Lewis ~ My one weekend in Serbia was back during my time “studying” in Hungary, so I was more focused on drinking cheap beers and meeting girls. I did find the people to be unbelievably friendly, especially considering this was 2004, about five years after we bombed the hell out of them. The beers were also incredibly cheap (I brought back a 3-liter jug for use in dormitory beer pong). However, I did not get much of a culinary experience, and after a visit to Kafana in Alphabet City, I regret that. My only memory of food in Belgrade was a foolishly ordered plate of calamari, which turned out to be the worst I’ve ever had. I certainly didn’t have any deeply smoky cured sausages, tender pork chops or beans baked to perfection.
Serbia lies between Turkey, Greece and Central Europe, right in the middle of the stretch of land known as the Balkans. While this position at the confluence of various great empires throughout history means it has been a hotbed of conquest and ethnic strife for centuries, these same forces brought with them various culinary tastes. Like most of the countries in the area, Serbian cuisine is strongly influenced by Turkish and Greek from the south, and Austro-Hungarian from the north.
Kafana, or KAФAHA, is a dark, candle-lit eatery in the classic East Village bourgeoisie style complete with exposed brick, wooden tables and a massive antique cash register. It is very cozy despite the huge open front. This is likely accomplished with the step-down patio seating that provides a transition to the relatively quiet Avenue C.
Like most of Europe, bread is an important part of the Serbian diet, and we received a basket of it upon placing our order. While not a highlight, it wasn’t bad either and was the perfect texture to soak up the remnants of our dinner. The roasted red pepper spread that came with it was simple, but made a cool and smooth accompaniment to the bread (I get a kick out of the fact that bread and beard are essentially the same word, especially since one ends up in the other fairly regularly).
Dried and smoked meats and sausages are taken very seriously throughout Serbia. These delightful appetizers came from the Austrians via the Vojvodina region, which is still more influenced by Austro-Hungarian cuisine than the rest of the country. This includes much more dough, pastry, pasta, dumplings and filled breads. I have always loved cured meats and Kafana did not disappoint with the Assorted Meze ($13.95). I always think meat and/or cheese platters are overpriced, but the portion was closer to reasonable than most. The four varieties pretty much covered the range of cured meat styles. There was deep and smokey (a flavor profile that would recur in the grilled meat), and slightly slick and stretchy. There was a thicker, more moist cousin to prosciutto. One was lighter, more hammy, but very dry and thin. And of course, there was the ubiquitous composite sausage. All were fantastic and raised our expectations for the main course. The pickle spears were a lightly spicy and soft way to cleanse the palate.
Serbian food is characteristically meat heavy, and the grill has taken over the countryside. Lamb is common, but pork is by far the top hog on the grill. Kafana has a wide selection of grilled meats available, but who can pass up the Mešano Meso (mixed grill for two $33.95)? This guy contains five traditional grilled meat dishes – grilled pork chop; smoked pork neck; ljuta (spicy pork sausage); bacon-wrapped morsels (chicken liver and prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese); and the national specialty, minced meat “fingers”- piled on a place with copious amounts of romaine lettuce. The “fingers” I believe contained a mix of lamb and pork. The pork chop was a bit devoid of flavor, but was perfectly tender. Everything else was great, and the portion was beyond satisfying.
I was a little dubious about paying $10.95 for a plate of baked beans, but it’s another “national dish,” so I had to give it a shot. It is found everywhere in Serbia, and everyone has their own recipe.Lima or great northern beans are used, and paprika is always involved. That latter certainly came from the north as Hungary is the top producer of paprika and they live and die by that stuff. (When I studied in Budapest there was a huge scandal involving a bunch of paprika labeled as “Hungarian” which was discovered to be tainted with a fungus that can only grow in Brazil.) While still a bit high in price, the beans certainly impressed. The large, white beans with their velvety texture merged with the rich sauce to give an almost mac & cheese experience. They skyrocketed in my esteem in the second bite when I discovered thin strips of onion that added a juicy bridge between bean and sauce.
The blitva side ($5.95) of chard with boiled potato and garlic was a buttery green addition to a meaty meal. It was enjoyed by all, especially thanks to its similarity to southern collard greens.
We also drank a Serbian beer, Jelen. It was as expected from a non-beer country – light adjunct lager.
All in all, I would say this was a smashing success. We got to try some traditional specialties that turned out delicious and reasonably priced for the location. Yes, there are some “essential” items that we missed, most notably slivovice. This plum liquor is the national drink thanks to the huge amount of fruit trees in the country. Of course, plum isn’t the only fruit used, and liquor isn’t the only fruit beverage ubiquitously drunk, but ya gotta choose one, eh?
Total cost with tip $90 or $30 a person.
I’ll leave this post with a grim fact. Serbia was the flashpoint of WWI and 58% of the country’s soldiers were killed, as well as 16% of the pre-war population of the country. Naturally, they tried to stay neutral in WWII, but didn’t get off so hot on that one either.