Whenever I hang out with Slovenians, I learn something interesting. As I sat around Café Marlene, a Slovenian-owned spot in Sunnyside, my Slovenian companions started reminiscing about their favorite Slovenian meals, which did not include Icelandic putrefied shark. Their favorite Slovenian dishes did, however, include dormouse stew called obara, which is apparently a delicacy consumed only in the diminutive nation of Slovenia.
A dormouse is Europe’s outdoor version of a North American apartment mouse, except that the European variety is much fluffier, almost like a runty, short-tailed squirrel. Apparently, dormice are also tastier than squirrels. In ancient Rome, roasted dormice were considered a delicacy; they were raised in special enclosures, and served with a coating of honey and poppy seeds. (Yes, you read that correctly.) In the Middle Ages, dormice fell out of favor among the European elite, and were eaten only by desperate peasants.
Today, dormice are consumed only in Slovenia, but not necessarily by desperate peasants. One of my Slovenian friends is the daughter of a renowned Slovenian dormouse hunter, who managed to catch enough dormice to make a full-length coat for his wife and several Russian-style hats for his friends and family. Also, dormouse lard supposedly has healing properties, and is applied to the skin in an effort to heal bruises, rheumatism, and upset stomach. I am not making any of this up.
Café Marlene, owned by a pair of Slovenian sisters, serves some hearty Slovenian-style crepes (palacinke) … but alas, roasted Slovenian dormouse is not among the available ingredients. You can, however, get your choice of prosciutto, ham, spinach, roasted red peppers, pesto, feta cheese, bresaola, emmentaler cheese, tomatoes, or smoked salmon in your palacinke.
They’re everything you could possibly want from a crepe: fluffy, soft and thin, all at once. Café Marlene’s desserts are also fantastic, if not typically Slovenian—we inhaled a nutella-smeared croissant, a slice of pear tart, and crepes stuffed with a shockingly amazing chestnut cream spread.
I don’t get to say this very often in NYC, but Café Marlene is one of those rare, unhurried places where there is absolutely no pressure to eat and run. You can sit around all night, drinking wine or tea or espresso, and nobody would ever think about looking at you funny, even if you stay past closing time.
Despite the limited menu and limited seating, Café Marlene is an unusually loveable NYC spots where time seems to stop. Now if they could only add some roasted dormouse to the menu, I might be fully in love.
4111 49th Street, Sunnyside, Queens
Subway: 46th-Bliss (7 train)