Review: Arber Cafe Revamp dazzles with traditional Albanian cuisine | Restaurant Reviews | St. Louis

click to enlarge Arber Cafe (clockwise from top left): roll cake, byrek, Albanian kisses, ali pash, olive salad, and deluxe gyro.  - MABEL SUEN


Arber Cafe (clockwise from top left): roll cake, cakeAlbanian kisses, ali pasholive salad and deluxe gyros.

Almost two decades ago, Limoza Hoxha made her first visit to Arber Cafe. After spending eight years in the kitchen at the Clayton, Italian mainstay Dominic’s Trattoria, it made sense that she would incorporate that country’s dishes into her debut restaurant, even though she wanted to use her new platform to create a shed light on her native Albanian cuisine. In her mind, and in the eyes of her then business associates, it felt like the safest bet; not only was Italian food wildly popular in her adopted city, but Albanian food was relatively unknown. Making the success of her restaurant depend on something so untried was a risk they weren’t willing to take, so Arber Cafe opened in 2005 as a combination Italian-Albanian restaurant and coffee shop in a small storefront on Gravois Avenue. .

Fast-forward 17 years, and Hoxha has transformed Arber Cafe into the restaurant she’s always wanted. The revamped Arber is a proud tribute to her homeland’s food, a culinary heritage that Hoxha describes as Mediterranean influenced with strong elements of Turkish and Greek traditions woven throughout. If you had told her in 1997 that she would find success in the restaurant business this way, she wouldn’t have believed it; now that guests eagerly order her handmade Albanian delicacies, she is overjoyed to be proven wrong.

Hoxha never thought she would be the person to introduce Albanian food to guests in St. Louis. After immigrating to the United States from Albania in 1997, she took English and computer design courses at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. However, after getting a job as a chef at Dominic’s Trattoria, she realized how much she loved the professional kitchen. This budding passion led her to refocus her studies on business with the hopes of opening a restaurant one day.

It should come as no surprise that she had such a love for the industry. Hoxha was praised for years by her family for her talent as a home cook, a skill she had learned over the years from her grandmother, mother and mother-in-law. Cooking came naturally, so when she finally got in the position to dedicate herself to it full time, she jumped at the chance. That enthusiasm led her to say yes when some friends approached her about buying a Macedonian bakery in the city’s Bevo Mill neighborhood and converting it into what became Arber Cafe. After three years, her original partners left the company, leaving the restaurant in the capable hands of Hoxha.

click to enlarge Chef owner Limoza Hoxha.  - MABEL SUEN


Chef owner Limoza Hoxha.

Hoxha found success with the Albanian community, who embraced Arber Cafe as a traditional European-style coffee shop.

For about 15 years, she trudged on as such, hoping that one day she could turn the place into a more food-driven restaurant. In 2019, she and her family made that dream come true by renovating the place and avoiding the Italian side of the menu.

The recently launched Arber Cafe built steady momentum in the fall of 2019 and into early 2020. However, when the pandemic brought the restaurant industry to a standstill in March 2020, Hoxha was forced to close its doors and hoped the support of the local community would sustain her. Luckily it did. Between takeout orders and a partnership with Schnucks, Hoxha couldn’t stay in business on its own; she became aware of how much her little cafe meant to the neighborhood.

When you eat at Arber Cafe, you understand why. Thanks to the small menu, made entirely by Hoxha, the restaurant gives you the feeling of being welcome in its own kitchen and getting a starter about Albanian cuisine.

click to enlarge The dining room has lots of greenery.  - MABEL SUEN


The dining room has lots of greenery.

cake, an essential Albanian dish, is a triangular filo pastry dough that resembles the Greek spanakopita. Hoxha serves three versions: one filled with hearty lamb and beef gyro meat, one made with a mild Albanian white cheese with the texture of feta, and another filled with spinach and mint, giving the dish a wonderful green undertone.

ali pasha, a traditional Albanian dish, with arborio rice that is somewhere between the wet texture of risotto and a fluffy Middle Eastern-style basmati. Dappled with toasted almonds and raisins and topped with grilled chicken, the dish is a delightful interplay of sweet and savory.

Another classic Albanian dish, the olive salad has the kind of refreshing salty, citrusy flavors you want in the heat of summer. Kalamata olives are mixed with orange wedges and sliced ​​red onions, then tossed in an oregano infused olive oil. The salt, sweetness, taste and earth of the dried herbs create a complex mix of flavors. That also applies to the feta and olive oil that are the dominant flavors in the trahana soup. Made with fermented wheat flour and yogurt that seems heavier than its broth-like texture suggests, the soup is infused with the cheese’s briny flavor. It has a milky mouthfeel, but a sprinkling of red chili flakes adds warmth that cuts through the richness.

Arber offers a chicken gyro that’s made with the same juicy grilled chicken that tops the ali pashand a deluxe version, which features if, an Albanian-style meatball. The latter is an excellent delicacy, reminiscent of gyro meat and the Balkan beef sausage answeri. The gyro is dressed with the expected equipment – tomato, cucumber, red onion, a thick tzatziki style yogurt sauce – but what makes it special apart from the ifis that Hoxha bakes the bread so that it has a crispy, almost baked golden exterior.

The huge gyro is so delicious it’s hard to resist eating the whole thing. However, the dessert case will make you think. Hoxha learned how to make the many pastries that fill the shelves from the previous owner, a Macedonian baker, and she skillfully carries on his legacy.

click to enlarge Arber Cafe has a seating area by the windshield near the dessert case.  - MABEL SUEN


Arber Cafe has a seating area by the windshield near the dessert case.

Rolled cakes filled with caramel and fluffy pastry cream, slices of white cake layered with whipped cream and toasted almonds and a chocolate sponge cake layered with chocolate mousse all showcase Hoxha’s pastry qualities and are satisfying without being sticky or overly rich.

The highlight is the berati soup, a layered dessert similar to a parfait, which combines sponge cake with vanilla custard, chocolate custard, whipped cream, and toasted almonds. It’s like eating a delicious, sweet cloud.

Hoxha still keeps tiramisu on the menu, and it’s delicious. However, a taste of that berati soup and you’ll be so amazed that you won’t miss its espresso-flavored Italian cousin. Like Arber Cafe, something so beautiful is fun enough on its own.