Seems like maybe 15 years or so ago, not many people around these parts had much of a clue about Vietnamese cooking, and then along came Mai Lee, next a little place in an old fast-food restaurant in Maplewood and, subsequently, the whole enclave of Southeast Asian places down on South Grand, to the point where goi cuon is almost as well-recognized as egg roll in the local culinary knowledge base (almost).
For the last year or two, another community of immigrants, the Bosnians, has slowly become entrenched in the spectrum of ethnic cooking that we enjoy. First came Bosna Gold -- in decor little more than a run-down banquet hall but, because it doubled as a social center for the large immigrant community surrounding its location on Gravois, what it lacked in decor it made up for in human atmosphere and the quiet pride of bootstrapping entrepreneurs in a new country.
More recently, we visited Sarajevo, which took over the spot at Hampton and Chippewa that once housed one of the popular Flaming Pit restaurants. The decor was a step up from Bosna Gold's but still a tad rustic. Once again, however, the friendly, almost courtly Old World service raised the evening's experience a notch.
Now comes Miris Dunja, still in the city but a bit more accessible in its remake of an old fast-food restaurant that I think was last a KFC. In addition to geographic accessibility, Miris Dunja is also more accessible to smoke-averse folks, who might not acclimate as well in the other two restaurants, which, although at least one of them had a nominal nonsmoking section, seemed to me to reflect the more liberal European attitude toward cigarettes.
In the entryway of Miris Dunja you can scan a brief primer on Bosnian cooking on a poster that explains the role of the city of Sarajevo as a crossroads and cites Austrian, Hungarian, Italian and Turkish as just some of the influences on Bosnian cuisine. The dining space still looks much like a bunch of booths from a late-'70s KFC, but amber glass in the lighting adds a bit of mood and, if you glance around to the windowsills, tops of posts and other spots, you'll notice specimens of what look to be pears or lemons but turn out to be quince -- the restaurant's name translates as "fragrance of the quince."
I fought an urge to peek into the kitchen to see whether a grandmother or two were back there cranking out the courses, because Miris Dunja's food reminded me a lot of home-cooked meals from my own Eastern European immigrant grandparents.
Expect to run across lots of breads, both as courses in and of themselves and as complementary side dishes. In fact, all three of the on-the-menu appetizers are breads, with a soup of the day and several salads available as options. Ustipci ($4) are described as breadsticks but are more like drop biscuits, with a crisp crust and fluffy insides, served with a mildly salty spread called kajmak that reminded me of a whipped cottage cheese. There are six in an order, and one order is at least enough to serve two people. The other two appetizers are called pitas, but, because they're basically stuffed phyllo pastries, they're more like the Greek dishes whose names end with that suffix than the Middle Eastern pocket bread. For a buck apiece, they come stuffed with either a spinach-and-cheese mixture or a ground beef that tastes like a mild sausage. The pastries' papery exterior layers are nicely crisp.
If you go to Miris Dunja on a Saturday night, as we did, be sure to try the jagjetina ($7.95), a simple plate of at least eight slices of slow-roasted lamb and roasted wedges of potato that's probably good in the warm months but is a succulent, warm-your-bones treat during winter weather. For our other entree, we went out on a limb with the lignje ($8.95), a whole squid filled with bread stuffing and spices, served with a room-temperature potato salad flavored with still-crisp onions, green olives with pimentos and a sweet dressing. I usually like squid, but this one was cooked to a browned exterior and didn't achieve what I thought was a good balance between chewiness and crispiness, instead taking on some of the lesser qualities of each. The garlic in the stuffing mellowed and cooked into the interior of the squid, but by and large I found the whole dish at best an acquirable taste, even for seafood lovers with a sense of adventure.
Several slices of fresh, dense, large-loaf bread are served with each meal, and because no liquor license is in place, you'll either have to brown-bag it or make do with a soft drink or the sedimented, ultrastrong Bosnian coffee, which is made in the Mediterranean style also found in Greek, Turkish and North African cuisines. Baklava is among the dessert choices, but we went with the tufahija, a skinned, cored whole apple poached in syrup, stuffed with walnuts and topped with whipped cream.
Two tall brothers moved quickly among the tables, providing rapid and attentive service, happy to spend a moment explaining individual dishes and Bosnian cooking in general. At least five separate families with young children came in during the course of our meal, so the restaurant can definitely be described as family-friendly, and even given the relatively exotic nature of some of the dishes, the many bread-based selections and fairly straightforward preparation of most of the rest of the menu seemed to provide more than enough selection to prevent any squeaking or squalling.
Good prices, big portions, fast service, old-fashioned hearty meals -- the Bosnian immigrants who have wandered halfway around the world have added a warm and inviting style of food and hospitality to the options available for diners in St. Louis.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon., Wed., Thurs.; 10:30 a.m.-midnight Fri., Sat.; 3-11 p.m. Sun.