Balkan Bites

Chef Alisah's Bosnian cuisine includes both delicious dishes and disappointments

I don't know a damn thing about Bosnian cuisine. This is a problem, because the idiot editor of this newspaper assigned me to review Chef Alisah's Restaurant, a newish joint on the northwest side that serves "European and Bosnian cuisine."

Looking for some knowledge, I turned to Google, and learned ... well, nothing. The first Web site that came up when I searched for "Bosnian cuisine" was Wikipedia, which informed me that "Bosnian cuisine uses many spices, but usually in moderate quantities." OK then!

If I learned anything, it was that there's not much information out there about Bosnian cuisine. One of the top 15 pages that came up on Google under "Bosnian cuisine" was a Tucson Citizen blog entry about Chef Alisah's Restaurant, and another was the Web site for the restaurant.

So, off I ignorantly went. All joking aside, I don't consider this ignorance much of a handicap, seeing as almost all Southern Arizonans would be equally ignorant. And my ignorant take on Ahmet Alisah's cuisine can best be summed up with two words: mixed feelings.

Some of the dishes we had on our two visits (one dine-in, one takeout) were actually quite tasty. Our favorite had to be the cevapi, aka Bosnian-style beef sausages (10 for $6.90; 15 for $9.90). They were packed with lots of subtle flavors; when mixed with the onions, the tzatziki (yogurt sauce) and the fluffy bread that was served along with them, the sausages made for a wonderful treat.

I was also a fan of the sarma, or cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice, onions and sauerkraut ($10.90). Garrett wished there had been more beef inside of the five rolls, but I didn't mind the rice's dominance. The rolls were served with some tzatziki and some ajvar, a red-pepper-dominated vegetable dip which complemented the cabbage rolls nicely. We'd already learned about ajvar's charms before the cabbage rolls arrived, because we got a tzatziki/ajvar plate as a starter ($5.90). Our only quibble with the dips was that they came with some thick slices of white bread that were less than adequate as dipping vessels; spreading the dips on the bread wasn't a great option due to the absence of appetizer plates.

While the sarma and the cevapi were splendid, other dishes we sampled were mediocre, at best. The piletina u sosu od gljiva, or chicken with homemade mushroom sauce ($11.90), had me excited, since I generally love all things involving mushrooms (at least when it comes to food). However, I didn't love this dish at all; the chicken pieces were somewhat dry, despite being surrounded by an overly watery orange-colored sauce and topped with rubbery mushroom slices. The highlights of the entrée were the rice and the cabbage salad that come along with this and many of the other dishes; the salad was pretty basic (cabbage, a tomato slice, a cucumber slice and a vinegary dressing) but enjoyable.

I was also disappointed by the cufte u sosu, or Bosnian meatballs in a tomato sauce ($8.90). On one hand, the meatballs were moist and certainly dominated by meat and not filler (as is the case with far too many restaurant meatballs); on the other hand, these meatballs just didn't have much in the way of flavor, outside of meat and pepper.

There was more flavor to be found in the gulas, or Bosnian-style gulash ($9.90). Pieces of beef joined a sauce with olive oil, parsley, salt, black pepper and bell peppers; while the dish didn't knock my socks off, it was decent, thanks largely to the tender and abundant beef pieces. Even more enjoyable was the janjetina sa grahom, or lamb with white beans ($12.90). The lamb mixed well with the garlic-dominated sauce and the huge white beans. The lamb would have been even better if it hadn't been so fatty.

Hearty, meat-in-sauce dishes dominate Chef Alisah's menu (with the same fare offered at both lunch and dinner), although vegetarians have plenty of options, too, thanks to the inclusion of a handful of salads and five veggie-only entrées. A kids' menu is also available.

Chef Alisah's offers a handful of unique desserts, including crepes ($4.50); an apple stuffed with walnuts, whipped cream and vanilla sugar before being cooked in a sweet sauce ($3.50); and Bosnian-style baklava ($2). The only dessert we tried was the vocne kuglice, or fruit balls ($1.49, although we were given them free with our meal). About the size of golf balls—maybe a little bigger—these no-sugar-added, dry-fruit treats were both colorful and tasty. I liked my coconut ball, which included an almond in the middle, while Garrett had a date ball that he enjoyed.

With the name "chef" in the title, you might expect a somewhat upscale atmosphere, although that isn't quite the case at Chef Alisah's. There are some upscale touches—real tablecloths, pewter-like small chandeliers and real plants—mixed with some decidedly casual elements, such as cases of orange juice sitting on the dining-room floor against a wall, near a noisy cooler emblazoned with the Aquafina logo. A Bosnia and Herzegovina flag, purple walls and what I am guessing was Bosnian music rounded out the atmosphere. The service—the same young man served us on our dine-in visit and helped me on the takeout visit—was competent but far from flashy. Chef Alisah himself made a point of saying goodbye and thanking me on both visits, which was a nice touch.

Whether or not Chef Alisah's offers authentic Bosnian cuisine, I can't say. But I can say that my American, ignorant taste buds found both unexpected pleasures and disappointments at this rare Bosnian restaurant.