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Wonderful Life 

Bosnian immigrants bring a taste of home to St. Louis

Bosnian pop music provided the background as we scanned the menu at Grbic´, a new restaurant at the corner of Meramec and Keokuk in South St. Louis, just south of Gravois at the western edge of Dutchtown. We couldn't understand the words, but while looking around at the spectacular brick, stone and wood interior of the sprawling dining room, we wouldn't have been surprised if it were the Bosnian cover of "Looks Like We Made It."

Husband and wife Suljo and Ermina Grbic´ came to St. Louis more than 25 years ago, well before the influx of Bosnian immigrants made St. Louis a haven for refugees of the tumult in the former Yugoslavia. For the past four years, they've been rehabbing the current space with a little help from their friends, and last month they finally opened their doors.

The menu, as well as many elements of the décor, is better described as Continental or European than Bosnian, although some of the staples from the growing collection of St. Louis Bosnian restaurants -- cevapi sausages, for example, and heaping platters of varied, unadorned grilled meats -- reflect the owners' heritage. But there are also any number of schnitzels (including an interesting "why can't we all get along" social commentary called schnitzel Parisian), goulash, a "Swiss specialty" entrée, several dinner pastas and even the de rigueur St. Louis appetizer, toasted ravioli.

And the price scale is similarly all over the board; you can splurge on what's billed as the "house specialty" -- a mixed grill that includes a beef fillet -- but there are enough daily specials and other mid-priced items that a couple can easily get out for under 30 bucks. (This wouldn't include alcohol, because despite the ornate wood bar, no liquor license was yet in place as of about a week ago. We were assured, however, that one was forthcoming. This assurance was reinforced by a knowing nod at the photos of local politicians interspersed with the empty wine bottles behind the bar. For now, you may want to call ahead to see whether you should brown-bag if you wish to drink with your meal.)

Our experience with local Bosnian places began with what is best described as bare-bones operations -- sausage, slow-cooked lesser cuts of meat, tons of bread -- in rundown storefronts, generally (although with some exceptions) very welcoming and enthusiastic to outsiders but lacking much atmosphere other than the ubiquitous clouds of cigarette smoke. This trend was first broken by Miris Dunja, which not only had a pleasant environment from day one but moved from the traditional Gravois-Chippewa Bosnian enclave to the central corridor -- Hampton Avenue -- providing much more visibility.

In fairness, places such as Bosna Gold, one of the pioneers, have subsequently moved into better quarters, but Grbic´ is simply astonishing, with stone floors; arched brickwork; unusually angled, convex and concave wood ceiling vaults; and architectural and decorative interest around every corner. Hand-painted murals of farm, coastal and city scenes cover the walls beneath some of the arches, and there's even a painted-stone reproduction of the Mona Lisa in back. The place probably seats 200, and an equally spacious banquet space is ready to open next door.

If you're a fan of simple grilled meats and sausages, the straight Bosnian specialties are excellent. The cevapi, which come nine to an order, served with fries, are reconstituted minced meat, moist and mildly spiced, served with a sauce that seemed to recur in various forms in several dishes. The chef would not divulge her secrets, but we guessed that it was primarily cream-based, colored and flavored with paprika, a bit of pepper and a savory spice or two. What appeared to be the same stuff was also used, in a slightly lighter form, as the "cocktail sauce" part of the shrimp cocktail appetizer, a generous serving of nine or 10 large shrimp, four of them undressed at the top of the glass and the rest swimming in the dressing below.

The mixed grills came in "better" and "best" forms -- reflecting, no doubt, Sulja Grbic´'s prior career as a butcher. The basic one, "mixed grilled meats," included four of the cevapi, a pounded chicken breast, a veal kebab and a beef patty, all served in a mingling of their juices with a sizable portion of rich grilled red peppers and grilled zucchini on the side. The "house specialty" included about 8 ounces of beef filet served in two slices, several veal medallions and another pounded chicken breast. This, too, was served in simple meat juices and also included three grilled vegetables on the side, including a succulent large mushroom stuffed with well-cooked garlic.

We also tried the "Swiss specialty"; conveniently, one of my fellow diners happened to be Swiss. She pronounced the veal, served in a richly reduced mushroom sauce over pancaked hash browns, something that certainly could have come from her native country, although she would have preferred a better cut of meat -- or, more precisely, a better cutting, more toward the bias -- to make the veal a little more tender than it was. The salmon steak (actually a fillet), large and smothered in a creamy dill sauce, was a bit dry. A better version of salmon was found among the appetizers: four smoked slices served with dill, lemon and parsley and garnished with black olives and what was described to us a "homemade butter." It tasted more like a whipped farmer's cheese, complete with tiny lumps that felt like curds.

Certain aspects of the service need improvement. Table-clearing was problematic at best throughout that meal, with the debris from our appetizer course remaining on our table even as we got up to leave. The flaws in service -- especially the lack of service in clearing dirty dishes -- repeated themselves on the second visit, detracting from the server's ability to describe in detail the dessert options, which are, no doubt, dishes unfamiliar to many diners.

Actually, on our first visit we were given our check without any presentation of dessert options. Dessert was, however, well promoted on our second visit, which is good because Grbic´ offers some out-of-the-ordinary choices. We tried palacinke -- thin crepes folded into a pie-slice shape and wrapped around a semisweet chocolate sauce and walnuts -- and the strudla od sira, a layered pastry of candied fruit and creamy cheese similar in texture to what was used with the smoked salmon but also sweeter.

I'd also like to see the walk-in traffic flow at the entrance better arranged. As it is now, the most logical entry was through a side door that leads to the parking lot; however, there are also two front doors that face out onto the street. The parking-lot entrance forces diner to walk through a front dining room -- more of a diner attached to a bar area -- and on both of our visits, the Eastern European affinity for cigarettes was again in full inferno. Smoke-averse diners have nothing to worry about in the main dining room, but having to run the fiery gantlet may detract from first impressions.

One way or another, though, you should find a reason to visit this remarkable space. Maybe it's the chance to begin or expand your knowledge of Bosnian food, or maybe you get a kick out of unusual dining areas. Or perhaps it's just a chance to reinforce a belief that if you work hard in America, just about anything is possible.

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