Çka Ka Qëllu celebrates Albanian cuisine at Murray Hill
You’ve probably eaten food made by Albanians, probably without realizing it. Almost 20 years ago, the New York Times reported that ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing a genocidal conflict in Kosovo took over pizzerias throughout the city. Little Italy in the Bronx was an indicator. At pizzerias like Tony and Tina, puffy, cheese-puffed bureks were soon sold alongside slices of plain cheese. And a handful of taverns, like Gurra Café, offering a small menu of Albanian food were making their debut in what was called little Kosovo.
Then, three years ago, a more ambitious catering establishment appeared, a place more suited to families and celebrations than Albanian taverns. His name was Çka Ka Qëllu, an old proverb meaning “what we have”. The owner is Ramiz Kukaj, who came here from Kosovo in the mid-90s, and entered real estate before becoming a restaurateur. The leader, also from Kosovo, is Afrim Kalgini. And you won’t be surprised to learn that Grammy-winning Dua Lipa, whose parents are refugees from the Balkans, dined there.
Now Kukaj has opened a new branch on the eastern slope of Murray Hill. Located in a rare Manhattan backwater that looks more like the city of the 1960s, the place occupies the ground floor of a stately townhouse, with three end-to-end dining rooms and a stone slab patio. L shape at the back. (There is a winter cabin in front of the restaurant.) The interior is decorated with 18th and 19th century trinkets that include horse collars and hoes, antique kitchen utensils, stringed instruments, costumes of peasants and black and grainy grains. white photos. Indeed, the walls are a delight for those who revel in historical material, which the menu itself does.
Take the Skenderbeg steak ($ 25). Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skenderbeg (or Skanderbeg), was a 15th-century nobleman who fought to expel the Ottoman Empire from what is now northern Albania. It’s up to you to investigate this story further, because it gets really complicated, but suffice it to say that Rembrandt made a portrait of him, and now the Skenderbeg steak is one of the tastiest and most of the Çka Ka Qëllu menu.
A tender, thinly sliced smoked steak is wrapped around a core of cottage cheese. Shaped like a very long cigar, it is breaded and fried, and an almost pure cream sauce is piped along its entire length. Finally, a series of strips of marinated pepper is placed perpendicularly. The visual result is just as striking as the dish is delicious, and when you cut it the cottage cheese oozes out. (A similar treatment across the border in Serbia is known as a ‘maiden’s dream’.) Never has anything likely inspired by Austrian schnitzel (or maybe we can trace it back to Milan) he appreciated such a colorful variation.
There are no bureks on the menu, as they are usually from the province of places that specialize in them. In the Bronx, for example, you can get these spectacular stuffed phyllo pies at Dukagjini Burek Cafe in Pelham Parkway, and Çka is wisely hesitant to step on its grass. There are however a plethora of wonderful pastries available, starting with mantia, which shows that despite an age-old conflict between Turkey and various Balkan states, the latter owe a lot to the former on a culinary level.
While Turkish manti is a thick-skinned, noodle-like dumpling of lamb often served in a tomato sauce, in Albania the associated term mantia applies to a small turnover stuffed with ground veal, here accompanied by a bowl of distinguished artisan yogurt. Speaking of bread, one of the great pleasures of eating in Çka Ka Qëllu is the bread called somun, a puffy pita made on site. When you order one of the dips in the appetizer section ($ 5 to $ 6 each), you will receive a pair of oven-steamed somun. These dips include the typical Balkan ajavar, a paste of fresh red chili peppers on the tongue; and a garlic yogurt dip called tarator which you may recognize in Greek restaurants.
Somun is also the flawless accompaniment to qebapa ($ 15), the small, skinless sausages known in Slavic languages as cevapi. Made here from veal due to the Muslim heritage of many Kosovar Albanians (indeed, there is no pork on the restaurant’s menu), the grilled cylinders are laced with onions and garlic, without leaving any salt. They’re so good that it’s hard not to swallow them quickly, filling bites with warm bread as you go.
Besides the other grills that make up a large part of Çka Ka Qëllu’s menu (sausage, chicken, shish kebab, etc.), most of the meat appears in the section of the menu devoted to tava – stews roasted in a clay container. decorated. In a classic goulash ($ 16) made from veal again, the meat becomes extremely tender in its paprika broth, almost more soup than stew. If you want something thicker and stickier, dip into a pot of fasul white beans, cooked in a tasty mud with your choice of smoked meat or sausage.
To wet your whistle, there are wines, mostly from Italy and California, and beers too, but no mixed drinks yet. Scrolling down to the selection of desserts – there are about three offered each day – you’ll probably find that baklava is the most familiar option, but it’s no different from other baklava you’ve tasted, sticky. and hazelnuts. So on this occasion a friend and I chose trilece, with no idea what it was. It turned out to be a milk soaked cake with a caramel filling that looked oddly familiar.
We finally realized that it was a tres leches cake, a staple of Latin restaurants believed to originate from Nicaragua or Mexico. We asked the waiter, “How did this happen in an Albanian menu?” She smiled and replied, “It was from Brazil. Back in Albania, Brazilian soap operas became extremely popular in the 90s. And it was thanks to them that we learned to bake the cake. True or not, I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate the internationalization of food in the modern age.