There is a breed of trendy restaurant where one gets the sense that the chef thinks he or she was the first to discover meat. The group of Momofuku establishments, which serve dozens of pork-exalting dishes to a young clientele that seems unendingly starry-eyed about them, is a prime example.
I see Kafana as a response to this breed of restaurant. Is Kafana newly opened? Check. In a hip neighborhood? Check. Glorifying meat? Deliciously. But there's nothing sassy about the little rustic bistro, no assumption that carnivory is a misunderstood art, or one ripe for reinvention. Wedged into a cozy wooden seat in the single small room, you can easily believe you've stopped for the night in a rough-hewn Balkan inn. Overhearing Slavic conversations from surrounding tables — in which the young, stylish waitstaff participates fluently — does nothing to dispel the illusion.
To start off, a basket of fine, chewy bread is brought to the table with a tub of ajvar, traditional red bell pepper relish. But the diehards ask for kajmak ($2), thick, traditional, spreadable clotted cream with almost as much fat as butter. Kafana's versions of both are excellent, the ajvar rich, creamy with added eggplant, and just a bit spicy, the kajmak with a light fermented tang that melts into the bread satisfyingly. A little too satisfyingly, if you hope to save room for a dinner that begins with, say, a platter of assorted cold cuts ($11.95) that makes the Serbian charcuterie board across town at Employees Only (a limited attempt to bring the meaty charms of Southeastern Europe to lower Manhattan) look downright vegetarian. I'm not yet as fluent in Serbian cured meats as I'd like to be, but I was pleased by all I encountered: tough and tasty strips of dried beef, chewy slices of smoked pork loin, a garlicky sausage in the salami family, and a dark, air-dried cut with rather more delicate, pale-white fat attached than the American palate appreciates.
Follow that up with any of a dozen meat-based main courses, and your roll out onto Avenue C should be a pleasantly weighed-down, protein-tipsy one. Two types of sausage are served (not counting the ones sliced for the starter platter): cevapi ($11.95), small, dark, skinless ones that taste of spice and of the grill; and seljacka kobasica ($10.95), a fatter, redder affair reminiscent of kielbasa. There's a juicy hint of pork in the cevapi, which are commonly (for instance, at Borough Food and Drink) made only with beef. It adds a similar juiciness to a thinnish hamburger ($12.95). Curiously, there's no juiciness at all in a pale, dry-as-a-bone pork chop ($14.95), or perhaps I'm just used to the ultra-richness of the Berkshire pork that's all the rage among thick downtown chops. One point for the new breed.
A "mixed grill" ($29.95) incorporates the pork chop, both hot sausages, and another delightful dish, offered on its weighty own for $11.95, of bacon-wrapped chicken livers, meltingly roasted, and bacon-wrapped, walnut-stuffed sweet prunes. It makes a good, and only moderately overwhelming, way to survey the meats of Kafana. A fraction of them, really — a rich stew of big lamb hunks and bright spinach ($13.95) is excellent, toughish grilled quails ($18.95) are less so, and a casserole of broad beans with the kielbasa-like sausage ($13.95) will be very nice when cold weather comes.
Desserts, such as a cold porridge of wheat kernels and ground walnuts, or a small sour-cherry strudel, are strangely austere (each $5.95). A small selection of wines and beers includes Montenegrin imports, as well as familiar standbys.
The word "refreshing" isn't quite appropriate in conjunction with such heavy, meaty fare, but there's something very ... invigorating about Kafana's Old World traditionalism, in a culinary climate that's so enthralled with newness, it keeps forgetting its roots, and stumbling over them.
Kafana (116 Ave. C, between 7th and 8th streets, 212-353-8000).