Sadik Kukic has a good thing going with his Gulf Coast Café, a spunky little seafood-oriented restaurant amid the ethnic eateries in the South Grand business district between Arsenal and Utah streets. Kukic, who is from Bosnia, doesn't call the café's cuisine Bosnian, preferring the more Mediterranean and Adriatic influences he mastered while cooking in Italy and Albania.
St. Louis can boast the largest Bosnian population of any city in the nation, and the once German Bevo Mill area, along Gravois and Morgan Ford in south city, boasts our largest concentration of Bosnian residents. Recently, numerous coffeehouses, bakeries, restaurants and delis have renovated storefronts where Bosnians now congregate to drink strong coffee, eat savory pastries and smoke (a lot). A few months ago Kukic opened the Taft Street Restaurant and Bar for the sole purpose of showcasing food from the old country.
Here it should be noted that the food from the "old country" includes many Eastern-European influences, most notably from Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria, with a healthy dose of Turkey tossed in -- which, in turn, were all influenced by the Huns, Ottoman Turks, Mongols and others who've marauded through the Balkans over the years. There's nothing like a good war to create new cuisines.
Most Bosnian food I've eaten falls into the "stewy" category, by and large heavy fare I really have to be in the mood for, usually in the winter when the urge for doughy, smoky, meaty, rooty food can run high. Taft Street, however, seems to have more in common with the Gulf Coast Café than with Bosnia. Some dishes, like the lemon-stuffed trout in garlic and parsley sauce, are no more Bosnian than corned beef on rye, but they sure sound like it when labeled pastrmka punjena limunom sa bijelim lukom i persunom. That dish was an example of how great trout is simply prepared. Kukic bones a headless fish, stuffs it with lemon slices, adds more lemons on top and serves it with a cold Mediterranean potato salad with sliced hard-boiled eggs. The citrus flavor was remarkably gentle, melding well with the mild trout.
A tilapia special, another non-Bosnian dish, was a large fresh fillet stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms, in a tangy cream sauce hinting of citrus, atop a plain white cake of rice. On the side, breaking up the whiteness of the entrée, were bright haricots verts. Unfortunately, the shrimp were overcooked and tough.
Among the meat selections, there's braised veal in a cream sauce, veal piccata, chicken kebabs and a rosemary chicken crêpe. But it was the rib eye stuffed with a seductive mixture of sautéed mushrooms, onions and blue cheese that caught my eye. A thin steak was sliced lengthwise, forming a pocket for the mixture, then grilled. At $12 I didn't expect prime beef and didn't get it. A shame in a way; for maybe five bucks more, Taft Street could present a beautifully satisfying dish at a reasonable price.
Doughy delights -- pastries, crêpes dumplings, etc. --are ubiquitous in Eastern-European cooking. We began a meal with klepe, four dumpling-like pastries filled with spiced ground beef, reminiscent of Jewish kreplach. Even though tomatoes are out of season, I couldn't stop eating the sopska salata, a plate of diced tomatoes, cucumber, green peppers and onions, tossed with olive oil and a bit of chile pepper and blanketed with a layer of feta cheese. Begova corba was a very tasty traditional Bosnian soup of chicken and vegetables (okra, carrots, celery, tomato and green onion) that probably has its roots in the Armenian kharcho stew.
Taft Street is actually located off Gravois on Taft Avenue, but Kukic couldn't resist matching the restaurant's name with the Taft Street wine he sells (merlot and cabernet sauvignon, from Sonoma County). The rest of the wine list is simple and relatively cheap. Most glasses run $4; the most expensive bottle is a $27 Estancia pinot grigio. Most bottles are in the $16 range. After sending back a glass of corked Pepperwood pinot noir, I switched to Niksicko, a pilsner-style beer from Montenegro that paired well with the trout.
Capping the meal is a choice of two desserts: baklava and a crêpe filled with chocolate cream (more like hot fudge gone cold) and topped with whipped cream from a can.
Smoking is permitted throughout the establishment. That didn't present a problem when I was there; the place wasn't crowded. I'll probably return to Taft Street -- for the prices, for that trout and for the rosemary chicken crêpe, which I didn't get a chance to try -- but if I drag along a few guests, I'll make sure they don't smoke.