of the best kajmak comes from the forested areas of Zlatibor, where cattle graze in the fresh air and on aromatic pastures. Knowing how to properly ferment the beloved Serbian clotted cream is ingrained in the culture of the surrounding villages. It's accompanied by so many things, but my first dalliance with it was when I was served up my first komplet lepinja in a wooden lodge in Zlatibor – and I'll admit I was horrified.
The calorific dish is in short a hollowed-out bread bun, soaked in lard and filled with eggs, kajmak, cheese – and whatever else the chef feels like including. While it’s unquestionably delicious, the feeling of trauma and inability to stand for long periods of time after consuming even half a plateful is a repressed memory I’d long forgotten. Until today.
“We make that here, too,” Strahinka Stojanovic, 21 Grams’ manager says excitedly as he sits down for a chat at the Jumeirah restaurant.
Apparently most who have tried out the Middle East’s only modern Balkan bistro have failed to pinpoint exactly what, or where, the Balkans are. One person apparently opened with: “I know it’s a city, I just don’t know exactly where it is...”
Being apparently one of the few who had been to a couple of the regions where the bistro has taken its culinary inspiration from (Zlatibor in particular, in Serbia’s south), the conversation comes thick and fast with Stojanovic, who worked at Tom and Serg for three years prior to this, and owner Stasha Toncev. Forty-five minutes pass and we haven’t even ordered.
“I’ve been here 10 years and we’ve never had somewhere we can go to eat our food,” Toncev says. “So I’d say this was for selfish reasons.”
And so, 21 Grams was born – serving up fare from around the Balkan Peninsula – of which exact geographic borders are disputed, but which generally refers to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But at 21 Grams, it's Serbia that steals much of the show. The kitchen staff all hail from Serbia, and most of the food is made onsite. A bakery downstairs serves hot, fresh bread.
But Dubai is no stranger to importing a concept. Thankfully, 21 Grams delivers on the execution, too. Starters come in the form of ajvar (Dh18), a traditional red pepper relish commonly homemade and found in homes across Serbia, a sweet and savoury chicken liver pate (Dh36) with pear puree and forest fruit reduction, and the dish I’d been waiting for: kajmak (Dh14). Slathered over fresh bread, listening to the Serbian music in the background, you could almost be sitting down for lunch at a family home in Zlatibor itself.
Although it’s a hard field to narrow down, the mains are equally as hearty – with a modern twist that suits the Dubai climes. The cevapi (Dh64), a traditional meat kebab sold on the street in many Balkan countries and served in groups of 10, is of the Wagyu variety here and served with fresh bread and urnebes (Dh14), a traditional chilli cheese spread. The result is a more refined yet succulent taste than you’ll find roadside in Belgrade, but it’s arguably better. However, we’re aware that’s sure to offend a Serb or two.
“Here it was, all beautifully presented and laid out – and the first thing someone commented on was ‘Why is there only six?’” Toncev says with a laugh, acknowledging how hard it’s been to sell her fiercely protective countrymen the “modern Balkan” concept. Nonetheless, about half their patrons are now Serbian.
The Dalmatian pasticada (Dh76) is a slow cooked beef stew punctuated with pert gnocchi, and tastes not unlike Christmas, with bursts of cinnamon and cloves.
For dessert, the main contender is inevitably the chocolate hazelnut baklava (Dh34), a gooey, syrup-soaked brownie-type dessert that might provoke ire in a Serb used to consuming the traditional kind – until they taste it.
Almost three hours pass with ease on the Saturday afternoon I spend at 21 Grams, often sitting with Toncev and Stojanovic, who simply like chatting with everyone who walks through the door – no matter who you are. I’ve not overstated it when I tell my dining partner I’d like to return every weekend.
“It’s soul food,” Toncev says. “Everyone thinks soul food is just comfort food, but for me it’s food that feeds your soul. You come here and listen to music and talk to people and the food is the cherry on top.”
21 Grams is open from 8am to 11pm during the month of Ramadan. For further details, go to www.21grams.me