Kafana Can Grow On You
Sometimes you just take neighborhood places for granted. I regard Avenue C as one of my personal patches of Manhattan, and I long ago made up my mind about most of the restaurants and bars.
Bobwhite's and Bikini's: always good for a quick bite. Edi & the Wolf: not as good as Seäsonal but expensive. Zum Schneider: my ears! Kafana: grilled meats, but been there done that. Sometimes you're wrong.
Kafana (or Kaфana, to do it full Serbo-Cyrillic justice) has been steadily popular and busy since it opened almost five years ago. I hit it early, thought it was a useful place for inexpensive plates of sausage and bread, and moved on. But some recent meals there suggest that a real neighborhood gem was hiding behind the cheap beer-food exterior.
Tomato soup on a cold winter day was a simple delight: light, touched with sour cream, sprinkled with fresh herbs. Easily enough for two people (many appetizers as well as mains here are eminently shareable). Bread comes with a pot of red bell pepper relish at the beginning of every meal.
Like the Georgian operation Oda House on Avenue B, Kafana is a magnet for its own community. Staff and many customers are Serbian.
The wine-list is staunchly regional too: not only Serbia, but Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Hungary make up the selection (there's a bottle from Spain). Linger over the list of "orange" wines. No, not rosé--those are listed separately. Whereas rosé wine is made from red wine grapes (by reducing skin contact), orange wine is made from white wine grapes (by increasing skin contact). You may think your orange wine tastes like a rosé, but it's curious to drink a rosé Pinot Grigio. Enjoyable too.
Especially with a big plate of dimljena vesalica. That would be the smoked pork neck, which comes in thin slices touched by the grill, juicy with a thin streak of fat running through it. The slices surround a mound of red cabbage slaw, and this would make a fine starter for two or more people (although I have evidence that it can serve as a starter for one).
The grill is still important here. There's a pork chop, a Serbian "burger," and a mixed grill of Serbai n specialties for two ($33.95), which probably feeds for. And then there are the sausages. "Artisanal" is not a word to bandy around, but whether these are made inhouse or for the restaurant by a supplier, they're big, fresh, chunky, and funky.
Serbian blood sausage--unlike morcilla--has biteable chunks of pork fat hidden in its rich sludge of black meat. You can choose a sausage to accompany your prebranac (traditional baked beans).
I chose the seljačka (pork): coarse, garlicky, satisfying. The beans are extraordinary: buttery, smooth, sprinkled with chives. No tomato sauce-bound mush here. Kafana does the simple things well. Take the mashed potatoes.
I've enjoyed them twice here recently, and unless you're in the hunt for Robuchon-style ethereality, these are as good as any mashed potatoes need to be. Smooth, but not too smooth; again, buttery. This is all winter food, certainly, but what else have we needed the last few weeks?
Look out for the specials. I was talked out of a pork shoulder after eating too much pork neck, but the lamb shank was just as it should be (and many restaurants do fail at this dish, through haste): falling off the bone.
That's a good image for Kafana in general. With its approachable wines (bottles $26 and up), warming grills and braises, and friendly service, it's a restaurant which is just falling off the bone. And it occupies that territory: better than a decent neighborhood place, not quite a destination. But if you're in the neighborhood...
The owners had a lot of foresight in coming to Ave. C. and seventh street in this cash only restaurant. Exposed brick, European textured and patterned banguettes, and lots of dark wood give Kafana and exotic Euro feel. The food here does not dissapoint if it is a Eurotrip you are seeking. I have been here twice once for dinner and once for lunch. Weekend dinner is busy as people load up on grilled meats and head out for a night of partying. Saturday and Sunday, Kafana is open for lunch and my only dissapointment is the prices are the same as dinner. To start, a peasanty bread arrives with a flavorful red pepper sauce for dipping. This condiment is popular all over Central and Eastern European countries and is delish. I had the cheese pie for $3.95 to start at lunch which was the only dissapointment of both meals, layers of pillowy phyllo with very little feta. Both meals I ate the grilled pork chop($14.95) as an entree which could be the best grilled pork chop I have ever eaten. Mildly spiced and grilled to perfection, this is a pork lovers dream, served with a small salad of greens and radichio. You can add on a side of baker's(roasted) potatoes which are tasty and only cost $3.95. The grilled meats are a Serbian specialty and are not to be missed. At the first dinner my friend and I shared the sour cherry pie which is house made and rolled up with blueberries and was berry delicious.
Overall Kafana was well received and noted to have excellent menu options including a wide variety of ethnic food and modern European cuisine. One diner suggested the Zeljanica and Lepinja sa Kajmakom appetizers. Diners seemed to enjoy the food a great deal for the most part with a few noted exceptions. Some patrons stated that the food was mediocre or not as good as similar dishes they had consumed elsewhere. One diner in particular was unimpressed with the very small portions, Pasujli, and Karadjordjeva. Many diners enjoyed the Cevapi. Many patrons were somewhat put off by the higher prices at this restaurant, noting that portions sizes are very small for the price that is charged. The atmosphere was noted by many to be very well decorated. For most patrons, the service at Kafana was above standard with the wait staff being very attentive and anticipating their needs. They do not accept credit cards, so if you plan to go you need cash.