My family comes from Serbia, so of course whenever we find a Serbian restaurant within driving distance, we have to try it. My mom discovered Kafana about a year ago and has eaten there every single time she’s been in the Big Apple since. Kafana is a Serbian restaurant, and unlike some Serbian restaurants which try to mask their ethnicity by claiming that they broadly serve “Balkan” food (Ambar, I’m talking about you), everything about Kafana is Serbian.
Going to school in DC means that I haven’t had much time to go to New York City. However, I made a few trips over Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks. It was finally time to see whether this restaurant that my mom and sister had been raving about was worth the hype.
Honestly, I tried not to expect too much from Kafana because I’ve been to a few dingy Serbian restaurants, including one in Vancouver, that looked like it was built in the USSR. Ambar, in Washington, is trendy and chic, but it caters towards a Western clientele.
Everything about Kafana is very Serbian, from the Cyrillic letters on the windows, to the non-Americanized food to the frank service. When I walked into Kafana with my mom, the hostess greeted us in English. My mom asked for a table in Serbian, and we were spoken to in our native tongue for the rest of the night. Pretty much everyone in the restaurant was speaking Serbian. It was great! It was also great when a vaguely Serbian man (he knew how to pronounce everything properly on the menu, yet he conversed with the wait staff in English) had brought an American date to the restaurant; I love it when people spread our culture.
The restaurant itself is quite cozy, with only 34 seats and room for four at a small bar. The tables were made of wood and the chairs and booths are upholstered in an ethnic embroidery. Vintage postcards of Belgrade hung in frames on the exposed brick walls. Evergreen garlands ran along the tops of the walls for the holidays, and they gave off a nice scent. A magazine ad for Cockta – our national brand of Cola – hung in the bathroom. A happy yellow lab, owned by one of the employees, was hooked onto the bench on the restaurant’s patio during my visit. Serbian versions of Beatles songs played through the speakers, but pretty soon, the restaurant filled up and the music was inaudible over the chatter. I was really impressed by the time that was put into these details.
My mom and I were ready for a feast! We were given a basket of bread and ajvar – traditional red pepper spread – to start. The bread was thick and spongy and the ajvar was the best I’ve had outside of the homeland. It had a great smoky flavor from the roasted red peppers.
I ordered a Coke, and got “Mexican Coke” in a glass bottle. This Coke was imported from Mexico, but I’m pretty sure that everywhere except in the U.S., Coke is sweetened with real sugar and not with corn syrup, which gives it a fresher taste. Coke is traditionally served in a glass bottle at restaurants in Serbia, as opposed to being poured from a fountain.
We ordered the Lepinja sa kajmakom ($5.95) next. Lepinje are basically our version of buns, but they were more like pitas in this dish. Kajmak is a traditional, creamy cheese. It’s basically what forms when hot milk curdles. The kajmak was sandwiched between the lepinje; the dish was really good! The kajmak had a soft texture and rich taste. The appetizer was sprinkled with parsley, as I noticed most of our dishes were.
For my entrée, I ordered the Punjena pljeskavica ($18.95), which is a Serbian hamburger filled with ham and cheese. Fries and salad came on the side. The serving size was enormous. I was expecting the pljeskavica to be served in a bun, but this typically happens only when you get a pljeskavica as fast food. I asked for cabbage salad with my meal, but they messed up my order, so I ended up getting a side of house salad and cabbage salad with no extra charge.
I usually get normal, not stuffed pljeskavice in Serbia, so this was thicker than I expected. Yummy cheese oozed out when I cut into it. The hamburger was really juicy. The fries were great and tasted like real potatoes (I’m obviously used to fake fries from fast food places around campus)! The house salad consisted of chopped lettuce and was dressed to perfection in a very Serbian style – simply with oil, vinegar and salt. I could not get enough of the salad. The pljeskavica was pretty good, but I’ve had better in Serbia.
There was another instance of miscommunication with our waiter. Our waiter took away my mom’s small plate where she put the ajvar and the kajmak sandwiches she was still working on. When my mom asked for the plate back, the waiter got confused and sent us a whole new order of the kajmak sandwiches. It was on the house, because we didn’t explicitly order it. So we got both a side of cabbage salad and kajmak sandwiches free of charge! Readers, confuse the waiters, and you’ll get free stuff.
Usually, kupus salata (cabbage salad – $5.95) consists of green cabbage, but this purple cabbage salad was pretty good too. It too was dressed with oil, vinegar and salt and sprinkled with some parsley. The salad was a great, refreshing side to accompany the heavy pljeskavica.
My mom ordered another classic dish, Cevapi ($11.95). They are basically the same meat as in pljeskavice, just grilled in a rolled, sausage shape. She got 10 with her order and a serving of fresh onions, which usually companies grilled meat in Serbian cuisine. The cevapi were pretty good, but I think they should have been served with some sides like my pljeskavica was.
For dessert, my mom asked our waiter to combine two traditional desserts, kesten pire (chestnut puree) and zito sa slagom (boiled wheat cooked with walnuts and sugar, served with whipped cream – $6.95). For once, the waiter didn’t mess our order up! The flavor of these desserts is difficult to describe, so I recommend just trying them. They’re definitely acquired tastes. I’m not a fan of kesten pire, but I love zito sa slagom; it has the texture of oatmeal and is not very sweet, so the whipped cream helps with that.
Before I forget, Kafana is cash only. I don’t know how this is possible or acceptable in 2013, but hit up the ATM before eating there!
The Bottom Line:
Despite the confusion amongst the waiters (which wasn’t a bad thing at all because it worked out in our favor), Kafana left a good impression on me. The atmosphere was cozy, the food was great and the Serbian language was all around. Kafana is a piece of Belgrade in the East Village.
116 Avenue C (Alphabet City)
New York, NY 10009