We speak to Stasha Toncev, the restaurant owner bringing Balkan soul food to Jumeirah.

Steve Chalmers

Stasha Toncev checks that the table of parents and two young children has enough milk. Then she sits at another table with a couple and chats for a good 10 minutes as the customers drink coffee. She dashes up to the counter and collects a carafe of water infused with rosemary and berries for a table in the corner. Part owner, part waitress, part meeter-and-greeter, 21 Grams is very much her place.

Hailing from Serbia, Stasha runs 21 Grams like it’s her family kitchen. Indeed, many of the dishes served at this trendy restaurant on the corner of Al Thanya and Jumeirah Beach Road are from family recipes and most of her team are from Serbia.

The concept is Balkan soul food, which means influences from Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and perhaps a bit of Albania and Hungary too. Let’s start with the burek, (AED34) a hefty circular pie of light and crispy filo pastry filled with meat or cheese – an absolute knockout. It’s the Balkan brother of the Cornish pasty from England. Gipsy toast, meanwhile, (AED 42) is the distant Balkan cousin of French toast, served with clotted cream and a red pepper relish so you can decide if you want to go sweet or savoury.

Why 21? 21 GRAMS is the weight of a human soul. 21 degrees is the latitude the Balkan Peninsula. 21 is the area code for Novi Sad, Stasha’s hometown in Serbia.

This red pepper relish or ‘ajvar’ is key to 21 Grams. It comes from Serbia/Macedonia where the weather is warmer and more conducive to growing big red, juicy sweet peppers. In those countries ajvar is made with great care and patience over a four-day process that involves roasting, peeling, and slowly cooking the peppers to produce a wonderfully rich relish.

The place was packed when YACHTS visited one Friday morning. It opens at 7am and is ideally placed for a breakfast after a walk on the beach that’s just around the corner. The design is cool and kind of Scandi with fantastic wooden furniture and plenty of books and magazines on shelves. We ask Stasha, what does the name mean? “21 grams is the weight of the human soul,” she smiles, as she darts off to check on another table.