This is a risky review for me, personally. Even as I type this, I am being watched by an over-protective Serb who is reading every word I write, in case I irk her fellow countrymen over my interpretation of her cuisine. They say 21 grams is the weight of the human soul. I might be 21 grams lighter, if I get this review wrong.
21 Grams is an urban Balkan bistro. The Balkans is the collective term for a bunch of countries, whose relationship status would be “it’s complicated” if they were on Facebook. It is basically South East Europe.
21 Grams is a cute little modern-day Kafana or tavern, run by a Serbian, and I must tell you, the Serbs know Kafanas. From the 200-year-old tavern, with just a “?” for a name, to the intimate, smoky Smokvica, the Serbs have understood bistros for generations.
We arrived at the new Park Regis Boutique hotel and found 21 Grams just off the lobby on the right-hand side. 21 Grams is an intimate little place with seating for thirty. Technically. In reality, it feels much smaller than that. The place was full when we arrived just after lunch. I believe that’s the future of restaurants here in Dubai – smaller, more intimate dining rooms, which are easier to fill and have lower rent costs.
We needed a table for four people, and our host, in true Serbian fashion, told a single diner enjoying his coffee to move outside so that we could sit at his table. I felt a little bad, but he didn’t seem to mind, and I’ve learned not to question Serbian decisions too much.
We sat down and had a look around. It didn’t take long. It’s a single room, with quaint little sidewalk tables around its perimeter and a larger communal table in the center. There is a service counter in one corner for the bakery items, coffee, and discussions of revolutions. The room is pleasant, with millennial peaches, residential rugs, bookcases and intimate corner tables and chairs. It is simple, charming and very natural.
The place was full of Slavic speaking customers, chatting, relaxing and contemplating whether they should re-join the outside world anytime soon.
Our server handed us each a menu, but we didn’t need one. The Serb had known what we were going to eat before we had even woken up that morning. She rattled off our order before we could say ‘ajde.’
We had the mezze to start, which consisted of Kajmak, Ajvar, and Urnebes, which are all dips and not IKEA’s latest bedroom range. We also had a shopska salad as well. The trio of dips arrived in quenelles on a terrazzo disc and the shopska in a quaint little side bowl.
Kajmak is one of the most famous of Balkan exports – it’s like a clotted cream cheese, rich, creamy and perfect on warm, crusty chunks of bread. Their ajvar is a sweet, bell pepper and eggplant relish, creamy red in colour, with a deep, layered smokey flavour, perfect on warm crusty chunks of bread. The final dip we ordered is the spicy Urnebes, which literally translates to ‘mess.’ It is a cheese, paprika and chili flake spread, confusingly classified as a salad in the Balkans. It is perfect on warm crusty chunks of bread. The shopska salad was diced cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and onions under a mound of salty feta cheese. Fresh, lively and filling.
Balkan food is naturally eclectic and diverse, thanks to the vast amount of (sometimes) unwanted influences the region has experienced throughout the ages. From the Romans to the Turks, to the Italians and Germans, the cuisine of the region has benefitted enormously from these influences.
In fact, Balkan cuisine might be one of the world’s most versatile, with flavours and ingredients that are recognizable to many different cultures. Yet, it is a food that is grounded, almost soulful – preferring simplicity and accessibility over sophistication and fancy. The Serb wants you to know I am not writing this under duress.
Our mains were the grilled cevapi, or kebabs, the sarma, the slow cooked lamb and the spring salad. After the success of the starters, we were looking forward to the mains. Unfortunately, we were made to wait a long time. I was worried that by the time we got the mains, the Balkans would have formed new international borders with Europe.
They have just opened, so it was clearly a teething issue, but waiting 45 minutes really disrupts the energy and flow of an experience. However, it did mean we were able to listen to the Balkan’s entire collection of Starogradska Muzika, the traditional folk music, or old city music. It was surprisingly pleasant.
The mains were cleaner, more polished versions of what I was expecting. The food is very humble in origin, but 21 Gram’s interpretations elevate them to a much more premium level. The portions were lighter than usual and showed a real understanding of the Jumeirah market.
The cevapi, six little minced beef kebabs, are seasoned and grilled and served with urnebes, onions, and peppers. A simple, nostalgic dish, with bright flavours and quality meat.
The sarma is sour cabbage rolls, stuffed with seasoned ground beef and sour cream, in a sweet tomato and bell pepper sauce. The sharpness of the pickled cabbage cut through the umami of the beef, creating a wonderfully balanced, flavourful dish.
The slow cooked lamb was a triumph – tender lamb roll cooked in milk, served with a horseradish sauce and sweet, soft poached apples. The flavours married perfectly together, creating a delightful harmony. The lamb was so soft it fell apart like Novak in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.
The service would be my only gripe – friendly enough, but not particularly attentive with a few breakdowns in standards. However, they are newly opened and are for sure still finding their feet. I’m sure they will improve.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 21 Grams is a place you should visit – the food is relatable and delicious, and the dining room is personal and charming. Congrats to Stasha and Chef Uros for bringing a little bit of Balkan soul to the city.
21 Grams – Balkan Urban Bistro
Park Regis Boutique Hotel
Umm Suqeim 3
04 349 0744
Lunch for 4 – 501 AED