Monday, January 14, 2008
Happy Orange (Ukus, 42-08 30th Avenue)
At Ukus, one of a handful of Balkan establishments curiously clustered around an otherwise nondescript block east of Steinway on 30th Avenue, we asked the server what he recommended, and without missing a beat he said, "You need spinach burek and cevapi," then took the menus from us without giving us any of the usual "Or if that doesn't suit your tastes...." None of that namby-pamby crap here! He knows what Ukus is about. It seemed that he was Ukus (though we later saw several shower-capped women scurrying in and out with pots and pans; they came to and from the basement via the outer cellar doors): He seemed to perform much of the behind-the-counter grill work and was also the lone waiter, which was fine for the 24 seats inside. With his brusque efficiency and decisiveness, he exuded what we delicately term "big-dick confidence" (though not as much as the soccer player we saw earlier at Astoria Park -- a twentysomething striker who wore under his shorts pink pajama pants decorated with little soccer balls).
Waiter knows best, as it turns out. The spinach burek, a savory Balkan pie, is the finest burek we've had. Its perfectly crisp and flaky layers of phyllo surrounded the appropriately thin filling of spinach graced with feta, and the inner phyllo layers were just soft enough not to be soggy while supplying a suitable contrast in texture.
The Balkan sausages, cevapi, manage to be both meaty and fluffy. The moist, tender links come inside a piece of horizontally sliced tangy flatbread and accompanied by chopped onions, sour cream, and ajvar, a spicy relish made with eggplant, red peppers, and chili peppers. We weren't sure of the proper way to eat the dish, so we just ripped off pieces of the bread, layered it with the condiments, plopped a sausage on top and enjoyed our delicious miniature sandwiches. All this was washed down with a bottle of Jupi -- "Happy Orange" flavor.
Ukus isn't as, shall we say, austere in ambiance as some other Balkan restaurants in the neighborhood. In fact, it features a couple of downright (if unintentional) quirks, like a elf-size storage door mounted high on the wall, as if the ceiling were the floor. Also, hanging on the exposed brick wall at the back of the place, a little carved-wood "ukus" sign (with the letters all lowercase, in a Cooper Black-ish font) that seemed like someone's junior-high wood shop project.
When we asked for our check, we complimented the waiter on his recommendations. He looked at us the way Warren Buffett presumably would if you praised his investment prowess. This is what I do, his expression said. And he did it well.
Price: Under $10.
Will we go again? Ukusno means delicious in Bosnian, and we're not ones to argue.