So far I've been attempting to eat a London meal for each of the 193 'UN recognised' states alphabetically. I started with Afghanistan, and on Saturday wanted to try an Albanian. To my delight I managed to find a restaurant in Kilburn called 'Lisi', however on arrival I found that it was no longer called Lisi, it was called Alba, and it wasn't strictly Albanian it was Kosovan. Apart from the problem of skipping from A to K it made me realise how insipid the whole idea of 'UN recognised' countries is. I'm really limiting my experiences with this criteria, It doesn't do justice to the concept of truly discovering London's ethnic food given the fact that a large percentage of immigrant communities here are refugees from politically unstable regions or are from groups who don't have an internationally recognised homeland.
Kosovo is one such example, although its declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 was recognised by 54 member states (including the UK), it isn't officially a UN sovereign state. The main reason for independence was the fact that its population is largely made up of ethnic Albanians who had suffered persecution as part of Serbia, as a result Kosovan food and culture is quite similar to Albania's.
Arriving at Alba my eagerness to try what I then thought was Albanian food was initially met with disappointment when the waitress told us that after a busy day all they had left was beef burgers. Seeing the large Albanian/Kosovan family next to us mopping up the remnants of a feast I was somewhat incredulous. Clearly the British's love of eating familiar junk abroad instead of foreign muck was hampering our chances of an authentic Albanian, although she assured me the burgers were traditional. As we were on the verge of leaving she capitulated and said that they might be able to do us a mixed grill and salad, emphasising it would be Kosovan and not the Albanian we'd pleaded for for the past five minutes.
Waiting for the food to arrive we were entertained by the Kosovan news. Features included some poor unfortunates paraded round at gun point and a startled Father Jack lookalike being dragged out of his cubby hole; our fellow diners didn't bat an eyelid. What seemed like an amazing satelite link to Pristina could well have been a pre-recorded video as the newsreader read premiership football results from before Christmas.
Not sure quite what to expect (there were no menus) we were presented with a selection of charcoal grilled beef. This included a sirloin steak (overdone for my liking), Sudjuk a smoky beef sausage flavoured with garlic and paprika, Cevapcici a kofte style kebab of beef mince, a piece of chicken fillet, and finally the beef burger we'd been threatened with earlier. Despite my reservations the burger was actually pretty good, like the rest of the meat it had imbibed the sweet smokiness of the charcoal, there was a nice chili kick from pepper flakes and the onions in the mince had retained a pleasant crunch. However as with the Cevapcici kebab, the mince was too fine and lacked sufficient texture. The grill was accompanied by side dishes of hot pickled peppers, a salad topped with mint and a feta like cheese, and Hajvar a delicous spicy relish of roasted peppers, aubergine, garlic and chili.
The portion failed to satisfy the three of us, so the waitress who had promised more if necessary obligingly brought out another plate. This time there was more steak, another sirloin, a small T-bone, chicken, mushrooms and once again the house speciality burger. The steak this time had been cooked more judiciously and was pinker. Unfortunately it had been smothered in a home made cottage cheese which drowned out the seared beefiness. Credit to the chef though who was working alone on a small grill, by 9:00 the place was full of Kosovan/Albanian families en masse, tables of ten and twenty, and the meat kept coming. To my relief we weren't missing out, the glamorous peroxide blondes and their thick necked, gold chained spouses were eating the same as us, devouring burgers with gusto.
As far as I can gather this is one of the few Albanian/Kosovan restaurants in London. It's the one recommended on the Albanian embassy's website (although it's Kosovan). As with Afghan Khayber it seems like the centre of the community for local Albanians/Kosovans, the owners have been there since 1993. There was a nice family feel to it and they seemed delighted by our interest in their food, proud of their burgers they also showed us how they smoke the home made Sudjuk sausages over the grill. The menu seems limited to the mixed grill (and a full English) but they do it fairly well. The prices are reasonable too, for three of us with a few beers it came to £48, though they don't seem to take card, be wary also of the card swallowing machine opposite.
In deference to my Kosovan experience, I am willing to add any country still seeking recognition and represented by a community in London to my original list of 193 countries (even Wales!). Ban Ki-Moon and his UN goons won't stand in the way of my fork.
Alba, 5 Malvern Road, Kilburn, NW6
Tel: 020 76258932