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For such a small city Reykjavik has a lot of places to eat and among them a fairly wide choice of cuisines; one that we had not expected to find was a restaurant serving typical dishes from the Balkans and though this actually meant mainly Bulgaria and not our beloved Yugoslavia, we felt compelled to give it a try.
Balkanika is situated at the end of a row of colourful low rises buildings just off the Icelandic capital's main street. We walked past an A-board dozens of times, tempted by the photographs of hearty looking Balkan specialities, before finally succumbing on the last night of our trip. We'd been out all day, first swimming in the Blue Lagoon, then sight-seeing in the mountains so we had worked up a good appetite and hoped that some filling Balkan grub would hit the spot. The owner is an Icelander but his wife is Bulgarian and she is in charge of the kitchen so you can be fairly sure you're getting something authentic.
We visited on a Sunday evening in April 2013 and were able to get a table without a booking. In fact when we arrived only one other table was occupied and that was by three student-looking types who were drinking beers rather than eating. By way of a little eavesdropping we discovered they were (probably) Bulgarian (or possibly Macedonian); had they been relieving their homesickness by enjoying some traditional Balkan fare it would have made sense but they were just drinking very expensive micro-brewed Icelandic beer and it seemed like an odd kind of place to go to do that. Anyway....
Balkanika is described as a 'kitchen cafe'; it does feel a bit less formal than a restaurant and a fair few people were ordering to take their food away which also gave it a more laid back feel. The interior is quite informal and they've managed to give it a little Balkan influence, in the form of the nicely embroidered traditional table cloths and a few pots and paintings that would be typically from that part of the world, without overdoing the theme.
The menu is in Icelandic and English and has photographs of the dishes as well as a description. While Balkan cuisine is essentially meat based, there would be enough meat free dishes to offer a reasonable choice to vegetarians, by choosing a main course, or by putting together some starters to make a meze type meal. If you're familiar with Turkish or other Middle Eastern food you'll find the dishes on offer here quite familiar as the food of Bulgaria is quite similar. There are kebabs, falafel, seafood options, hummus plates, stuffed vegetables and salads such as 'tabule' among the dishes in this extensive menu.
Iceland being fairly pricey, we skipped starters even though we really fancied either the hummus plate or the baba ganoush (an aubergine dip). From the meaty main I chose the 'Mediterranean lamb' (2390 ISK, approximately £12.92) which was a medley of strips of grilled lamb (so tender and with a slightly charred flavour from the grill) with a ratatouille-like mixture of red peppers, courgettes and aubergine which had a slightly sweet, slightly smoky flavour, not quite a goulasch but not dissimilar either. This didn't have an accompaniment but it went well with the complimentary flat breads which were brought to our table by the friendly waitress.
Himself chose the 'Balkan Grill' (1790 ISK, approximately £9.68) which was a hefty plate of food confirming that we'd been right to forego starters. It was a real tribute to however many little lambs had given their lives to create it; lamb sausages, cutlets, a kebab of minced lamb spiced in a traditional Balkan style - all of it tender and succulent. It came with a plate of very good French fries, a little heap of crisp cabbage salad and a kind of ragout of white beans.
Disappointingly there are no Balkan beers to go with the food, in fact the choice of beers was quite limited (though they did have plenty of rakija) so I went with a Diet Coke while Himself took the opportunity to try an Icelandic white ale made by local brewery Einstok (and now available from selected outlets in the UK). It's made in the style of a Belgian witbier and has that crisp clean flavour with citrus tones you would expect.
On such a quiet night Balkanika was a little lacking in atmosphere but I imagine that when there are more customers it's probably quite cosy and welcoming (not least because the tables are quite close together). The value for money isn't bad for Reykjavik and it was certainly the cheapest of our three evening meals. We paid approximately £30 for two mains and two drinks and felt like we'd had a really good filling meal.
Vitastigur 10, 101 Reykjavik
Open daily 11.00 am until 11.00 pm
Pictures of Balkanika Restaurant, Reykjavik
This cosy cafe style eatery occupies a typical Reykjavik building