When exiting the F and G trains at Church Avenue on the border of Borough Park and Kensington, decisions to go in opposite cardinal directions can bring you to opposite ends of the world. Within this decision is also the ability to travel from one end of the spectrum of Islam to another, all the way from Bangladesh to the Balkans. While most of this intersection is a Muslim world of food and mobile phone shops on offer for South Asians, walk a couple blocks west to find odd little Cemi Cafe.
Above their awning, they advertise Italian food and speak nothing of the few treasures on the menu from the Balkans. The countries of the former Yugoslavia and Italy do share a common border and a sea between them, but their foods are not so related. But I certainly would not put it past this place to serve excellent pastas since Italian food is prevalent in the Balkans, especially further north towards the border. Something told me from the voices in the dining room that I should concentrate my efforts on the non-Italian items though.
Despite recognizing Slavic, I could not pin down these voices and asked the bartender about the workings here. Himself, the chef, and most of the patrons turned out to be ethnic Albanians from Montenegro. In that country, they make up about 5% of the population while here in this restaurant they made up more than 90%. Only me and the Central Asian (one of the countries that ends with -stan) waitress could claim origins from elsewhere.
On a Friday night, I sat down and had the bar to myself while the tables all filled up with men taking drinks. Water and coffee for some, beer and cocktails for others. Was no one eating or would that come later? For now, the place was like a community center.
I put in the order for far too much for one person, and was asked "Do you know what is ajvar?" Yes and yes please was my verbal response, while inside I was jumping and shouting that was the reason I came. The red pepper sauce ubiquitous in the Balkans can and is slathered on just about everything, and for good reason: it is delicious. I also snatched up one of the feta filled bureks ($6, above), and broke up pieces while I enjoyed the rest of my meal.
A "small" order of cevapi ($8, below) affords you five pieces and a nice crisp salad with more feta and the important ajvar. Also included is wonderfully pillowy homemade bread which had me sending compliments to the chef. Both the meats and the burek are certainly not the best I have ever eaten, but they are good and especially so for this section of Brooklyn.
As my hunger receded I could more easily enjoy the people and atmosphere, grab a Heineken and eavesdrop on conversations I could not understand. The mood is jovial and the standoffish feel one might get when entering for the first time is whisked away as a preconception.