Belgrade. An oxymoronic city. It deteriorates as it develops. Smashed facades from NATO bombings in the 90s expose wall cladding and breeze blocks just as, minutes away on the city's two great rivers, opulent new flats are eternally constructed. The spectre of Serbia's troubled and troublesome past juxtaposed with riverside penthouses - a symbol of how the nation is so very much between worlds, even now.
The cuisine of the Serbian capital is similarly poised between universes. Tradition now has to occupy culinary space with innovation, and in a city with so many historical influences, this can only make Belgrade a fascinating destination for foodies.
As a food lover, I always check the Michelin guide when I'm going to a new city or country. I know I'm in safe hands with their selections, and though local recommendations are always followed, I'm a sucker for a starred establishment if I want to splash out. However, when I looked up Belgrade: black hole. Michelin has not yet rated here. But all that is about to change. And there's an almighty fuss.
Who is on the shortlist?
Good question. I'm still not sure. Certainly there is a shortlist, and it is bound by a non-disclosure agreement. I try to talk to people 'in the know' and this includes the tourist board. The result? I get different lists. I get tipped a wink here, a nudge there, but contradiction reigns. "I can't tell you but if you say a restaurant, I will nod." This is where we are with Belgrade's Michelin expectation. It's almost shrouded in mystery.
I reasoned that the best plan would be to compile a list of every restaurant that every source mentioned and make my own shortlist from that after looking at the website, menu, wine list and concept of each potential new entrant into the hallowed guide.
I'm only in town for a limited time so I choose five. I have genuinely no idea if my list corresponds to Michelin's, but I'm going to have a crack at it.
Here is my shortlist of five, in no particular order.
Salon 1905 - the architect of its own destiny
For an entrance experience, it's a winner. Just a short walk from the banks of the Sava, double doors lead you up a carved stone staircase with teal carpeting. You're feeling regal even before you discover the extraordinary grandeur of the main room. Straight out of Freud's Vienna, or perhaps Hemingway's Paris, this spacious, glorious domed space, fretted with gold and brass, is the perfect place to impress, and no doubt the Michelin judges would have been moved by the splendour.
Architecture plays an even more interesting and unexpected role here at Salon 1905.
Chef David Simunic studied architecture at university. His preoccupation from an early age with precision and design has engendered an extraordinary creative brain when it comes to colours, textures, angles, edges, depth and shapes in the dishes he creates. A careful, humble man, Simunic was only too pleased to show me how the two disciplines overlap in his design workbooks.
But do the cognitive skills transfer to the plate?
There's no question this man can cook. He's brilliant. What is complex here is not his ability but his ability to achieve. Can a restaurant in Belgrade, regardless of how grandiose, truly allow such architectural cuisine to reach its zenith? How much passing trade will approach these artistic dishes in the spirit in which they are created? And no one truly knows the answer yet. I can feel that this is a guy who wants to experiment, to share his vision, but it's also a restaurant that likes to remind customers of the fact they are steeped in tradition, that the kitchen is providing food that has honoured the traditions of Serbia but elevated them with re-invention.
The steak tartare is served with 'chef's chips' (made from the leftovers of the homemade sourdough - ensuring nothing is wasted) which obscure the dish both in presentation and digestion. They are carby and clumsy and out of place. But I'm wondering if this is an attempt to satisfy the fuller appetite and thus not alienate a large percentage of Serbian diners whose traditional dinners are grilled, meaty and fulsome affairs. Between worlds once again. But this is why it's a fascinating time to witness Belgrade's fine dining. This is a crucial part of the city's trajectory towards what it really might want to become. It shouldn't want to be Paris or any other famously gourmet and artistic metropolis. It should want to stay as Belgrade, but a Belgrade with flexibility, openness and optimism.
The website is keen to mention that Tournedos Rossini is a signature dish. And I'm sure Simunic cooks it superbly. But he's far more interesting than that. And he proves it with one of the most perfect dishes I have tasted.
The Wild garlic risotto is an absolute triumph. With dehydrated beetroot and orange, chicken stock and cream foam, and wild garlic flowers, this dish is a hybrid vision of pollock and impressionism.
The flawless sommelier David Bogicevic pairs this heavenly arborio ambrosia with an Aleksandrovic Regent Reserve. From central Serbia, it's a blend of Cabernet and Merlot with a charred wood nose and an acidity that comes into its own just seconds after the milky warmth of the risotto fades. The lingering wild garlic flowers last the whole journey. A transformative dish.
"There is no emotion in computer lines," says Simunic. This is his reason for leaving architecture. The extra dimensions of taste, aroma and fluidity too tempting for the man who may well win this restaurant a star. It will certainly get a recommendation, but there's something to love about the symbiosis of Salon 1905's two architectures that would persuade me to go the extra mile if I were a judge.
Magellan - the one everyone knows
Every time I asked someone in Belgrade the arch question 'what is the best restaurant in Belgrade?', the name Magellan would most assuredly be iterated. It was also mentioned by those 'in the know' as being on the Michelin shortlist. A cursory glance at the menu shows its colours as an establishment with top-end ingredients (Bellota ham and Wagyu beef) and a killer wine list featuring none other than Olivier Leflaive, whom I recently met in Burgundy.
But the menu didn't at first glance appear to be achieving anything particularly interesting. So explore we must.
Set among tower blocks in the Belleville area of New Belgrade, Magellan cuts a confident, shiny figure. Sleek yet warm, the design is imposing but spacious and is centred around, you guessed it, a strictly nautical theme. It's unquestionably fun, and this is ameliorated instantly by the welcome provided by sommelier Miroslav Ilić whose knowledge and sense of humour provided an education alongside plenty of laughter. The decor is that of a luxury cruise liner and the inherent escapism is surely part of its charm in landlocked Serbia.
Chef Aleksandar Ilić prides himself on leaving no waste and using unusual cuts of meat. He stresses that everything that reaches the plate here is a team effort and would like to have his own restaurant one day. This is all lovely, of course, but I'm not seeing a vision. I don't know what's in his heart. Yes, he can cook extremely tasty food, but where is he taking me? Visually, I'm in the bowels of an amazing ship. There are wide video screens showing underwater scenes, which I find marginally tacky, but the upshot is I am ripe for a journey, an adventure. Thankfully they haven't gone the whole hog and made the room sway as I am prone to seasickness, and that would have put me off what turned out to be a fabulous starter.
Goose liver and white chocolate with quince jelly and strawberries in a white balsamic vinegar reduction. It's a texture sensation, and it is paired with a tokaji aszu 5 puttonyos from neighbouring Hungary. It's the kind of food I would want to enjoy on a superyacht so I found this highly appropriate.
Magellan serves local fish and local meat. They have their own fisherman. This is something that will tick boxes for the hallowed guide. One such local fish is perch and here it comes with fermented celery and Serbian black truffle (there's an absolutely roaring trade in truffles here). The fish is light and delicate, the truffle not overpowering and the local wine that comes with it is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and a ubiquitous indigenous grape called Tamjanika, which is often off-dry.
The duck with rosehip reduction and walnuts is a decent main course, but not in any way elevated. It does nothing to surprise me, but it does make me smile. If that's what Magellan has set out to do, to make their customers happy, they have succeeded.
I see the cuisine here as a developing project and am sure it will be a recommendation in the Michelin guide 2021.
Enso - a world between two chefs
"They don't talk to each other for weeks on end," says effervescent owner Miša Relić. "But then they love each other. It's like a marriage."
He's referring to his two chefs. One a jazz fan, the other loves heavy metal. William Blake wrote "without contraries is no progression," and perhaps this is how the unlikely harmony of these two kitchen wizards makes the dishes so full of fun.
Enso sits behind foliage next to a high-end nightclub and music venue under the same ownership a little out of the main centre of town. It's not so easy to see, and visibility on a further, commercial level is something that preoccupies Relić.
"Michelin will give us that visibility," he says. And I think this is a common theme for all of these creative kitchens in this exciting city. Those French adjudicators can grant a restaurant an existence on the world stage as well as putting Belgrade on the culinary map.
But why would a nightclub impresario choose to become a restaurateur? The answer is, surprisingly perhaps, rabbit. He ate a dish of rabbit in 2015 that changed the course of his life. And now it's my turn. On top of the beautifully cooked rabbit saddle is banana and curry ice cream. The taste experience here takes on an extra level as the ice cream slips down early and emanates its flavours from your throat as you experience the succulent meat. The spinach and black onion cream achieve a memorable vegetal elevation to crown a very sexy dish indeed.
Then we have the octopus with miso paste and black garlic. As ever with the latter ingredient, a certain depth of flavour is guaranteed, but the miso element makes me visualise with great joy the kitchen fusion of two warring entities.
He tells me the signature dish is the slow-cooked goose (first sous vide then oven) with mushroom stuffing, goose liver and brandy, served on apricot coulis with a red wine and apple puree and goose stock gravy. It's rich, bold and gorgeous. With it comes a glass of Vranac, which suffers from a poor reputation due to product quality in the past but, like all grapes, can be improved immensely in the hands of a good producer. The nose on this one betrays its oak maturation and has something of the garden fence about it, and it absolutely works.
Relić allows these two chefs, Uroš Ivošević and Nedeljko Jerković, to execute their vision, and potentially each other, while he guides the ship with his passion to entertain and delight. His club, when it is finally allowed to open again, will be waiting through an adjoining door for his customers to end a splendid night with some, often live, music. He wants to give you an evening from start to finish. But has he split his concentration? Is his focus fragmented? Perhaps. He is certainly driven. He is hugely charismatic and intensely likeable, and an establishment in search of a star can be boosted by a figurehead like him. The logo is a single paintbrush flourish to represent a singular moment in time during which you experience a taste sensation. The flavour combinations are thought-provoking, but is Enso conceptually holistic enough for a star? I'm torn, and I suspect the French are too.
A recommendation for sure. Perhaps more.
Langouste - Boom! (with a view)
On the curve of a cobbled street near the city's bombed library, stone stairs lead down to a smartly decorated room, full of light. Huge windows face out onto the waterfront of the River Sava and overlook an old marina. Opposite, on the far bank, are the husks of Belgrade's nightlife hub, now dormant. The marble effect on the walls of the interior offers a sense of something stately and enduring, but the sky fills the room and opens up the sensation.
I am offered, and not for the first time on this gourmet research initiative, a glass of plum rakija. Fruit brandy like this, indeed particularly the plum variety, is ubiquitous in Serbia.
The question 'you would like some rakija?' tends to follow you around and is asked on numerous occasions, preceded by being welcomed to someone's house, starting a meal, crossing the road etc.
There are other flavours and I rather fell for the quince rakija. The one put down in front of me by chef Guillaume Iskandar, is a 10-year-old plum.
Iskandar is no stranger to Michelin, already having achieved a star in 2015 in Paris with his restaurant 'Garance'. His career includes a stint working under culinary trailblazer Alain Passard, who changed this chef's vision of the kitchen. "You have to translate the moment of perfect ripeness, or the moment heat brings out flavour perfectly. Picking that moment is crucial," he says.
But how does this finesse work with the Serbian idea of eating out?
"A restaurant is a social place in Serbia so we need to adopt a more French idea when it comes to appreciating fine food," he explains, and there were are again, between two worlds. This constant bowshock is no more perfectly symbolised than at that very second, when my olfactory senses suddenly get a battering from a travelling fug of cigar smoke. I look at Iskandar with a facial cocktail of bemusement and ire. He chuckles. "I know, I know," he says. "Welcome to the Balkans".
Doesn't it annoy you? Doesn't it really upset the sommelier?
"What can you do," he smiles. But people smoked cigars in restaurants for centuries. It's simply a shock to me that I'm going to have to get over.
I'm soon transported elsewhere by a quartet of amuse-bouches. Goat cheese pie with truffle, crackers with Parmigiano and yeast, Brioche with truffle butter, and a quite splendid poached yellow egg yolk with mushroom puree and Parmigiano foam.
This is what I'm going to call 'extreme umami'. The egg puts you straight into a warm bath of savoury goodness.
Buckwheat risotto, morels, celeriac, asparagus, and local cheese from Pirot follow. The man with the cigar has vanished. Not, mercifully, in a puff of smoke.
This is a dish I could eat all day. The reduction alive through its warmth. The perfect moment achieved. Same with the asparagus. Steamed to perfection. The Pirot cheese has a stunning breadth of flavour which takes the morels to another level. It is paired with a Serbian Sauvignon Blanc from the Aleksandrović winery in Topola, 80 kilometres south of the capital.
French rib-eye steak with Foie Gras served alongside an angus pastrami with kimchi, local kajmak (cream cheese) and radish. The kimchi is a super twist and lifts the fatty rib cut into a spicy sharpness, encompassing perfectly the fusion feel to Langouste.
Then the main event. Smoked veal from Vojvodina with a sauce made from enigmatic national wine Bermet, and Serbian black truffle. Quite the showstopper. A simple elevation, but often then best chefs are able to work with simplicity in order to really showcase an ingredient. Iskandar has done everything he needs to here to engage fine diners and traditional meat lovers alike. The Bermet and truffle sauce paints the cut an unmistakable shade of Serbian.
It has taken the Provence-born chef three years to find a network of providers for meat, fish and vegetables. He knows very well that Michelin looks very favourably upon sourcing local produce. Organic certification, for example, is not de rigueur here, yet, so it can be hard to know precisely what you're getting.
The dessert is dark chocolate with beetroot jam and raspberry sorbet.
I think that, if Michelin choose to grant a star to any establishment in Belgrade, they will look here first. There is tradition, assuredness, complexity and a absolute governance over each ingredient.
Homa - Post-Rock genius in no-man's land
"If this didn't make money, I would have had to sell a kidney".
These are the words of another of Belgrade's charismatic restaurateurs.
Vlastimir Puhalo is one of those seriously chilled-out guys. Chilled-out but always alert. He has an intelligence that insists you are brutal with him. And above all, he wants a Michelin star. He's naked about that. And I enjoy this about him. I have heard from various owners who have said during the course of my excavations that they don't really mind what Michelin says, and that it won't stop them doing what they're doing. But Vlasti is not one of them.
"I've been waiting for this for 15 years," he admits.
Homa is considered by some in Belgrade as a hipster hangout. And it's always incontrovertibly true that there is a select audience for experimental cuisine in Serbia. But this is an oasis of taste in a tucked-away part of town that should be experienced by anyone interested in food.
Vlasti's desire, other than the Michelin recognition, is "to build something different and contribute to a better city." But I think it's also true that he desires to create the possibility of escapism. During a candid conversation on his unpretentious patio, he admitted that the finest compliment he had been given was when a diner said he felt he was not in Belgrade when he was eating at Homa.
Certainly transcendental experiences are part of what Michelin appreciate. But Homa has plenty to recommend it while still in the room. The squid, cuttlefish and Nori seaweed entrée rivals anything I have tasted so far on this trip. I mean, it's so good I want to hurt someone.
It is the sort of dish one remembers. Perfectly seasoned, textures to ponder for hours afterwards, and a true taste of the featured ingredients. This is a Michelin star dish. There's not too much going on, it's holistically sound and just downright gorgeous.
The duck confit which followed was perfectly cooked. And the chef doesn't talk down to his star ingredient, knowing it is powerful enough to hold its own against the celeriac purée and the biodynamic Pinot Noir from Fruska Gora that comes with it. The wine is more candified than a French or a German Pinot but it works with the dish well enough.
I wouldn't say the duck was an elevated Michelin dish, more a competent rendering of a French classic. But I think the Serbian wine was a more interesting match than one would receive in France and this is where I think I've found one of the true joys of Belgrade's food universe. If the nation's winemakers spent more time and energy on indigenous grapes, the wine industry here could really take off. Pairing a classic southwestern French dish like duck confit with a Serbian made wine genuinely gives the diner a new experience.
You may well be afraid of juxtaposing seemingly discordant entities such as frogs and grandmothers, but a little bit of renegade behaviour is good for the soul, and it's definitely good for a nation whose cuisine, as well as its politics, is in transition.
A capable duck does not an etoile make, BUT when it comes to dessert, Homa trounced the competition.
It's simple. It's brilliant. It's what people on insta say 'om nom nom' about. And it's a mini flowerpot. But what it contains... oh goodness why is something so simple so wonderful? Look, it's a clay pot and it looks like a tiny sprig of mint is peeping through the soil at the beginning of spring. A herb, about to start a life, about to herald a new growing season, about to inspire hope. This little minx comes to your table. All innocent of course. Then you plunge in to a chocolate mint mouse so delectable that you would have to be Marcus Aurelius not to emit some kind of publicly frowned-upon sound.
Here stands a real challenge for Michelin. A brutalist urban setting with a cuisine that wants to be for more people than it is truly for. Again, here is a chef who admits it's tough to find sustainable suppliers of key quality ingredients. But the dishes are setting these establishments far, far above the norm in this puzzling, ambitious, vibrant city.
A Michelin star is a big gig. Homa might need to plug in the guitars and await a brave new audience.
A kiss before dining?
I was going to leave it there. But, as a seasoned barfly, it would be wrong of me not to give a recommendation for pre-dinner drinks. And I found an absolute cracker.
Josephine is the place to go in Belgrade for cocktails and that makes it a perfect starting point for an evening that features any future Michelin star restaurants. Named after civil rights activist Josephine Baker, this oasis in a concrete playground has a superb heated terrace for those classic Covid evenings. But once they open fully they have a plush indoor bar with a hyperactive kitchen and toilets that cater for those who wish to escape the tyranny of the bustle. There's a full-length mirror and velour-coated chair in the ladies' (apparently).
They have the finest cocktail barmen in town (sorry, I refuse to say 'mixologists') and the list is something to behold, but I went for the Hope Monkey, which is Kaffir lime leaf-infused Botanist gin, lime juice, homemade matcha syrup and absinthe rinse. Properly impressed.
They also have a very creditable list of single malt whiskies.
If you get stuck there because the people are so beautiful, don't fret - you can eat there too. And if you want a tour of the place, speak to my mate Andor, who is full of love for his bar and all those who come to Belgrade to enjoy it.
At the crossroads of geopolitics, cultural reinvention and European expansion, Belgrade's food scene is one of the more interesting places to explore. There are other restaurants, of course. I made my shortlist from the menus I saw and the feelings I had while researching. I suspect all five of the establishments I visited will feature in the 2021 Michelin guide. A first for Serbia. I can't see all of them receiving a star. It will be one or two, probably no more. But the strange struggle for the city to free itself from its traditional boundaries is the real attraction in this extraordinary hub. How will innovation punch through that thick, meaty duvet of the known and the loved? However it works out, these restaurants will be at the forefront of the battle. And almost certainly carrying a plum rakija.