A pair of thin blond women enter Cosmopolitan Bakery and Carry Out and scan the menu at the counter. They’re looking for salads, they say, but owner Ivica “Ivan” Svalina steers them to the pikata chicken schnitzel, the special of the day, which the women agree to order. If Svalina is pleased to direct two more customers to one of his Bosnian dishes, he has little time to express it. He has to move into the kitchen to pound, bread, and fry the chicken breasts.
Svalina’s one-man show continues all afternoon as customers—a black female sheriff’s deputy here, a white male soldier in fatigues there—trickle into his strip-mall storefront just across the street from the Huntington Metro station. Many know exactly what they want, typically Svalina’s cevapcici, juicy little sausages served with a round of spongy lepina bread dipped in beef stock and lightly grilled. Others opt for one of his wife’s flaky baked bureks, beautiful browned coils of phyllo dough stuffed with beef or cheese or some other savory ingredient.
It’s newbies like me and the blond women who seem to want something familiar from Cosmopolitan—which might explain their need for a simple salad or my need to connect Bosnian dishes such as cevapcici to foods I better understand, like Middle Eastern kebabs. This search for the familiar strikes me as natural any time you first confront a foreign cuisine, but somehow it’s more intensified here.
Perhaps in my case that’s because, after reading for hours about Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans, I still can’t stitch together a coherent history of the place. I have instead developed a sort of messy shorthand: Large factions of people on this patch of earth don’t like one another, and outsiders have been more than willing to exploit those tensions. Clearly, making sense of the food is far easier for me.
If anyone understands seeking order amid chaos, it’s Svalina, a trained chef who had carved out a relatively good life in Doboj, even as Bosnia-Herzegovina began clamoring for independence from Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. He and his wife, Amela, shared a home with their infant daughter, Tina, and operated their own cafe and market when fighting broke out in 1992. The problem for Svalina was his heritage: He’s a Croat, married to a Bosnian Muslim, and Bosnian Serbs wanted the country all to themselves.
So when Bosnian Serbs started going door-to-door, rounding up Croats and Muslims, Svalina and his family fled to Amela’s parents’ condo for safekeeping. Their house eventually was looted and burned down, and the condo hideaway didn’t last long either. Serbian troops smoked out and jailed the chef’s family. A Serbian friend, Svalina says, wrote a letter to the American Red Cross on his behalf, which apparently was good enough to get the Svalina family on the list when Serbians and Croats agreed to a prisoner exchange.
Svalina spent the next nine years in Munich, Germany, where he landed a gig as head chef at the Zum Wilden Hund restaurant. There, under the tutelage of chef Frank Kreuzer, Svalina expanded his culinary knowledge far beyond Bosnian and Croatian cuisines. Yet Svalina never seriously thought about taking his newfound knowledge back to Bosnia. He had his reasons. After the war, Doboj had become a volatile part of the Serbian Republic, one of Bosnia-Herzogovina’s two political entities. “We don’t have a home anymore down there,” he says.
Svalina instead set his sights on America, which he had romanticized as a boy after watching countless Hollywood movies. The reality, of course, was less romantic in 2000 when the chef and his family—now four strong with the birth of daughter Karmela—landed in Virginia, where he had family. Because Svalina couldn’t speak English well, the former head chef accepted a lower position in the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.
Nearly four years later, he opened his own place, Restaurant Cosmopolitan, just a few doors down from his current spot. But with 99 seats and few employees familiar with the cuisine, the restaurant proved too much for the family to handle. So Svalina sold it in December 2005 and, about 15 days later, opened the more manageable Cosmopolitan Bakery and Carry Out. The tiny, salmon-colored shop has no tables and only a half dozen stools next to narrow wooden counters built into the walls.
But size hardly matters in the case of Cosmopolitan. The operation has managed to dent the consciousness of the relatively small population of displaced Bosnians in the D.C. area, including folks at the Bosnian embassy, who have called on Svalina to help cook for large events. It’s a job well-suited to Svalina, who almost views himself as a culinary ambassador, working to charm newcomers with food that he and Amela prepare from scratch, from stocks and dressings to phyllo dough and lepina bread.
Svalina, of course, would be the first to admit that his food here isn’t an exact replica of the stuff back in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For starters, the chef has messed with the cevapcici. Cooking school taught him to pack the pint-sized sausages with 7 percent pork, 10 percent lamb, and 83 percent beef. But Svalina prefers an all-beef version, seasoned with pepper and grated garlic and paired with either a house-made ajvar relish or a small cup of sour cream known as kajmak. And what’s the deal with that authentic-sounding Doboj schnitzel? The beef stuffed with cheese, it seems, is an all-American creation from Svalina himself.
Svalina calls much of what he sells street food, which is true. The burek, cevapcici, and pljeskavica (also known as the “Bosnia burger,” which Svalina marinates in the juice of crushed red onions before grilling, topping with kajmak, and sliding between slices of lepina) can all be found in food stalls around the Balkans. But categorizing his menu as “street food” implies too much; it implies anyone could make it. While it’s true that Ivan and Amela Svalina’s food is humble in concept, their techniques are far too refined for the average home cook.
When they prepare wiener schnitzel, they expertly cut and trim the veal shoulder, pound it paper thin, coat it in panade, and then fry it to the most golden shade of brown. Their pastrmka is even better; it’s a whole trout, grilled skin-on, deboned, lightly seasoned, and drizzled with olive oil so that the creamy flesh almost melts on your tongue. Then there’s the cevapcici, which I count among the best finger foods I’ve ever eaten.
If I learned anything about Bosnia-Herzegovina recently, it’s this: The place lost one helluva chef in Ivan Svalina.
Cosmopolitan Bakery and Carry Out, 5902-A N. Kings Highway, Alexandria, (703) 329-0388.
Cosmopolitan may be the only Bosnian restaurant in the area, but if you’re looking for similar food, you’ll find some parallels with restaurants offering Middle Eastern cuisine. Try these. And for a comprehensive guide to the Washington region’s food scene, click here.
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