When contemplating European food, the cuisine of Serbia is hardly the first thing that springs to mind. Serbia? You mean the former Yugoslav republic? They were, like, communist, weren’t they? I thought only boring things came out of communist countries like drab apartment blocs, efficient-to-the-point-of-mechanized sports teams, and censorship? The imaginary me asking those questions couldn’t be more ignorant. Serbia, along with the other countries that comprise the former Yugoslavia, is home to some of the most vibrant and distinctive culture, geography, and cuisine in the world, let alone Europe. And if you’ve yet to try to Serbian food and are within a hundred kilometers (I’m gonna let this euro theme flow) of the New York City metropolitan area, get up off your butt and go eat a meal at Kafana, immediately.
One of my best friends, Marko, dragged us there this Wednesday on the recommendation of his mother. I was initially skeptical for no reason other than we’ve eaten delicious Balkan food in Queens on numerous occasions and this place was located in the East Village (home to seemingly every flavor-of-the-month restaurant in NYC). But Marko’s word carried a little more weight than usual this evening. The reason? He is nominally Croatian, but describing his background with the word–last commonly used three decades ago–Yugoslavian would be more appropriate. He is truly pan-Balkan with a birthplace on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, a Montenegrin father, a Bosnian grandmother, and a Serbian grandfather. This mixed heritage proved difficult during the troubles that beset that part of the world for the greater part of the nineties, but he nevertheless represents his heritage with pride. Furthermore, his mother is the best mom-cook I know, besides my own, so I knew she could discern good food from dreck.
Kafana’s kitchen produces food that is about as far from the dreck-end of the spectrum as possible. After the liberal hand behind the bar poured us a generous round of slivovitz (Balkan plum brandy) and Marko let out a rapid flow of serbo-croatian to our server, the food began to arrive.
What came out was like a what’s what of treats that exemplify Serbia’s location as a crossroads of culture between the former Ottoman Empire to the east, the Mediterranean influence from the south, and an Austro-Hungarian influence to the north and west. Plates came to the table carrying warm spinach and cheese pie, the filling barely held in place by it’s thin, chewy, and crackling crust. Or simple and savory braised broad beans–soft and yielding to the bite with that wholesome flavor unique to perfectly prepared legumes. Or Balkan quesadillas: lepinja (simliar to pita) opened up and spread with the ubiquitous soft white cheese of this area, kajmak (pronounced like the j is an i), toasted and served warm. Or, perhaps one of the national dishes of Serbia, cevapi–little skinless sausages charcoal grilled and served simply with more lepinja, chopped white onions, more kajmak, and ajvar (a roasted red pepper relish).
I’ve had experience with kajmak and ajvar before solely as a result of my experience eating at Marko’s house, but I need to stress how delicious these two things are and how particularly good the ajvar is at Kafana. Ajvar looks almost like salsa or tomato sauce, but its ingredients are usually just red peppers and a little garlic and oil. It is sweet and savory at the same time; when you try some that is as good as the stuff at Kafana you suddenly realize exactly what piquant means. Kajmak can be described as clotted cream: a rich, buttery cheese that when consumed for the first time almost immediately negates the need for butter or cheese. Kajmak and ajvar, the second and third partners to a cevapi ménage a trois, are emblematic of the cuisine of the region: food that is simply prepared with the very best ingredients possible. It sounds like a tagline for a locavore supper club, but it’s how they’ve been doing things in the Balkans for hundreds of years.
Dinner continued with pljeskavica–the other national dish of Serbia–a grilled, chopped beef burger discerningly stuffed with cheese and pancetta. For all you fried food lovers out there, the fries that came with this plate were exceptional. Next was ljuta–big, spicy pork sausages sizzling and hot, fresh off the fire served with the biggest surprise of the evening–delicious cole slaw…who knew? Red and white cabbage thinly sliced and dressed with what tasted like nothing more than a little vinegar and oil. It was a resounding success that had the crew looking around the table with incredulous expressions: Cabbage can taste not only good, but great?!?!
The evening was a low key Wednesday by our standards (i.e. I can remember with absolute lucidity everything I ate and drink that evening, which is unfortunately a first for me). After a delicious dessert–baklava and chestnut puree topped with whipped cream–we headed over to Gin Palace for a nightcap. Despite the relatively chaste manner we went about the evening, I can’t stop thinking about when I will be able to return to Kafana. Writing this post the day after we ate, I am trying to justify to my wallet (even though the spot is very reasonably priced for the area) returning again this evening–the mark of a truly great meal, you can’t stop craving it until you get it again.
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Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”
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