Seafood. That pretty much sums up what Croatia cuisine is for me.
Well, I think they have meats and exotic dishes like rats, wild boar, and other game, but we never experienced them, and even if it were available, I limit myself to seafood. So, seafood it is.
Let’s start with their cheese. The most famous of Croatia’s cheese is called “Pag” cheese as it comes from the island of Pag. In Croatian, it is called “Paški sir.” It comes from sheep, and it is somewhat hard but perfect to start or end one’s meal. The cheese comes from a specific breed of sheep called Paska Ovka found mostly on the island of Pag. The interesting thing about Croatian cheese is that animal rennet is not allowed in the cheese making in the country. Only microbial rennet is allowed, thereby making Paški sir technical a vegetarian cheese.
As the main courses are seafood, the appropriate wine was naturally white. We had the Malvasjia variety most of the time, but occasionally we had the Grašvinja as well. Both wines are dry and fresh and perfect companions to the sweet, fresh grilled delights from the sea.
Foremost among the seafood favorites is the sea bass. Although sea bass is now farmed in Croatia, sometimes you can get lucky with one that is fished from the sea. We were lucky to have this in Slovenia in a restaurant called Wine Bar and Restaurant Sova. Located along the shores of the Lake Bled, it is an excellent place to have a quiet meal with best Slovenian and Croatian wines of the region. The owners are hospitable and very helpful. Although we got in a bit late, as soon as a table with the lake view became vacant, they came over and offered to transfer us to this table with a scenic view.
A word of warning though regarding terms like “for one” or “for two” in menus in restaurants. For the Asian stomach, always multiply these numbers by two. This is true for most of Europe, I guess. Second, if the restaurant has an English menu or, worse a multi-lingual one (with flags to boot), you can be sure the restaurant is frequented by tourists. The implication, of course, is that the price are likely to be higher than it should be. Take that as a given and just order what you want and forget about converting to your own currencies.
In this regard, I have always wondered whether finding a good local authentic restaurant where locals go is like chasing rainbows. The more a place gets noticed in various fora, the more tourists go, the higher the prices go, and the more locals stay away from these restaurants. In the end, there is only the restaurant that has excellent cuisine and excellent service where only tourists go. What a conundrum!
We went to a restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While it is not Croatia, allow me some leeway. The restaurant is called “Luda.” They have two set menus: a 5-course menu for €34 and 3-course one for €22. Excellent execution, this is a gem just off the tourist area of Ljubljana.
The wines of Croatia are certainly world class. I do not want to describe the different varieties found here but what has been established is that the Zinfandel grapes of California originated here. According to Wikipedia, “DNA analysis has revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag, as well as to the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in Apulia (the “heel” of Italy), where it was introduced in the 18th century. The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century, where it became known by variations of the name ‘Zinfandel,’ a name which is probably of Austrian origin.”
My favorite was Malvasjia. Fresh and cool and dry, Malvasjia is perfect with the Croatian seafood cuisine. I enjoyed it most with the fresh mussels and oysters we had in Mali Ston. Out in a floating platform, our host pulled out the oysters from the sea, opened it, and with just a dash of lemon, slurped it up and concluded with a sip of Malvasjia wine. Everything just fresh!
One of the places we visited was Restaurant Beom in Portoroz, Slovenia (Belokrishka cesta 68, Portoroz 6320 Slovenia). As we were traveling from Slovenia on our way to Rovinj, We had lunch along the way, at this restaurant owned by a couple who are friends with Jerry, our guide.
The restaurant has an unassuming facade. When Jerry’s friends, Nena and Marita started whipping their dishes, it felt like we were in a Michelin restaurant. The couple had an excellent local pasta which I remembered was just called “Istrian” pasta. The family had sea bass, John Dory, calamari and mussels. All these wonderful seafood were partaken with a Batic Malvasjia 2016. Truly refreshing lunch. And to cap the lunch, Marita went out of her way to get the famous cream cake done by a local baker. Zizola, a digestif, made sure our lunch was complete!
One of the highlights in our culinary agenda was the dinner at Monte, probably the only One-Star Michelin restaurant in Croatia. The experience we had there was almost like being in a theater. The movements of the staff were flawless, precise and the dishes were presented creatively. As we weren’t hungry when we went to the restaurant, we didn’t do the 5 or 7-course menu. I started with the risotto with shrimps. The shrimp was so fresh; it literally melted in my mouth. For my main dish, I had the monkfish in olive oil. With the local cava to accompany our meal, it was just heavenly.
Monte is located on Montalbano 75, Rovinj.
The restaurant I loved most in Rovinj though was Snack Bar Rio. Located along Obala Alda Rismonda – Riva Aldo Rismondo 13 in Rovinj. This is a long time favorite even of locals. Service here is very friendly, and one feels at home almost immediately. Seafood is king here. I had their tuna steak while my two sons swear by their mussels. My wife had seafood kebab which, according to her was the best she has ever had and the most creative way of cooking seafood.
Because Rovinj is a tourist destination, one will never be short of choices for restaurants. Really, the question as I have asked earlier is how do you find one that gives you value for your money. And that value comes in three ways: the food, of course, then the service, and then the cost of these two wrapped around the ambiance. The ambiance for me becomes only important when experienced with the food and the service.
At this point, we were just halfway through our trip. So I still have quite a number of restaurants to talk about. On one hand, while this trip was very taxing, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips to the restaurants, the tasting of the wines, and the company of the people you love in this world.
Until next time…