Arbri Cafe

Albanian food returns to former Italian territory
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  March 10, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars


Arbri Café| 146 Belgrade Avenue, Roslindale | 617.323.0276 | Open Daily, 8 am-9:30 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | No liquor | No valet parking | Access to most tables up slight threshhold bump
I loved the Café Apollonia when it opened in this space in 2004 as what was then Boston's sole denominated Albanian restaurant. Despite Greek-style décor, it served tasty Illyrian food, with extra q's, x's, and umlauts. But after a three-year run, the owners decided to downgrade to a pizza parlor, Boston Brickyard. Now it is back in the hands of the original chef, and is adorned with Albanian red-and-black flags, crests, and even battle scenes. The food, however, leans more Greek and Italian. It's plentiful, wholesome, filling, moderately priced, and minds its x's and q's, but drops the umlauts.

The bread basket, interestingly, is not pita, but fresh-toasted rounds of white crusty bread, delicious with herbed butter and a fine selection of spreads. My preferred pick is the eggplant trio ($7): grilled slices with fresh basil, marinated pickled strings with strips of red pepper, and eggplant caviar with a hint of char. You pick up a few toasted pitas with the platter.

Grape leaves ($6) are vegetarian, loosely rolled with quite a bit of vine-leaf flavor. They are served with neatly halved grape tomatoes, as is fried pecorino ($6), a delectable platter of roasted sheep's cheese. The arbri salad ($6) is a classic Greek dish without lettuce, featuring pretty good out-of-season tomatoes, onion, cucumbers, and rectangular chunks of marinated feta.

Soup of the day on one visit ($4) was a salty cream of mushroom. On another visit there was none. The regular roasted vegetable soup ($4), an overly sweet tomato base with delightfully grilled and marked onions, eggplant, yellow summer squash, and carrot, is about double the usual restaurant bowl.

A lamb shank entrée ($17) featured two small servings of protein our night that were falling-off-the-bone tender and delectable. The side vegetables were the same roasted vegetables from the soup, plus a double portion of pilaf with a few tiny diced veggies. Osso bucco ($17), essentially the same dish transposed to the key of beef, was underdone, pink in spots, and tough on an early visit, but had a nice gremolata (a sprinkle of parsley and lemon peel). Presumably the chef was trying to oblige with a too-quickly assembled slow-food classic on a low-attendance night. You want to start a few of these earlier in the day. After reading this, he won't make that mistake again.

I also liked the "sishquebap" ($17) in the chicken version, two skewers marinated enough to add flavor, but not so much as to dry out the meat, interleaved with peppers and onions, and served with the roast vegetables and the pilaf. On an earlier visit, the side vegetables were roast potato pieces and a sauté of spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The mousaka ($15), one of my old favorites, is close but needs some tuning — there was not quite enough lamburger to balance the thick layer of sweet béchamel sauce or the layers of thin-sliced eggplant, zucchini, and potato. The old version had tomato sauce, but that, like umlauts, is apparently so 2006.

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