You can find the 'Serbian grill queen' of Toronto at Bonimi
Bonimi Restaurant is located at 3319 Bloor St. W. in Etobicoke
Six years ago, I was urged by a friend of mine to check out a Serbian restaurant on Bloor Street West in Etobicoke. Her words — more or less — were: "The food there is unlike any other Balkan restaurant in Toronto. Everything is made in-house. It reminds me of my mother's cooking."
So I bookmarked Bonimi Restaurant for a future visit.
A few months later, I stopped by the restaurant for lunch. I was starving and impatient, so I didn't spend too much time looking through the menu. I quickly ordered my go-to dish, ćevapi, which are grilled, cylindrical-shaped kebabs that are usually served with flatbread and sliced onions.
When you use the right meat mixture (ground beef and lamb) and spices and cook it on high heat, it produces a juicy, flavourful kebab that is addicting.
As I waited for the ćevapi, a group of guests arrived at the restaurant. I noticed that every one of them took the time to walk toward the back of the restaurant to say hello to the chef.
Soon after, a train of sizzling plates entered the room from the kitchen with the sounds of meat crackling from the heat of the grill. The smell of smoke and outdoor barbecue spread across the room quickly. Then, my plate of ćevapi arrived.
It was delicious — some of the best ćevapi I've had in the city. Halfway through my lunch, a young gentleman came over to ask how my meal was.
"It's wonderful, thank you," I responded.
"That's good. But why did you order the ćevapi?" he asked.
"I was craving it and it was recommended to me," I replied.
"I would say that we are known for a number of other dishes," he said. "But it's not what we are best at."
The man was Nikola Paunic, a Canadian soccer player who now coaches and helps run the family restaurant.
"Bonimi is a family operation, but it's really my mother who is at the heart of this. It's all about my mother, Nada," Nikola said.
Over the years I have come to discover owner and chef Nada Paunic's cuisine, I would say — unequivocally — that she is the Serbian grill queen of Toronto.
Nada and her husband moved to Canada in 2001 with their three kids. At first they spent some time in P.E.I., but they eventually settled in Toronto.
"Etobicoke has a great Serbian and Balkan community in general," Nikola said.
Back home, Nada was recognized within the community for her culinary prowess. Nikola said for as long as he can remember, his mom was revered as a great griller.
Nada spent some time working at a number of Greek restaurants in Etobicoke before deciding to open her own restaurant in 2010.
"It was a family decision," Nikola said. "We wanted to bring our own cuisine to Toronto and we wanted to support our mom's passion."
You'll find many traditional Serbian dishes at Bonimi, from shopska salad to stuffed flatbread dishes. I've witnessed locals come and order a variety of schnitzel dishes from the menu. But in my opinion, to truly appreciate Nada's commitment to scratch cooking, you have to try a dish from the grill menu.
Pljeskavica, often touted as the national dish of Serbia, is an intimidatingly large meat patty that is served with raw onions, coleslaw and a side of prebranac (stewed lima beans). It looks like an oversized burger patty without the bun, but it's much more than that.
At Bonimi, Nada butchers the meat herself. For the pljeskavica, she takes shoulder cuts of pork, veal and beef and grinds it with spices and onion. She then massages the ground meat, flattens it out like a pizza, sprinkles on chili flakes, and adds a layer of white cheese and a layer of cured ham.
After folding the meat and sealing the edges, Nada then places the patty on a high heat grill to sear the meat.
"This is where you get the kiss from the grill," she says.
The dish can be intimidating when it arrives at the table. You'll be hit with wave after wave of smoke and the smell of a barbecue fire.
When you cut into the meat, the hot cheese will ooze out. Together, there's a dance between the smoke, fat, and the creaminess of the cheese.
For many years, I dismissed the raw onions and coleslaw on the plate, but they do serve a purpose with bright hits of acidity and a little sweetness. I suggest you see-saw between meat and vegetables to get the full Bonimi experience.