Times critic Pete Wells’ latest missive urges readers to walk past Arthur Avenue’s storied Italian haunts and instead patronize nearby Bronx restaurant Çka Ka Qëllu, a “deep-end Albanian experience,” he writes in today’s two-star review.
There Wells finds chef Afrim Kaliqani’s homey north Albanian cooking, ranging from creamy dips and baked dumplings to grilled meats and stews in clay pots. Wells particularly likes any dish with veal:
Is there another restaurant in New York that makes as much use of veal, and as little of any other meat, as Cka Ka Qellu? It is the main ingredient in the restaurant’s qofte, ground and mixed with onions and red pepper; and in its qebapa, mild skinless sausages cooked on the grill ... Veal works its way into many of the clay-dish stews, including the veal tava, something like a Mediterranean ratatouille that got itself entangled with a meat-and-potato stew from another part of Europe. Rolled up with cheeses and smoked meat, breaded and fried, veal also serves as the filling for the alluring Skanderbeg. Named after a great patriotic hero of the 15th century, Skanderbeg is generally called Albania’s national dish, although its resemblance to a kayak made from chicken cordon bleu renders it something of an outlier in the cuisine. Ladled along its crunchy, golden length is — please rise and face Hughes Avenue — a creamy white sauce.
He doesn’t have much bad to say about the menu, other than that the mantia, or veal dumplings, can be “tough and dry” if ordered without the yogurt sauce, as can the pancake-like fli. He particularly enjoys “exceptionally good” kajmak, a butter-like dairy spread; the “rich” lecenik, cornbread with spinach and cottage cheese; and the sheqerpare, a nut-topped sugar cookie, “best” enjoyed with coffee.
Wells also calls out the restaurant’s decor, full of owner Ramiz Kukaj’s personal collection of antiques and tchotchkes from Albania like stringed instruments, manual typewriters, and embroidered costumes that make the restaurant “soaked in nostalgia,” he writes. Two stars.