Don't be misled by the word "Balkan," which summons images of heavy fare from the former Yugoslavia: sausage five ways. The prime cuisine at Balkan Bistro is Turkish, much more interesting, and rarer in these parts. The name squeaks through on the fact that the European section of Turkey is considered part of the Balkans.
The food here is delightful and inexpensive, notwithstanding the high Canadian dollar and the larcenous $7.50 in bridge tolls you'll pay to Manuel J. "Matty" Maroun, Michigan's most evil billionaire. A visit is made even more satisfying by the knowledge that the venture is a takeover of a much-loved Windsor institution, with the blessing of the former owner and chef.
Balkan Bistro occupies the old Victorian house known as the Mason-Girardot Alan Manor, which Perihan Alan, a native of the Turkish part of Cyprus, relinquished to a sous chef in 2005. When that effort faltered, Alan took it upon herself to seek out a successor. Her daughter Jale remembered a Turkish restaurant on the block where she'd once lived in Toronto. Alan flew from her new home in Vancouver to offer a lease to the immigrant owners, Levant and Aykan Evrenoz. (The story was ironic to this writer, who once got in hot water with Mrs. Alan for using the word "Turkish" in an early review; she feared that the term would scare patrons away from her decidedly pan-continental cuisine.)
So the Evrenozes closed down their storefront operation in Toronto to open in the far more elegant Windsor location. They liked the fact that, as Aykan put it, "Windsor is a village." They put the "Turkish-Ottoman" dishes up front, while also offering ones labeled Mediterranean, vegetarian and seafood. They're almost all complex in flavor while distinctly down-to-earth, dishes to appreciate for their novelty while relishing them for their sheer deliciousness. They're served with informal warmth and good cheer despite the refinement of the surroundings.
Acili ezme and karisik sebze ezme, for example, are both $4 vegetarian appetizers, each a simple-looking red mash. Both are achieved through long, slow cooking that concentrates and marries the flavors. The karisik is redolent of smoky eggplant. The acili is a mix of simple vegetables, with nothing startling in the list ("onion, green peppers, tomato, parsley, garlic, lettuce mixed and blended with hot spices"), and yet the result is unexpectedly hard to pin down.
Levant Evrenoz's hummous is quite different from the Middle Eastern variety: chunkier, tangier and nuttier, more character all around. Other first-rate takes on familiar dishes are lentil soup, in this case pureed and minty, and cacik, like Greek tzatziki or Arab laban, a creamy mix of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and dried mint. It's salty and complex, served in a big bowl with a little pool of green olive oil and some dill.
There are two more cold eggplant relishes for appetizers, plus stuffed grape leaves, fried meatballs (mititi kofte) and fried mussels, but we tried the sigara boregi, so named for their cigar shapes. These are four large, flaky, delicate pastries, phyllo stuffed with a rich but tart spinach filling, far more delicious than most spanakopita and enough to derail dinner. The only appetizer I wouldn't try a second time was a not so flavorful calamari.
For main courses, I recommend sharing a "mixed Turkish plate," which includes kadinbudu köfte, hunkar begendi, eggplant kebab and chicken shish. Hunkar begendi is described as "veal stew on a bed of mashed grilled eggplant with béchamel sauce and mozzarella," which sounds like moussaka a la Greektown, which can be oh-so-bad. But this stew wasn't like that at all. It was very soft — after all that simmering — but so smoky and creamy!
Kadinbudu köfte, a beef and rice meatball in a soft shell of beaten eggs, is drier by comparison, but the eggplant kebab, which is ground beef wrapped in eggplant, and chicken shish are both appropriately succulent.
Perhaps even better are manti, little hot, peppery meat dumplings with several sauces: a lemony garlic yogurt, tomato, red-pepper butter. For those seeking more meat, lamb kebabs are charred, tender and intense.
Several of the non-Turkish dishes sound like something you could order anywhere, such as pasta with mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers and Alfredo sauce, or a similar dish with shrimp or smoked salmon. Levant Evrenoz's way of bringing out the elements' essence, however, might transform these dishes into something special. I tried some sole kebabs and found not only the fish but also the accompanying mushrooms and tomatoes to be fairly bursting with their own special selves. For $20 he offers a whole sea bass or sea bream.
The only wines by the glass at Balkan Bistro are undistinguished house wines, but some decently priced bottles are available. I liked the Turkish Efes Pilsen beer, with a bit of a kick. Those going for the whole experience should order coffee, served in little blue-and-white cups and thick with grounds, and raki. Mix this anise-flavored clear liquor with water; when it turns white, it's called "lion's milk."
Balkan Bistro is two minutes from the Ambassador Bridge, and open Monday through Saturday. See www.balkanbistro.ca.
Welcome to the neighborhood!
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].