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When Austria-Hungary decided to connect with railway Vienna and Istanbul, the capitals of two empires, the railway tracks were supposed to pass through Banja Luka. However, the Orient Express never reached Banja Luka, thus Agatha Christy, with her famous literary murder, brought a piece of glory to Slavonski Brod and not to Banja Luka. Still, the „K und K“ monarchy managed to construct a railway branch line to Banja Luka. A small railway station, built in 1891 was the culmination of one’s destination to Banja Luka. Today one of Banja Luka’s finest restaurants, “Mala Stanica,” is located in that same station.
Almost an entire century after the construction of the railway, the devastated and abandoned railway station became a playground for a neighbourhood boy unsuspecting that his fate and fate of that small building would soon be intertwined. That boy was Damir Arnautovic, now a manager of “Mala Stanica”. A journalist of “The Srpska Times” questioned him about variety of subjects, such as food, geography, the art of food and drink, indulgence and his love for all of it, which makes this story possible.
“I’ve been here from the start. I gladly accepted the owner’s invitation to become one of the restaurant’s top men and I invested all the knowledge I’ve gained from my twenty-three years of professional experience into “Mala Stanica”.
There are certain moments in “Mala Stanica” which can make you feel as if you were in a Vienna bar from the „Belle Époque“, where a novelty called a record player brings to your ears the music of Hector Berlioz or Maurice Ravel and among the customers intermingling there are murmurs of the aristocracy and the revolutionaries plotting to bring them down. Mala Stanica is, like all proper restaurants, a space and time oasis protecting people from daily problems and troubles, at least for a while.
“I came to work here as an experienced waiter and, shorty after starting, I managed to form a great team. There are many great chefs working in Banja Luka today, but six years ago there weren’t so many creative ones. There were cooks that were good at what they were doing, such as pizza masters or seafood chefs, but there was no one capable of fulfilling a concept such as ours,” Damir Arnautovic said about the beginnings of “Mala Stanica”.
Then Vlada Simic, a famous Serbian chef and the man who designed the gastronomic concept of “Mala Stanica”, showed up.
“Vlada Simic is one of the best chefs in Belgrade who opened some of the supreme establishments, a man with long history of successes. He is not just a chef but also a culinary encyclopedia, and his refinement supersedes gastronomy. If you would ask him about potatoes, he would tell you a story starting with Columbus and native Indians and would bring you all the way up to date. He can speak for hours about a common potato, which is the very philosophy of cooking. Regardless of all those successful restaurants in Belgrade that he helped start, he persists that he is still very proud of “Mala Stanica” and that this experience is a remarkable period of his career,” Arnautovic said.
Goga Lolic, head of kitchen, also thinks the world of Vlada.
“Over the years we have spent working together, Vlada and I have become like brother and sister. He is truly a great chef and all of us have learnt so much from him. Working with him is such a pleasure at all times, we just look at each other and we can tell what the other one is thinking and needs, we perfectly complement each other. In the kitchen everything depends on one’s mood. If you are sad and empty, than the realisations of some dishes are poorer than average. But then there are days when one blossoms and creates ten different novelties. It depends on how fresh and happy you are, and that is what creates that culinary magic,” Goga Ilic explained.
As they practised they were inviting friends and acquaintances to taste what they were cooking. As people tasted their dishes, they soon recognised that this will become something brand new for Banja Luka, something that one could find only in bigger towns in the region. One evening Damir made a decision: „Enough with practicing, we are ready to open!“
Recalling that period he says: „On the first day people started coming in groups, one person brought five more, two other people brought ten more, and on that day in early September 2007 I immediately knew that we’d succeeded.“
Almost all celebrities, with very few exceptions, who came to Banja Luka even for a day, were all brought by someone to “Mala Stanica”, if not for lunch then at least to taste a soufflé that became our trademark and made us famous not only in the region, but even wider. One of our most notable customers definitely is Mr Emir Kusturica.
“Kusturica is practically our regular guest and it was here that it was recommended to him to drink an Argentinian wine, which he took along with him and now it can also be found in Andricgrad. It was here that he first tasted „Paulaner“ as well, and it too can now be found there. It is always a great pleasure to have him in our restaurant,“ Arnautovic noted.
When asked what of her works was she most proud of, Goga could not easily decide.
“Turkey meat in Spanish sauce with boletus and pine nuts is quite a popular dish. All sorts of beefsteaks are popular as well, and that makes me especially proud for I think that it is the best meat dish that we have to offer. I think that those are the dishes that we sell the most of on a monthly basis. Turkey meat with mlinci (typical Croatian pasta) is a very good dish as well. Crispy toasted julienne vegetables with curry and chicken. There are also other meat dishes that I’m proud of. There are always dishes that rise to the top and stay there, and the ones that I mentioned have been here since the start and they still remain our best sellers. Great chefs from Slovenia, Italy and Croatia came to visit us and were mesmerised by what we do here and the quality of our dishes. It was a huge compliment for us, and that is what really matters. If you approach this job with affection, the sky is the limit. Ideas and inspiration just come to you,” Goga Lolic said.
Restaurant refinement is somewhat like dancing. It doesn’t work if one partner doesn’t trust the one that leads, and it can’t exist if there is no will to experiment with some new stuff, regardless on which side of the table you find yourself. This is what Damir thinks of that little game:
“One tries something new and is fascinated. A month later that person comes back with some friends and says: “We would all like to have THAT dish”. I agree with their choice of entrée and then I suggest discussing the rest of the menu. “Mala Stanica” was the first to start the practice of serving food in courses. That gave people an opportunity to improve their gastronomic refinement and to taste three or even seven new dishes and savour them over a multi-course meal. “Little Train”, for example. It consists of miniature dishes specifically designed to be served in sequence. For example, a five-course meal, five different dishes, and five different types of wines. That is quite popular, and we arrange everything directly with our customers. It is not mandatory to have it as it is in the menu, instead we can create something new together. We would introduce it by saying: „Gentleman, allow us to take you on a hedonistic journey”. Then we would serve them several courses, five or even seven, as much as they would want. We played the game, and people played along with us. Then we would start combining warm and cold dishes. The response to such suggestions is a reflexion of someone’s restaurant refinement. You came to the restaurant, sit down, and trust that the the restaurant personnel, both waiters and cooks, will take care of you.
It is common misconception that, due to proximity of the Government building, only politicians and businessmen visit “Mala Stanica”, but the restaurant staff assured us otherwise. “Mala Stanica” is a place for everyone, they say. „I’ve seen many students, elderly women, people from all social groups”, Goga Lolic said.
At the restaurant we met Biljana, a law student. She often stops by “Mala Stanica” for a coffee or to eat that magical warm cake with ice cream.
“The Soufflé is a special treat, most certainly the best in town. I admit, I’ve sinned, once I couldn’t even finish it for there was too much of it. What I especially like about this place is the overall atmosphere and high quality food. It is very comfortable here and I’ll keep coming back, for sure,” said Biljana.
Vanja Misic, singer in a local band “Vanja The Frog”, recently described her affection for Soufflé on her Twitter profile: “The “Mala Stanica” Soufflé is so good that when I eat it, I feel as if I’m doing something forbidden.“
“What makes us especially proud is the fact that we were one of the first to mix creative Mediterranean cuisine with local cuisine. We are proud of the Soufflé. Sometimes it happens that people come to the restaurant and say: “We were here a year ago, we ate a cake that tasted heavenly, and we came back to have it again”. We are also proud of the fact that we are leaders in wine drinking culture. We have raised standards, we offered people Argentinian Malbec instead of “Vranac”, offered them Californian Chardonnay instead of “Zilavka”. I’m personally proud of the team I work with and which I created. I’m proud that whenever I find a local supplier offering realistic prices for restaurants I do my best to hire him. Once, when I attended a fair in Munich, a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who had heard of our restaurant. I find it very flattering and it makes me happy. We are serious about the restaurant business catering and we have results to prove it. I have fulfilled my dream,” said Arnautovic.
When you speak with people working in “Mala Stanica” you are overwhelmed with their affection for the restaurant business and the good food that motivates them all. So, come! Let the personnel take you on a gastronomic journey through space and time. And there is no need to worry, they are professionals, you just need to relax and enjoy yourselves.