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Kod Dzaka: There’s no balkin’ at Balkan food in Astoria

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Every head turned when we entered. All of those heads were male, with the exception of the two servers. Since no one challenged us to "draw," we decided to stay, but definitely hesitated for an uncertain moment. We hasten to add, that once we sat down, the other diners resumed their conversations, our server couldn't have been more gracious and we were made to feel right at home.Kod Dzaka, a newish addition to Astoria, bills itself as serving Balkan cuisine. The decor is stylish, with an attractive wooden bar, but the vibe is decidedly ethnic. Word of the no smoking law did not seem to have reached this crowd or if it did, it didn't phase them. About half of them were lighting up while carrying on lively conversations in Serbian. We learned later, from Elvis, the manager, that the owners are Montenegrin, and the clientele includes Bosnians, Croatians, Montenegrins, Serbs and some Italians. We wondered whether Elvis was a common Montenegrin name, or whether the manager was named for our Elvis. Elvis claimed not to know.There is live music here starting at 9 p.m. six nights a week, provided by a group called the OK Band. On the night we were there, only one band member was performing, playing a complex keyboard arrangement that approximated the sounds of multiple instruments, to accompany his Serbian vocals. Having no experience with Serbian music against which to measure his performance, we can only say that it was lively and rhythmic with an Eastern European recycled pop sound, vaguely Soviet. Kind of fun once you get into it.Our server offered to tell us what there was to eat. When we asked to see a menu, she cautioned us that most of what was on it was unavailable that night. We sensibly decided to go with what they had. The first thing we tried was chicken soup. This turned out to be a soul-satisfying bowl of chicken broth filled with vegetables, most abundantly celery, and garnished with a dollop of sour cream. It tasted like the kind of soup your Balkan grandmother might have made. Good earthy peasant food.The soup was followed by a salad of lots of slightly marinated cabbage generously topped with fluffy crumbled feta. This was great stuff. Who would have guessed that cabbage and feta combine so well?Although the dish that originally drew us to this place, sarma (Balkan stuffed cabbage), was unavailable, we settled on the two entrees that were - trout and mixed grilled meats. The exceptionally plump, juicy trout was served whole, heavily topped with chopped garlic. This unexpected delight (I think Balkans, I think heavy meats) was served with a mound of mashed potatoes capped with a spicy tomato sauce.On the other hand, the mixed grill, for which we had such high hopes, was disappointing. It included cevapi (ground beef "finger meat"), pressed ground beef and homemade beef sausage. The cevapi was the best of the lot, resembling a highly seasoned hamburger. The pressed beef was characterless. The sausage was surprisingly tough.During a subsequent conversation with Elvis, we learned that their real signature dish is roasted baby lamb, served only on weekends. Too bad we chose a Thursday. They are also known for their bureks (also called mantija here) - meat, spinach and cheese filled pies, which are eaten for breakfast, lunch or as a snack.Having mostly pushed the mixed grill around the plate, we were eager for dessert. Although we finally obtained a menu, and desserts were listed, we were told none were available that night. Nada. Of the three desserts cited on the menu, tulumbe, a Balkan-style doughnut served with syrup and sometimes sour cream sounded the most promising. Maybe next time.The Bottom LineIf immersing yourself in a foreign culture without getting on a plane is your thing, Kod Dzaka is a great opportunity. The prices are modest, but the menu is hit or miss. The entertainment makes for a festive atmosphere. Go on the weekend for the greatest availability of dishes.Kod Dzaka 42-20 30th Ave. 718-545-9455Cuisine: BalkanSetting: Well appointed for an ethnic restaurantService: Friendly and accommodatingHours: Breakfast, lunch & dinner seven days, more choices on the weekends Reservations: OptionalAlcohol: Full barParking: StreetDress: CasualChildren: WelcomeMusic: Balkan pop by the OK Band Tuesdays to Sundays at 9 p.m.Takeout: No menu - askCredit cards: NoNoise level: Music is loud, but not deafeningly so. Before 9 p.m., TV is tuned to a channel featuring Balkan music videos. No escaping that Balkan sound.Handicap accessible: YesRecommended DishesChicken soupÉ$3Mixed saladÉ$3TroutÉ$12LambÉ$15Burek (mantija)É$3

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