From Sarajevo to the State Capitol 

Inviting downtown cafe offers diners a homemade taste of the Balkans

Inviting downtown cafe offers diners a homemade taste of the Balkans

Sevala’s Cafe

231 7th Ave. N. 242-6500

Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sun.

The business card for Sevala’s Cafe reads: “Downtown Nashville, Corner of Union Street and 7th Ave. N.” To those words, one might add: “Where Local and State Politics Meet.” With the temporary digs for the mayor’s office around the corner at the old downtown library, and the State Capitol and Legislative Plaza across the street, Sevala’s has become a breakfast and lunch spot for members of both the Purcell and Bredesen administrations. On occasion, the mayor and the governor themselves have stopped in for a meal.

But just before the Tennessee primary, Sevala’s found itself at the nexus of national politics, when Democratic primary candidate Wesley Clark dropped by for a bite to eat. Though the retired military leader came in a distant third, and in fact dropped out of the race the following day, in the view of owners Sevala and Mirsad Kulovic, there isn’t a better man on Earth than Wesley Clark. The Kulovics are refugees from Bosnia, and they know him as the general who played a key role in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which led to peace in their war-torn homeland. He also served as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO during the late ’90s; under his leadership, NATO forces ended the conflict in Kosovo and helped set in motion the downfall of brutal Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Campaigning in Nashville, Clark’s people heard of the little cafe the Kulovics had opened and told Clark, who decided to pay a visit. It was an occasion they will never forget. “He helped end the war in Bosnia,” says Mirsad. “In our country, he is a hero.”

“After the war, you asked yourself, 'How can we ever thank him? How can I ever do something for him after what he did for us?’ ” adds a beaming Sevala (pronounced “Shu-va-la”). “And then he comes to my cafe, and I have the chance to do something, to feed him! It was unbelievable! It made me so happy.”

And what does one feed a national hero/presidential contender when given the chance? “A calzone,” she answers. “I would have liked to make him a special meal, but he did not have much time, so the calzone was quick.”

Mayor Purcell and Gov. Bredesen—who presumably have a little more time than a presidential candidate on a whistle-stop campaign tour—have tried Sevala’s goulash, a dish that’s only available when she has time to cook it. It is one of her native specialties, which she hopes to add to the menu as she establishes her business and can hire more help. For now, Kulovic is still on the demanding path toward achieving the American dream, one that seemed a million miles away back in the early ’90s, as war tore through her country and literally split her family.

Mirsad was a professor of traffic and engineering at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia; Sevala was an accountant. One day, Mirsad went to Croatia on business, and war broke out. “I went for two days and was there for five months,” he says. Serbian troops had surrounded Bosnia; he couldn’t get back in, and Sevala and their 11-year-old daughter Dada couldn’t get out.

When the family finally reunited in Croatia, Mirsad began the quest to come to America. When word came from the resettlement agency, he was told that he would go to Cookeville, Tenn. “I couldn’t find it on the map,” he remembers. “I was happy to be going, but had to go alone at first.” Sevala, Dada and their second daughter, Jasmina, came in May 1994, and the family was together again. “We had lived in a big city, and Cookeville was very different. But everyone was so friendly and so good to us. We felt like we were in heaven,” he says.

Mirsad was teaching at Tennessee Tech, but when his application to work for the state came through, the family moved to Donelson, and Sevala took a job cooking at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel. “It was all new to me,” she remembers. “The kitchen was as big as a stadium, and the chef was famous, and everyone who worked there knew so much. I was afraid at first. But then I decided to learn, and also to share some of my country’s foods with them."

Sevala stayed at the Sheraton for six years but always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. When the small space across from the Sheraton opened up, she snatched it. Though it had been a Huddle House for years, just prior to her possession, it was a grille, albeit one sorely in need of new equipment and a thorough cleaning. Sevala’s first day of business was Nov. 12 of last year, and other than holidays, she has opened the doors early every single morning since.

Breakfast is served every day from 6:30 until around 10:30 a.m. and consists of the usual American wake-up fare: eggs, omelets, grits, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast and biscuits. Sevala cracks every egg, grills every slice of sausage and toasts every piece of bread herself in the kitchen space directly behind the small counter and pastry/dessert case.

It is at lunch that the culinarily curious can sample Bosnian cuisine via three items on the regular menu. Chevapi and pljeskavica are similar, a very lean ground beef being the base ingredient of both. The chevapi is seasoned with lots of garlic, formed into finger-sized logs, then pan-sautéed, drizzled with sour cream, and served with four warmed and buttered triangles of Sevala’s delicious homemade pita bread, which is moister and more elastic than the pita typically found in Middle Eastern establishments. A small salad of leafy green lettuce and chopped Roma tomatoes comes on the side. For the pljeskavica, the ground beef is mixed with several kinds of fresh, chopped peppers and diced onion, then formed into a patty and grilled; it comes with the same accoutrements. The snicla, or Bosnian schnitzel, is a pounded-thin cutlet of beef, pan-fried with salt and pepper, then served with French fries and pita bread.

More conventional lunch fare includes cold-cut sandwiches on 6-inch or 12-inch soft white rolls; the steak and cheese is reminiscent of a Philadelphia cheese steak, with the addition of green peppers. Sevala’s 6-inch veggie calzone makes a hearty lunch, with the same good homemade pita dough formed into a half-moon and filled with peppers, onions, mushrooms, olives and tomatoes, baked to a golden exterior and served with a thick and robust tomato sauce. (The 12-inch calzone would be a good dinner-to-go for two.) Small and large pizzas are also on the menu.

There are several desserts in the display case; standouts are the homemade tiramisu and baklava.

Cozy, clean and inviting, the cafe has just six small tables, four of which are pushed up against the window, with a view of the foot traffic on the sidewalk outside. Black-and-white photos and some pencil sketches are framed on the walls; no doubt, the photographs from Wesley Clark’s visit will soon find a place of honor. Black shelves are filled with sparkling glassware and some mementos from home, brought to the U.S. on recent visits back to their country—when the Kulovics originally fled Bosnia, it was only with the clothes on their backs.

“In America, if you work hard, anything is possible,” Sevala says. “When we came here, we had nothing and we knew no one. We left our home and our family. In every face that comes to the cafe, I look to find something familiar, to make my customers my new family. You make a new home and a new family. This is a gift from God, and we are so happy.”

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