Since this story was written, Peshku has closed its doors. Nate has since found a new love in Pristina’s Fish Grill.
Nate Tabak is a journalist and a man of flavor living in Pristina, Kosovo.
Like the dim red light baiting the baby-faced sailor about to make his first trip to a brothel, the logo of a smiling blue fish in central Pristina, Kosovo, beckoned me to the danger zone. Peshku. She wanted me, I wanted her.
Kosovo’s lax food preparation standards had burned me before. Europe’s second poorest country took a shining to me during a previous visit, bequeathing the gift of run-of-the mill food poisoning, followed by a parasite that, though eventually defeated, took 25 hard-earned pounds with it. Maybe it was mayonnaise-drenched slaw with cubed processed meat and shredded chicken, or perhaps the grilled links of minced lamb and beef served with clotted cream and fresh onions did me in. It’s hard to say.
Eating in the landlocked, recently independent Balkan nation’s smog-choked capital poses an interesting set of challenges. Broadly speaking, eateries in Pristina fall into two categories: Swanky cuisine-du-jour places catering to the thousands of internationals working for the European Union, United Nations and various diplomatic missions and nongovernmental organizations, and ones that don’t. This latter category is difficult to pin down. Reflecting its own muddy national identity, Kosovo lacks an identifiable culinary tradition. Albanian, Serbian and Turkish influences are the most assertive, coming out in the qebaptores (purveyors of grilled meats), burektores (purveyors of meat- or cheese-filled pastries) and döner kebab fast food joints that dominate the local restaurant scene.
Pacing back and forth on Luan Haradinaj street, across from the national police headquarters, I weighed the pleasures of past culinary indiscretions against ensuing physical detriment. Peshku (“Fish”), with prices starting at €1.90 (about US$2.75) for trout “in bread,” clearly was targeting the lower end of the market. Fuzzy pictures of grilled, intact aquatic vertebrates peppered the storefront, the most prominent of which was something called “gilica.” Piled high on a plate, they resembled large sardines. Peshku also boasted a döner spit and pizzas. Disco pants and haircuts – this place had everything.
A sensible person might flee at the prospect of a cheap, fish-driven fast-food restaurant in a country with no coastline, no respectable bodies of water and dubious standards for food preparation. Even a seasoned eater might understandably prefer upmarket seafood. But the shear chutzpah of someone opening such a restaurant, especially given its proximity to police headquarters, blew my mind. I also took solace in Peshku’s breadth of fish offerings, ranging from the mysterious gilica on the low end to the €6 (about US$9) gilt-head bream. To offer something at two- to-three times the going rate for a satisfying meal at a modest establishment reinforced the apparent intestinal fortitude behind Peshku. Perhaps this was the front line in the war to establish a national culinary identity. It was time to take a dip.
Up a few steps and through the door, I traded the outside aroma of environmental disaster for one of cigarette smoke, slowly cooking lamb, frying potatoes and assertive-yet-ungamey fish. On air supply alone, Peshku already was a clear winner. Behind the counter, a kitchen shining with new stainless steel dominated the front; there would be no secrets. I nodded at one of the idle employees hanging around the kitchen as I made way toward the dining area, trying to ignore a barrage of puzzled stares. Not betraying membership to any particular ethnic group, being young and not being a solider, I was used to the attention in Kosovo.
About a dozen tables filled a pair of adjoining rooms, where two large flat-screen televisions were mounted on the walls. I grabbed a table with a good view of the Albanian soap opera on screen. About 15 seconds into my review of the menu laminate, a meek waiter asked for an order. Faced with the fabled gilicia, trout, panga, “role merluci”, salmon, calamari, shrimp and gilt-head, the choice was obvious.
If Tom Petty were a fish, he’d be trout. Salmon’s working-class cousin is consistently delicious and ubiquitous in Europe, and generally quite forgiving. It also is found frequently in rivers and streams, so ordering trout increases the likelihood of being served something fresh and from the region. I asked for trout “in bread,” which I took to mean “sandwich.”
After ten minutes of nursing a black tea and trying to deconstruct a Balkan love triangle, I collided with destiny. Between two halves of a French roll, two filets of slightly pink fish sat atop thin ribbons of tomato and carrot intermingling with chopped romaine and cilantro. The unmistakable aroma of grilled trout crept out from the sandwich. Pure seduction. It was a beautiful sight but also a slightly alarming one. Much of Kosovo’s water supply is contaminated, which extends to fresh produce. But I took some solace in the lack of sauce or any other condiment to mask any impropriety. This sandwich exuded confidence.
Perhaps the gaggle of restaurant employees watching upped the pressure. But I was ready. I had gone this far. Pathogens be dammed. Slowly, I bit into the sandwich, whose combination of heft and compactness made for exceptional maneuverability. My teeth cut through the flaky flesh like butter laced with a few tiny bones as my tongue savored the unmistakable flavor of trout that balanced nuttiness with sweetness. This wasn’t just tolerable fish, this was great fish. The addition of mayonnaise helped unify tomato, carrots, lettuce and cilantro with the filets, propelling me into a haze of euphoria.
After I devoured the last morsel, a slight man approached my table and introduced himself as the owner. He wasn’t surprised when I told him that the meal was among the best I’d had in Kosovo; he remarked that the fish arrives every morning from farms within the country. Homegrown and fresh, all for €1.90. Damn.
With no signs of infection, each of my remaining three days in Kosovo included a trip of Peshku. I quickly established myself as its “best customer,” lavished with complimentary coffee, tea and cigarettes, as I opened my heart to hake in the incubator of culinary nationhood.
Rr. Luan Haradinaj (Known locally as Police Avenue)
Across From Kosovo Police Headquarters
+377 (0) 44 788 711
+386 (0) 49 878 999