"Velcome to our village!" are the words that will greet you on The Balkan Butler's website. The same warmth reverberates off the walls of their Surry Hills cafe in Sydney where mother-and-son owners Nada and David Nedelkovski have brought the food of their Macedonian childhood to the city's fringe.
Nedelkovski is keen to serve up the cevapcici rolls of his childhood football matches and the burek usually reserved for his special family gatherings to the everyday masses.
The Nedelkovskis ran the Mleko Bar in Sydney's World Square for 12 years, a CBD cafe that serviced corporates with the kind of fast cafe food you'd expect, save for a few Balkan specials.
Those specials now fuel the majority of The Balkan Butler's menu. Take the piperki: rustic pan-fried peppers dotted with blobs of feta. Or baked eggs in a punchy Balkan sauce with cevapcici, the Balkan's skinless answer to chorizo. It's best eaten the way Nedelkovski did as a kid: mopped up straight from the pan with bread.
Sweet tooths will find it hard to look past palacinki – those thin, buttery, breakfast crepes of eastern and central Europe. Butler's version is fancied up with a seasonally charged medley of candied oranges, orange mascarpone and plum coulee.
If you're in a hurry like most of the crowd here, a cheesy gevrek (Macedonian milk bun), a baklava muffin and coffee will send you merrily on your way.
"After 12 years [at Mleko] we basically found our identity," Nedelkovski says of the mostly Balkan menu.
He tells the story of his parents first meeting at Enmore Park, falling in love, and then getting married, 40-something years ago.
"Mum was 15 years old at the time, dad would’ve been 18," he says fondly.
"Mum has been in the hospitality industry for over 30 years and always said to me 'lets do something together!'
It's the kind of story that's likely played out hundreds of times throughout the city, the kind that has powered so much of Sydney's food scene.
"Mum has been in the hospitality industry for over 30 years and always said to me 'let's do something together!'
Nedelkovski attributes his initial hesitation to being a barista with little interest in food back then. Then when business plans with a friend fell through, he took the plunge with his mum.
"To be honest, I'm blessed. My mum's a hard-working, beautiful person."
Set on the corner of Commonwealth and Foveaux streets, The Balkan Butler is in some strong food company, but from the façade, it could easily be mistaken for another ho-hum sandwich bar-cum-cafe. Yes, you can have a schnitzel sambo and juice here but head to the back where the real magic happens.
Here, beside bright orange jars of ajvar – a tangy, smoky capsicum pesto, if you will – you can witness flimsy sheets of pastry being rolled, stretched and filled with the kind of artful precision that belongs on stage. Three metallic pendant lights shine warmly from above, adding to the theatrics.
The crisp, gossamer-thin burek is filled with minced beef, cheese or cheese and spinach and is served with the optional side of buttermilk, as per burek tradition.
The Nedelkovskis might have Macedonian roots but the menu flits between Balkan countries like a backpacker.
"We wanted to create something that's going to join all Balkan communities. The cultures are so similar to all of us, so the politics doesn't need to be a part of it," Nedelkovski said.
If this is the cafe equivalent of an armistice, we want in.
In a couple of weeks, Nedelkovski will open the doors to Billy Blargo, another Balkan-leaning cafe, this time in the base of Barrack Place in the CBD. While The Balkan Butler is a tribute to the food and the culture of his home country, Nedelkovski says Billy Blargo will pay homage to those who came to Australia in search of a better life.
"We'll have a guy on site making burek."
Looks like CBD work lunches are about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Corner of Foveaux and, Commonwealth St, Surry Hills
Mon - Fri 6:30am - 5:30pm | Sat 8am - 3pm
Part skinless sausage, part meatball, these ‘nekkid’ sausages are inspired by Balkan cevapi and Middle Eastern kofta.
“The fireplace is the heart of the home in Croatia and the traditional one-pot dish (the peka) takes pride of place. The domed lid on the top of the peka creates a seal that keeps whatever is cooked underneath moist and juicy but lets just enough smokiness in. It intensifies the heat, seals in the juices and creates a depth of flavour that makes meat, seafood and vegetables taste wonderful.” Maeve O’Meara, Food Safari Fire
At his restaurant, Dalmatino, Ino uses mince made from beef and pork neck as it adds more flavour to the rolls. This Croatian recipe is best made a day ahead, to allow the flavours to develop.