Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Perfectly Timed Dinner.

It's dark, and I am standing in front of a smoked glass door. My friend's carefully written directions led me to this building. The bottom of her note reads, “There is no sign!” She failed to mention that in addition to being unmarked, the restaurant would also appear to be in an abandoned building.

Doubtful that this could actually be the place, I reach for the door; and just then, I hear a faint click as it is unlocked from the inside. It swings open slightly and two eyes peer at me from a dimly lit room.
“Um, mire mbrema,” I say hesitantly, using the few words I know in Albanian to offer a greeting. “Is, Te Nene?” I ask slowly, expecting the answer to be "No," but hopeful that the owner of the two eyes can direct me to the proper, less-abandoned-looking location.

“Po, po. Come in." The door opens all the way, and the eyes become a young man. “Welcome to our restaurant.”

“Oh good! I wasn't sure if I had found the right place," I say, stating the obvious. “It is so dark out front...” I let my voice trail off.

“Yeah, well maybe we will put a sign up,” he says in a way that tells me a sign will never be added to front of the building.

I fully enter into the small space. We are the only ones in the restaurant. “I'm Allison,” I say reaching out my hand.

“I'm Patriot. Please. Sit.” He gestures to a nearby table, set for six. I am the first of my friends to arrive.

As soon as I sit down, a glass of dry dark red wine is placed in front of me by Patriot's brother, Besart, who joins us from the rear of the restaurant. The wine tastes good and dark, its fullness complements the dim, wooden interior.

It is a cozy place, long and narrow. The kitchen is not separate, but sits along one wall. Patriot prepares the entire meal in full view just feet from our table. This kitchen's openness is no novelty like at those American restaurants showily touting the talents of the cook. Rather, this setup has an honesty that says, “This is us. Take it or leave it.” It reminds me of sitting at my Grandma's house and watching from the kitchen table as she prepared scrambled eggs for breakfast and then served them to us, hot and salty. I take a sip of my wine and return to Kosovo.

“How did you learn to cook?” I ask Patriot, making conversation so I don't sit in silence until my friends arrive.

“My grandmother,” he replies like he's been waiting for a signal. He goes on to explain that over the years, the recipes have been adapted to incorporate new herbs and vegetables that he could get his hands on as the selection at markets improved. Broccoli, he tells me, is new to the region; so new, in fact, that there is no Albanian translation of its name. I watch as he tenderly sprinkles a diced herb into a white creamy dish.

He tells me that he traces his family's history as far back as Egypt. From there, to Albania and on to Kosovo – first in Gjakova and later to Prishtina. “We aren't a family that is all about living in Kosovo or being Albanian. We just go to places where we think there will be good business,” says Patriot. In a land where commitment to preserving ethnic traditions takes priority, this is a bold stance, perhaps even refreshing. It is all the more unusual given his name.

The brothers own the restaurant together. Their father runs another restaurant called Renaissance, which is popular in Prishtina's international crowd. It offers a 15-euro prix-fixe dinner with unlimited wine and rakija, the local liquor. Unlike Renaissance, Te Nene is open only for lunch, at least partially explaining tonight's locked and unlit doors. Graciously, they opened their doors tonight just for our private party.

“So Prishtina has been good for business then, I guess?”

“Very good!” His eyes instantly light with excitement. Breaking away from our conversation for a moment, he turns to the door as my friends walk through. He greets them, fills everyone’s wine glasses to the top, and winks at me as he tops mine off. A nice wine buzz warms my cheeks.

The first course consists of a creamy herb spread, tuna salad, homemade Ajvar, and a spicy cheese dip. Freshly baked white bread, sliced and served warm, accompanies the spreads. Small plates of zucchini, pickled beets, and olives pair nicely with the spreads. “You like?” Patriot asks. Our mouths full, we answer with smiles and nods.

Each guest is then served a generous salad bowl drizzled in balsamic reduction. The produce – green lettuce leaves, shredded carrots, dark red tomato wedges, and cucumber slices – is fresh and crisp and tastes good with the dry red wine which has been poured endlessly since we sat. The restaurant has come alive with smells of herbs and sounds of sizzling foods; Patriot is busy, twisting and turning around the small kitchen area. I watch him as though I am watching a dancer on stage – an apparent rhythm in the way he moves around the kitchen. He catches me looking, and says loudly over the noise of the pan-frying chicken, “my grandmother told me it’s important to be fast — if you miss the timing of a dish, it will all be ruined.”

When his performance finishes, our salad bowls are cleared, and he sets down the main course, which includes two generously-portioned meat entrees – an herbed chicken with rice and tender chunks roast beef. “Your timing must have been perfect,” I tell Patriot as he clears our plates, "because that tasted amazing.”

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