Bittersweet: A restaurant for Yugoslav nostalgia

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In Bittersweet, a new column on GlobalPost, Matt McAllester writes about how food connects us and the people who cook it to faraway lands. McAllester is also the author of "Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother’s Kitchen."

NEW YORK — Every now and then a Serbian nationalist shows up in Kafana expecting to find like-minded people. An understandable mistake, perhaps, considering that Kafana is New York’s only Serbian restaurant and is decked out with framed postcards of old Belgrade, an icon of a Serbian Orthodox saint and a banner from Red Star Belgrade, the favorite soccer team of the country’s former paramilitary killers. But a mistake nonetheless, as owner Vladimir Ocokoljic points out to his unwanted visitors.

“Those people come in and ask, ‘Can you play some of our music?’” Ocokoljic said while sitting at a corner table in his restaurant on a recent afternoon. By “our music” Ocokoljic was referring to the ulta-nationalist, aggressive and now very unfashionable turbo-folk dance music, which was popular among nationalist Serbs during the wars of the 1990s.

Ocokoljic, who emigrated from Belgrade in 1990, declines their requests. He’s more of a Ramones man. Pretty soon they move on.

This is a Serbian restaurant, for sure, but it’s “one of those places where everyone comes in,” Ocokoljic said, and, as if by magic, a family of three walks in off Avenue C. “For example, these are some of my best customers. They’re Bosnians.”

I sat with Ocokoljic, sharing a bottle of good Alsatian Riesling — a gift from a “cute” Serbian girl who lives in Boston, he explained — and a plate of dimljena vesalica, which is described on the menu as “thinly sliced smoked pork loin.” I had enjoyed Kafana’s food two nights earlier, when I had dined there with my wife, but the pork loin was in a different league. Tender and relatively light compared to the peasant sausage and cevapi we had had two nights earlier, it is supplied by Muncan Food Corp, a deli in Queens owned by two guys from the Vojvodina region of Serbia — one an ethnic Romanian, one an ethnic Serb (no one ever said the Balkans were simple). It is addictive.

I have not always found food in the Balkans to be so good. I first went there in 1999, on the first morning of the Kosovo war, and I don’t remember a huge number of delectable mouthfuls in the decade I’ve been visiting since. Here are some things I do remember, although I would rather not: ketchup as the stand-in for tomato sauce on pizza; mopping up the oil from fried eggs with a paper napkin before eating breakfast; and consuming cevapi, the Balkans’ legendary fingers of grilled ground meat, that later made me feel like an alien had taken up residence in my stomach.

Kafana’s food is not like that. It is as comforting and welcoming as its atmosphere and its owner. It’s certainly hearty but if you’re not quite hungry enough for Ocokoljic’s mother’s lamb and spinach stew or the triple-decker protein-fest of prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese rolled in bacon with chicken liver rolled in bacon you can opt for fish, five different salads or chicken kebabs.

The kupus, a simple salad of chopped cabbage with oil and vinegar, was an upmarket, more elegant version of the kupus that I loved in the Balkans, even in the least promising roadside cafe. The simplest dishes can be good when they’re bad, and when they’re done with the care Kafana takes with them, they’re great.

Although they are not, as it turns out, cooked by a Serb. The chef is Greek. His sous-chef is Ecuadoran. The front of house, however, is the real thing. Three of the four waitresses are Serbs and Ocokoljic seems to be in place at the bar much of the time.

Having a Greek chef speaks to the culinary connections throughout the Balkans, but Ocokoljic made sure that Andreas Klironomos learned Serbian dishes properly. Ocokoljic and a Serb friend from Queens — who had dug trenches in Sarajevo during the war to help defend the multi-ethnic city from Serbian attackers in the hills, and later attended the French Culinary Institute in New York — trained Klironomus. The chef himself is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute.

The wine list offers a selection from the Balkans — Ocokoljic prizes his Slovenian whites — but there are familiar old world names there also. Ocokoljic doesn’t much rate the wines he serves from the Plantaze producer in Montenegro but Vranac, a red Montenegrin varietal, will always have a place in my heart. Almost black in color, this rich, tannin-heavy table wine fueled a hundred evenings of conversation among journalists and aid workers during the wars and I still think it’s good value. And judging from some of the other diners who were in Kafana the times I visited, I’m not the only Balkans veteran to have popped in for a culinary trip down memory lane. “I get a lot of nostalgic aid workers,” Ocokoljic said.

Perhaps the star of the menu is one of the four desserts. Zito is described as “wheat sugar nuts.” But there is nothing nut-shaped about zito (a couple of commas in the description would make that clear). It’s a delicious mixture of the aforementioned three ingredients, with a dollop of whipped cream on top. You shouldn’t eat it all but you do.

But what really makes Kafana is the atmosphere Ocokoljic has created. He teaches interior design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and before he opened Kafana he designed bars and restaurants around the city. Although some of the furniture is reclaimed American, at Kafana he has gone back to his roots. The chairs and the old church pews he uses as benches are covered by Serbian kilims that laid unused in his parents’ home in Belgrade for decades. The chandelier was a gift from his grandparents’ best man at their wedding. The framed black-and-white photographs on one wall are all of his family. Even some of the chairs he bought on eBay were manufactured in Yugoslavia.

And that’s perhaps the greatest draw. Kafana is somewhat of a throwback to the pre-war Yugoslavia, sitting happily in the ethnic potluck of the East Village. It's a place that welcomes Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Albanians, while retaining its Serbian identity with pride. It’s a living reminder of the joys of a part of the world that can also cause so much pain.

On the wall of the bathroom in Kafana one of its less desirable patrons had scratched, in Serbian: “Kosovo is Serbia.”

“I saw that,” Ocokoljic said. He was not amused. I suspect it’ll be gone when I go back next time.

Kafana, 116 Avenue C, at 8th Street. 212-353-8000. Cash only.

Read more by Matt McAllester:

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