The mid-priced segment of the restaurant industry has been conquered by cooking-school graduates who create, plate, and garnish food in predictable ways, littering their menus with buzzwords, faddish ingredients, and ungainly combinations. I’ve assayed several meals recently that seemed like bad episodes of Top Chef.
Thus it was refreshing to sit down at Kafana, a mid-priced new place in the East Village, and find the food entirely unreconstructed from its Eastern European antecedents, with nary a drop of balsamic, leaf of mizuna, or doodle of fuchsia-colored sauce in sight. “This is just the way we eat in Belgrade,” my Serbian friend Ana effused, running her eye approvingly over the menu. The restaurant at least looked like its Avenue C neighbors, with seats in a boxy room spilling out onto a rustic front porch, a bar in the back, and antique photos plastering the walls—a comfy place without much individual character except for a slight curvature of the ceiling that makes the interior seem like a gypsy wagon, or maybe a subway tunnel.
Kafana (which means “café” in Serbian) claims to be the city’s only Serbian restaurant, and I can’t gainsay them on that point. Nevertheless, the food overlaps about 90 percent with that of the Bosnian, Istrian, and Croatian establishments slinging the cuisine of the former Yugoslavia in Astoria and the Bronx. The main difference lies in a sparing use of pork, and in atypical configurations of the burek, the region’s famous phyllo pie.
A fine way to start your meal is with sopska ($7.95), a rudimentary salad of cubed ripe tomatoes, skin-on cukes, sliced purple onions, and salty shaved feta, propelled by a lip-stinging red-wine vinegar. Another salad features two simple slaws side-by-side: one made with shredded raw beets, the other with celeriac. Lepinja sa kajmakom ($5.95), a further starter, smears thick slices of bread with a clabbered milk topping called kimek, which occupies a midpoint between crème fraîche and cream cheese. Noting the yellowish color, Ana groused: “Every farmer makes kimek differently, but this version tastes like it’s been cut with margarine—maybe to make it spread better.”
The aforementioned burek, designated “pite” on Kafana’s menu ($5.45), doesn’t materialize in the automobile-tire shape we’ve come to love. Rather, it resembles a sheet cake sliced into wedges for serving. A spinach version is the only one available, though a note on the menu implies that other fillings will sometimes appear; I can’t wait to try the potato. A variation on this pite is definitely worth sampling: Gibanica (“Gih-bahn-eecha,” $5.45) takes the elements of a cheese burek—thin pastry sheets, feta, and egg—and mixes them so that the phyllo winds up inside the filling. This brilliant conceptual move transforms the phyllo into something like wadded noodles, and the burek thus becomes a yummy Balkan mac-and-cheese.
A gilded icon over the kitchen door shows St. Joseph holding the Baby J., which clues you to the Eastern Orthodox Christian orientation of the proprietors. This makes pork a possibility—an option not available to the Muslim Bosniaks, who turn out most of the Balkan fare in Queens. The Serbs might have their culinary finger on something here, because this seemingly perverse merging of three farm animals (beef, lamb, and “only a little pork,” as our server sheepishly described it) may be the world’s most perfect minced meat. When mixed with egg whites and formed into skinless sausages, it assumes the guise of cevapi ($11.95), which arrive sizzling and imbued with good smoky flavor, so pleasantly rubbery they’d bounce off the floor like SuperBalls if you dropped them. When formed into patties, the minced meat is called pljeskavica, another main course.
Competing with grilled meats as entrées, the main dishes include various stews, schnitzels, and pan fries, which are fascinating if only for their entire lack of seasoning. Jagnjeca kapama ($12.95) is a bowl of lamb and spinach stew, with a big flop of kimek on top that melts into the stew before your eyes like a snowman in spring. The lamb has been cooked to complete tenderness, the spinach chopped so fine it looks like green gravy. I haven’t had food this plain since I left the Midwest.
The strangest thing we encountered was zito ($5.95), a dish of seeming biblical antiquity. A haystack of boiled wheat berries arrives so subtly sugared that it barely tastes sweet. A cumulonimbus of white whipped cream rises to one side, spritzed with sour-cherry syrup. You’ll feel like a medieval peasant as you eat it. Bring a crude wooden spoon to enhance the effect.