At the Koliba

When a Bulgarian and a Serb meet in a Balkan restaurant, they both feel immediately at home

You’re walking up a goat path, completely lost on this winding trail deep in the forests of the Balkan Mountains. It doesn’t get any steeper than this. It’s dark and cold. Suddenly, you wish that you had never left home, and were still curled up in an armchair with a hot cup of tea in your hands. And then, all of a sudden, the smell hits your nose…  Home! At last! As you reach the end, the road widens and flattens out, and you see the smoke curling out of the chimney of a little cabin hidden behind a grove of trees.

Now, that’s how it should be, how it would be at home in the Balkans. But we are in Vienna. There are no hidden goat paths here, no endless forests or steep mountain slopes. A hut, however, you may still find – if you know where to look.

It is a late Monday afternoon, and we were looking for a little something between lunch and dinner – ‘dunch’? – and preferably a Balkan one. Our pick of the day was La Koliba, both Serbian and Bulgarian for “The Hut” – a traditional Balkan restaurant at the corner of Laxenburgerstraße and Landgutgasse in Vienna’s 10th District.

Stomachs grumbling, we headed inside. The warm, seductive aroma of freshly grilled meat comes wafting over us. Ah, this is home; to the left, a vine is crawling up the wall, below which are two light-brown clay pitchers. The tables are carved out of beech tree and arranged with two or three chairs and a bench each. The whole restaurant is awash in the warm colors of carved wood.

We chose a spot at the front of the restaurant, as the back had been reserved for a birthday party. But our table also allowed us a closer look into the grilling area, which was paneled in rough boards and shaped just like the inside of a wooden hut. La Koliba was living up to its name.

The entire place in fact was decorated with clay and metal pots and jugs, teapots and porcelain plates with painted scenes from Balkan homelands. A black bottle with “Romania” written on it drew our attention. We glanced at each other in confusion, as we couldn’t recall Romania being in the Balkans. Probably a gift from customers, we then decided. We were wrong.

“People who work in the kitchen are mainly Romanians,” explained one of the waiters. “The wait staff comes mostly from Serbia, and the chef is a Bulgarian lady.”

Both of us smiled proudly as we opened our menus to peruse the variety of dishes; we had been looking forward to this. A Sopska salad (EUR 3,50) as a starter was a no-brainer for either of us. To our surprise, it arrived moments after we had ordered it – leaving us no time to decide on a main course. Sometimes service can be too good; we asked for another two minutes, hoping that the decisions would be easier if we weren’t so hungry. There were so many choices: different types of fish, prebranac (baked beans) and a variety of soups…

The smell of the freshly grilled meat at the back of the restaurant, however, quickly decided us. We went for Raznjici – small pieces of skewered pork, and a Punjena Pljeskavica – a round cut of pork filled with fresh cheese and ham. Both were garnished with carved onions and chili powder.

While we waited, we studied the menu some more, noting with amusement the similarities and differences between our languages. With the Serbian and Bulgarian words displayed all over the place, we took on the challenge of figuring out what these might be called in English. Fun, but not exactly successful.

We were seated close to the bar, on which were mounted three wooden poles with a shelf attached. Dozens of pitchers sat on the shelf, mostly colored in brown-reddish tones, with scenes from everyday village life in the Balkans. In between were decorative bottles of Dunja (quince Schnapps) and two jars of a brined vegetable mix called Tursija (including brined carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and pickles).

Chaplets of dried corn hung from the side poles; the middle pole was decorated with a chaplet of dried garlic. Behind the bar, another atop shelf brimmed with Balkan ornaments: the most eye-catching was a flowerily decorated Buklija, a canteen-like wine bottle, which a bride’s father takes with him when he goes from one house to another and invites the guests to the upcoming wedding. Traditionally, the head of each household tastes the wine and then puts a symbolic amount of money on it for the happiness of the engaged couple.

The familiar atmosphere quickly sparked some interesting insights. For instance the point at which the traditional, with all its charm and history, devolve into the merely conventional. Or the taste of homemade food in comparison to our on-the-run student meals, and on to traditional vs. online libraries, paper vs. digital books, iPads and more.  In the end, it couldn’t all be about food. Acknowledging the gifts of technology, we concluded that mostly we would both rather stick to traditional forms.

Back in the restaurant, the Balkan tunes coming from the birthday party mingled with the sound of grilling meat as another group of Serbs came in to dine.

We both looked out of the window: cars with Austrian plates drove on by, and yet we still felt very far away. We knew that as long as we remained inside, the warmth would prevail of the world we had left behind. La Koliba was a perfect escape from the world of west – a place where a couple of blushing Balkan maidens could truly feel at home.

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