The sheer diversity of our food scene has doubtless turned many restaurant explorers into curious carnivores, seeking to experience the meaty highlights of as many culinary traditions as possible. Our beloved Heritage Days festival at the start of August is the central rite of this tendency, during which Hawrelak Park achieves maximum density of all ethnicities of skewered, simmered and sauced flesh. And, to be honest, this tendency led me to Kafana.
If you shop at the Italian Centre on 95 Street, you’ve passed Kafana dozens of times and perhaps, like me, didn’t realize it was a restaurant, given that the only text besides the name on their red signage is “Connecting People.” Or maybe you were tricked by the spumoni-coloured half-pinwheel of il Tricolore over the doorways it shares with the adjacent business into thinking it was an Italian restaurant. Friends, I am here to set the record straight.
As far as I know, and that’s really not much, only Kafana (and The Cheese Factory in Bonnie Doon, so I’m told) offers a local Serbian food experience, or “The Taste of the Balkans” as boasted on its menu. My go-to person in Edmonton’s former-Yugoslav-socialist-republics scene lured me to their premises in Little Italy with promise of ćevapi, a unique meat iteration that I, in my decades-long rampage of gastronomical carnage, had somehow neglected to ingest (or so I thought). We agreed to arrive with our better halves of a Wednesday night to amend that little oversight.
Kafana isn’t all in-your-face Serbian on first glance—a tidy bar at the front gives way to a more spacious dining area at the back discreetly adorned with antique photos from the old country. Our guides on this adventure preceded us and had already been equipped with drinks by a server for whom “friendly and helpful” is faint praise. She made me believe she loved the food at Kafana, and she nudged us toward the appropriate choice for our table—the mešano meso ($75.99) for four, with a couple of tasty preambles, because you can’t just dive headlong into all that meat without a warm-up.
For starters, we shared a bowl of girice—French fry-sized smelt battered whole and deep-fried, served with lemon wedges. The mild flavour of the lightly crisped fish, which is small enough to eat bones and all, cries out for a dippy accompaniment, but is certainly tasty (and priced to move at $5.85 a plate). Chewing up smelt spines might seem macabre, but I was much more disturbed by the growing pile of torn-off smelt-heads accumulating on my Bosnian co-diner’s plate—she apparently doesn’t like eating the eyeballs.
Roughly simultaneously, we received the šopska salad ($9)—”like Greek but better” according to the menu or, more accurately, “like Greek but without olives.” Tomato, cucumber and red onion were featured in vinaigrette, along with šopska’s secret weapon, cow feta, which makes the salad creamier than with the goat variant.
The main event followed soon after our starter dishes were cleared and beers—nothing uniquely Balkan, unfortunately—were replenished. The house mixed platter was an aromatic, glistening edifice of meat buttressed by tranches of roast red pepper and heaps of pilaf. Oh, there was ćevapi aplenty, but also chicken, beef and pork raznići (kebab), a big seasoned ground beef patty suitable for sharing, and grilled chicken thighs. A basket of crusty bread slices, grilled in the fat from the ćevapi, also arrived.
At that moment it all came back to me—childhood barbecues with awesome Yugoslavian next-door neighbours, mysterious meat bulbs and meat tubes powerfully redolent of onion and garlic grilled over charcoal, surreptitious slugs of slivovitz, the mighty plum brandy of Central Europe, then darkness. Thus I found myself with a case of ćevapi vu, or perhaps déjà ćevapi.
In any case, the sense of disorientation was just quite pleasant. Ćevapi usually contains some mix of beef, pork and lamb and the resulting hybrid is both lubriciously tender and tantalizingly al dente. Having someone in the know at the table paid off in the form of kajmac, a soft white cheese that is basically butter and had to be requested along with ajvar, the livid roasted pepper-eggplant spread you may have encountered elsewhere as some kind of hippie sandwich condiment. Once the slathering started, we entered what can only be characterized as a grilled meat delirium, a waking dream of sumptuous carnivory. Four of us ate ourselves to a standstill on the savoury fare, with a few morsels left over. My Bosnian friend couldn’t resist comparing it to the food back home, but she admitted Kafana’s most devoted clientele were probably also its harshest critics.
Still, there’s always room for coffee and Kafana prides itself on a serving a potent domaća kafa ($3.25), which resembles Turkish coffee so much that it actually comes with a delicious piece of hazel nutted-filled loukoum. Even my co-diner, who is leery of post-meal coffee for the insomnia it inspires, couldn’t resist a tiny cup of the highly aromatic, grounds-filled brew.
For the carnivore completist, ćevapi and other delights of the Serbian grill are worthwhile entries on your all-meat bucket list. And, until you can schedule your very own Balkan culinary holiday, Kafana whips up an enjoyable introduction.
10803 – 95 St