Restaurant review: Kafana serves Serbian cuisine in the East Village

For the first few years after the Serbian restaurant Kafana arrived on Avenue C in 2008, it served two overlapping constituencies.

The first, of course, was made up of Serbs. Like Kafana owner Vladimir Ocokoljic, many of them had been raised in Yugoslavia before it broke up and collapsed. Dimly lit and steeped in nostalgia, the restaurant evokes a village tavern, with bentwood cafe chairs, framed photographs of the old country and pre-digital artifacts like a 1921 cash register and a vintage sign for the postal, telegraph service and Serbian telephone.

Kafana’s sense of being a haven for nostalgics intensifies on Friday nights, when musicians huddle in the corner pump out the jerky, asymmetrical rhythms of the Balkans.

The food, however, betrays an attention to cooking and ingredients that goes beyond nostalgia. The wedges of gibanica and zeljanica – cheese pie and spinach pie – are tall and fluffy, their many layers of phyllo stacked spongy and cake-like instead of thin and flaky as they might be in Greece or in Turkey.

Soft, round lepinja buns are crispy on the grill before being sliced ​​and filled with creamy kajmak cheese and, if desired, a few thick, purplish slices of dry-aged pork loin. A plate of roasted red peppers garnished with marinated ferons, the semi-spicy Chartreuse Serbian peppers.

Most of the menu is devoted to pork, followed by lamb in second place. It is the attraction of Kafana’s second major constituency, the meat lovers.

My friend Josh Ozersky, a writer who passed away in 2015, was an early member of this group.

Josh, whose career as a public carnivore advocate began with a guide called “Meat Me in Manhattan,” written under the pseudonym Mr. Cutlets, moved to the East Village around 2011. He immediately fell in love with Kafana. When he emailed me asking if I had been there I said yes – then I made the mistake of telling him I couldn’t remember exactly what I had been there. had eaten.

Josh was in disbelief. “Forgot the Kafana cevapi and the lamb chops and the baked beans?” he wrote. “Really?”

This “really” still haunts me. In my defense, I’m not sure I tried any of these things at the time. Since then, however, I have come to worship Kafana beans and cevapi. (Lamb chops sometimes appear as a specialty.) About the size of small breakfast links, grilled and served with nothing more than chopped raw onions, cevapi are neither spicy, salty, nor greasy, neither smoked nor any of the usual things that make sausages stand out. They just seem to be full of character and flavor on their own.

Baked lima beans – prebranac, for the Serbs – are very much in the same vein, ordinary ingredients that have reached a state of enlightenment. (Part of the secret may be that piles of onions and oil disappeared into the beans during cooking.)

I wondered how Josh knew about those beans, given that he was following an all-meat diet very closely at the time. Now I know they’re usually served under one of Kafana’s big house sausages: the smoked, extremely garlicky seljacka, or the pork and lamb mix called zlatiborska, or better yet, the sausage spicy pork called ljuta. Already packed with so much pungent paprika that the beans directly below will be dyed a bright orange, the ljuta gets extra volatility from the jalapeños.

Kafana also had other animal parts to distract Josh. There’s the dimljena vesalica, a smoked pork neck that’s grilled and sliced ​​and has a flavor somewhere between steak and ham. There’s the karadjordjeva, an obscenely long tube of fried pork chop stuffed with ham, cheese and kajmak, like a chicken cordon bleu auditioning for an Eastern European porn movie.

And of course, there is a great version of the Serbian burger, the pljeskavica, pressed to the edges of the lepinja bun that serves as a bun. The galette can be left alone or stuffed with ham and kajmak; either way, an invigorating schmear of ajvar, the relish made from red peppers, is almost obligatory. This might also be a good time to mention that Kafana makes great fries, or “pomfrit,” as the menu offers.

Kafana had been in its run for several years before it began attracting a third faction.

You began to see tables cluttered with wine bottles whose labels were studded with consonants and diacritics. The glasses were filled or half-filled with peculiar-looking liquids, some the color of sherry, some distinctly orange, some as cloudy as a jar of weird pickles in the back of your grandma’s fridge. mother. There was an excitement and a low-key vibe of complacency at those tables that you used to see in Alphabet City only when a band of musicians holding power tools and an arc welder were playing an unannounced show in the abandoned gas station on Avenue B.

Wine geeks had discovered Kafana.

From the outset, Kafana offered what Betsy Andrews, in a 2008 short non-starred review in The Times of 2008, called “a minimal beer and wine selection.” Over time, Mr. Ocokoljic began stocking bottles from what was once Yugoslavia and the part of Italy bordering Slovenia. Many winemakers had survived communist agriculture and the war and were beginning to produce interesting wines again – some following old methods, others using experimental techniques.

Kafana understood what was going on in this part of the world before almost any other local restaurant. This made it the place where many people drank their first orange wine, their first vintages aged in beeswax lined amphoras, their first bottle of Movia, Gravner, Keltis, Princic or Radikon.

If these names are not part of your working vocabulary, it may be useful to take a nut of wine with you to Kafana. (It’s also wise to visit an ATM beforehand, as Kafana only takes cash.) The servers are an extremely loyal team, many of whom have been there since the start, and they don’t always jump on the hook. opportunity to educate newcomers. Hospitality can be a bit brusque in general; one evening when I ordered a bottle of wine and nothing else, I was told, “You have to order food. You can’t sit here and drink all night.

Fair enough – Kafana’s cooking tastes best with a glass of something unusual. The place could be a great wine bar if he wanted to, but his ambitions are higher. Kafana is a reconstruction, down to the smallest detail, of a house left behind.

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