The Vegetarian Option: Balkanika
Balkankia, around the corner from Restaurant Row in Hell's Kitchen, purports to go beyond just generic Mediterranean food. As its name suggests, it hopes to encompass the food of the entire Balkan region. Their menu provides a helpful map for people (like me) who may not be sure what that entails: north as far as Romania and Moldova, south the Greece, west to Slovenia, and East to Turkey. The food ranges from small salads, called meze in the Turkish style, through heavy stews and gratins.
Of the meze, you can get one for $6, four for $10, or for a very reasonable $16 you can get a spread of all 17 mezes. From the bottom moving clockwise you see the pignolia beet, with garlic and dill; pesto porcini, with egg whites and olive oil; leek ezme, with carrot, honey, and lemon; and celery root with mustard, egg white, and vinegar.
The beets tasted bright and sweet, and vividly of beets, not what coated them; pesto porcini first tasted of the herbs, and then the earthy flavor of the mushrooms took over. The leeks didn't taste much like the promised honey, but were savory and delicious. Finally, the celery root was wonderfully creamy. The meze are all served with warm whole-wheat pita and a few olives and cornichons.
When it comes to entrees there are a few options available. The unfortunately named curry balls ($12), served with yogurt and a green salad, are actually patties, made of ground lentils, chickpeas, and favas, seasoned with curry spices and herbs. I found them gummy in texture and exceedingly dry, even when dipped in the yogurt. They were much better when topped with the leftovers from my meze plate. The salad was a standard Greek salad, with chopped cucumbers, peppers and olives.
After eating at Balkanika I don't feel like I have a firm grasp on what Balkan cuisine actually is, but the salads were good enough that I'd want to go back for more. In the future I'd skip any of the entrees, and stick with the salads or their large selection of vegetable dishes.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.