This story was originally published in Belgrade Insight print edition on November 6 2015.
By Anna Squires
Gnezdo Organic is probably the only restaurant in Belgrade whose Wi-Fi password, translated from Serbian, means “rolled zucchini”.
It only follows suit that the café’s kitchen uses solely organic ingredients, delivered fresh from the farm to the table. Head chef Biljana Matić chooses provisioners based on their proximity to the café – farms are typically located within a hundred kilometers of Belgrade – and on their commitment to a responsible, chemical-free harvest.
Even before the first bite, the café is a feast for the eyes, for Gnezdo’s owners intended the Karađorđeva Street café to feel like the “nest” it is named after.
Visitors follow electric-blue bird graffiti up a spiraling tower before they reach the nest itself: a warm, sun-washed white space with a high thatched-wood ceiling. Solid wooden tables and benches add a rustic coziness to the airy restaurant. Eagle-eyed patrons will spot birdcages and tiny wicker nests perched around the room. And then comes the meal.
There is nothing inherently different about a Serbian café that sources local produce. The country’s GMO ban and vibrant agriculture ensure an abundance of organic vegetables. Yet as one Belgrader, Marija Pajković, admits: “Serbian vegetable culture isn’t very creative.” Enter Gnezdo, whose genius lies in punctuating rich Slavic dishes with freshness and verve.
Case in point: the café’s updated risotto. The risotto traditionally served in Serbian restaurants is outrageously oozy, cooked in butter and wine. Gnezdo’s fresh twist on the dish is an earthy risotto folded with seasonal vegetables, like Indian-summer beets and crisp carrots.
Chef Matić’s autumn take on the dish slips in sweet winter pumpkin. The result? Light fare that packs a punch. The pumpkin imbues the dish with huge, robust flavor and a glorious sunset-orange hue. And it is topped, of course, with Gnezdo’s famed rolled and grilled zucchini, wrapped around slabs of goat cheese. When the cheese melts into chewy rice kernels, the risotto becomes pure, classic decadence with modern mannerisms.
Gnezdo’s vegan vibe leaves room for the carnivore. While the café prides itself on meat- and dairy-free options, the menu isn’t short on organic, grass-fed beef. Matić cooks a winter goulash as homey as Grandma’s, but elevates the beefy shepherd’s stew with shredded cilantro, stewed prunes, and buttered spinach and walnuts to the side.
Athena Bender’s eyes light up as she chows down on a vegetarian shish kebab – another Serbian staple – made with caramelized tofu and zucchini and nested on a bed of millet, cinnamon, and mint. She follows the dish with dark chocolate truffles roosting on juicy orange slices and feather-dusted with downy white chocolate shavings.
“In a perfect world there’s one of these places on every corner,” the American study abroad student says, and gives a thumbs-up to Gnezdo’s best recipe: taking well-known Slavic dishes and adding a dash of modernity, a hint of tradition, and a heaping spoonful of mindful consumption.
Anna Squires is student of the SIT Study Abroad Program Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans. This story was written as an assignment for Program’s Journalism Track.