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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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In Dining

In Dining

In Dining

Cafe Fabrika breaks the mold for Serbian food


When I think of Serbian food, I think of "mom and pop" places like Three Brothers or Old Town Serbian Gourmet, classic restaurants with consistently delicious and hearty cuisine. They don't, however, usually offer a hip nightlife. But a recent visit to Café Fabrika (240 E. Pittsburgh Ave.) -- located adjacent to the Moct bar -- broke the mold of the typical Serbian restaurant.

Café Fabrika's interior is clean, crisp and industrial, with sky-blue walls and metal-plated menus. They echo the feel of the open warehouse setting for Moct, separated from the downstairs seating area by a sheer white curtain. Menu options include traditional Serbian dishes and conventional Americanized sandwiches and salads at moderate to expensive prices, but the serving sizes proved to be worth their weights in gold.

On a Friday lunch break, my dining companion and I started with the soup du jour ($4), which was a pleasant autumn squash puree with white beans, roasted red peppers and corned beef. It was delicious, but was missing something that would have made it perfect, perhaps a dollop of crème fraiche or a sprig of fresh sage. And it would have been nice had the server let us in on a little secret: the big portions.

After a less than short wait, the cevapcici ($9) -- chopped lamb and beef fashioned into small but thick sausage-like chunks and browned -- arrived, fanned out in a beautiful presentation around crispy pureed potatoes and coupled with ajvar -- a spicy-sweet relish made of roasted red peppers and eggplant -- and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots, red peppers, asparagus and mushrooms. It was excellent.

The rich flavors of the combined meats meshed nicely, and the crispy potatoes were a fantastic complement. However, the scoop of kajmak -- a homemade spread of butter, cream cheese and feta cheese -- that was plopped on the potatoes was nearly as large as the serving of spuds, making the dish far too rich. Once I removed the unmelted portion to the side, I was thrilled with this entrée.

The sarma ($10) -- a traditional steamed Serbian cabbage roll stuffed with ground beef and rice -- was a medium-sized and flavorful roll accompanied by a healthy helping of delicious roasted garlic mashed potatoes and a piece of overly-rare and fatty lamb. My companion, who is not at all squeamish when it comes to red meat, found the piece far too pink for consumption, but thoroughly enjoyed the sarma and the tasty potatoes.

Service at Café Fabrika was friendly but somewhat slow. Lunch on a Friday with a moderate crowd -- the lower section seats 40 and was about half full -- took just under an hour and a half. But the fascinating interior -- the glass encased stones on the floor, the beautiful skylight over the crisp, lustrous bar, and the intriguing mix of clientele -- gave us something to marvel at while we waited for the check.

Café Fabrika is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner, 4-9 p.m. Some vegetarian options available. No smoking in the dining area. Call (414) 291-8860 for more details.