If you’ve been travelling through the Balkans for a few weeks, you’re probably a bit sick of eating grilled meat and finding yourself smelling like barbecue everyday. Here’s a hot tip – while cevapi is famous as a Bosnian specialty, there are many other foods and restaurants available in Sarajevo city centre. Our free tour guide was quite explicit in saying, “Most of us locals only have cevapi maybe once a week. I know you tourists like to eat it every day, but it’s too unhealthy for us to eat it so often. We have home cooking instead.”
He pointed us towards a few different little restaurants in the Sarajevo Old Town in the “Ascinica” style, offering healthier and homelier dining options that locals would eat more regularly than the grilled cevapi. Ascinica’s are restaurants with ready-made Bosnian stews and soups in pots in a bain-marie – you just go up to the counter, order what you want from the display, and they’ll bring it out to you with a healthy serving of house-baked bread that’s very similar to Turkish bread.
In the four full days that we were in Sarajevo, we visited three ascinicas in the Old Town for lunch, finishing off each meal with a visit to a nearby cafe for dessert – an afternoon-treat ritual that seems to be built into the Bosnian culture. Each ascinica offers something different, so here’s three options depending on what you’re looking for!
Day One: Ascinica Hadzibajric F Namik and Kuca Sevdaha
If you’re looking for historical authenticity, Ascinica Hadzibajric is the place to go! It’s been run by the same family since the Ottomon Empire, and recipes are passed down the family line, never written down. For that reason, they’re particularly popular with the older generation, and we found ourselves sat on a table with half a dozen men in their seventies when we went in for lunch.
The woman behind the counter was very friendly and spoke excellent English, pointing me towards their chicken and vegetable soup when I said I wanted something light. This soup was nice and thick with a generous portion of tender chicken breast strips and a healthy portion of vegetable chunks as well. With chunks of their still-warm home-made Turkish-style bread dunked in the soup, it was the perfect light lunch for anyone who’s rating below a 5/10 on the hunger-meter (which is a thing that exists in our household!).
K was rating at more of a 7 on the hunger-meter however, so he chose something a bit more substantial – a tender veal stew with a large side of mashed potatoes, served again with a side of flat bread. All meals in this ascinica are served in stainless steel bowls, which means that you also get a healthy serving of rich meaty sauce, perfect for sopping up with the warm flatbread.
Once you’ve had your (incredibly cheap) meal at Ascinica Hadzibajric, you can head around the corner to Kuca Sevdaha for a drink and dessert. While there’s a museum and art gallery in this building, the main attraction is the greenhouse-style courtyard cafe.
While it was relatively quiet when we arrived around 1.30pm, the tables quickly filled up as mid-afternoon rolled around and locals started to drop in for their afternoon tea treats.
We ordered a tufahiya to share, a local dessert specialty. To make it, an apple is cored and then poached in sugar syrup for a few hours. The core is then filled with a walnut and butter blend, the apple is topped with whipped cream, and then set in sugar syrup again. It’s a very sweet treat, so best shared between two people!
Day Two: Ascinica Asdz and Ramis Cafe
If you’re looking for a wide range of home-cooking, Ascinica Asdz is the place to go. It’s a little bit more commercial, with more seating, newer display cabinets and staffed with more than just family members.
They have two displays of hot home-cooking, another of cold salads, and a final cabinet of desserts. We were just there for the home-cooking, but do keep in mind that you can always ask for a takeaway salad here! It’s a useful tip as it can be quite difficult to find good produce in supermarkets in Sarajevo, so you can supplement a cook-at-home dinner with a fresh salad from Ascinica Asdz.
Being a little hungrier that day, I went for a full meal instead of just a soup. We did share a soup between us though! Like the previous day, all meals are served in stainless steel bowls. It seems to be a staple in Bosnia, as all the meals we had were all served on stainless steel rather than ceramic or plastic!
K chose a chicken patty on a bean and potato stew. The beans were a little limp (as they would be, after sitting in a bainmarie), but the chicken patty was surprisingly tasty with an eggy undertone (eggs were used as the binder in the chicken mince mix). With the fried batter, texturally it almost tasted like a fried egg!
We shared a rich beef and tomato soup. While it was described to us by the waiter as a beef soup, I think it would be more accurate to call it a spicy savoury tomato soup with occasional bits of beef mince – which to be honest, is probably more to my liking! If you added some corn and beans to this soup, it would be the perfect taste of Mexicana in Sarajevo.
I chose to have the chicken meatballs with the mushroom rice – which proved to be an excellent choice, far better than K’s bean and potato stew. The mushrooms were fat, plump and juicy, and there was actually a very generous number of mushroom served with hardly any rice when you would normally expect it to be the other way around. The chicken meatballs were delicious as well, herbed and spiced before being served in a rich tangy capsicum-based sauce.
After you have an excellent meal at Ascinica Asdz, you can go up the road to Ramis Cafe, an institution in Sarajevo popular for their cakes and desserts which are without doubt the best in the whole city. Prices are very reasonable and you’ll spend no more than $4 AUD on two slices of delicious cake.
I had the yoghurt cake – an incredibly light and aerated yoghurt mousse on a fluffy vanilla sponge, topped with a thin layer of berry blend jam. Incredibly simple, light and refreshing on the palate, not too heavy, and just heavenly. A perfect choice after a big lunch!
K had a heavier slice of cake – the Sacher Torte which is a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam under the icing. We had first tried a Sacher Torte in Austria and had found it quite delicious, with the rich chocolate balanced out by the sweet and subtle jam. The torte was even better here than it was in Austria!
Day Three: Ascinica Stari Grad and Cafe Demirovic
If you’re looking for a popular hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Ascinica Stari Grad is the place to go. It seems to be particularly popular with local blue-collar workers, who will all decimate the selection early on during the day. By the time we got there for lunch one day at 1.30pm, more than half the cabinet had already been emptied by earlier diners and we weren’t left with much choice at all. Make sure you show up here early to get a better selection of food!
I got some rice with stewed peas and stewed beef. Sauce was plentiful and tasty, but the peas were overcooked and parts of the beef were a bit stringy, sticking to my teeth. I didn’t enjoy sopping up the sauce with the bread as much as I had in other restaurants as the bread had gone cold and wasn’t freshly baked.
K had rice with dolmas (stuffed cabbage rolls) and it was much the same story – lots of sauce, but not much substance to the meal. This is probably partly due to the fact that we were dining a lot later than normal, so food had already been sitting out for quite some time – however, I think certain standards should still be maintained. Lesson learned – lunch in Sarajevo is always best taken around 12pm – any later than 1pm, and the quality will be questionable!
From Ascinica Stari Grad, you can walk down the street and turn the corner to get to Cafe Demirovic right at the entrance to the old city. It’s quite a bit more old-fashioned and hasn’t yet modernised – all the cake offerings here are still the heavy creamy types, rather than lighter mousse cakes like the one I had at Ramis.
K ordered the only cream-free cake on display – a caramel torte. Less cream doesn’t mean less sweet though – this torte was almost sickeningly sweet with the cloying caramel mouth-feel that never seems to leave your palate. Points for the fresh chopped nuts in the caramel sauce though.
I chose a more conventional chocolate torte which was just as sweet, rich and heavy as the caramel torte. Cafe Demirovic clearly isn’t the place to go if you want a lighter dessert – it’s all about the rich and heavy cakes here.
So there you have it – three different ascinica’s and three different dessert stops in Sarajevo Old Town. I’ve got my favourites (Ascinica Hadzibajric and Ramis Cafe), but you might have different tastes. Check them all out and make up your mind then!