Some people have described Croatia as the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, where the enigmatic nature of the region is reflected in its art and culture. The country’s somewhat tumultuous history may have even inspired a future where Hollywood came calling.
Up to this past May, the southern seaside city of Dubrovnik — particularly its distinctive Old Town, encircled with imposing stone walls completed in the 16th century — has had a starring role in a not-so-little television series called Game of Thrones, as the background to King’s Landing, the location that once housed the infamous coveted Iron Throne.
While Croatia certainly has its share of enchanting views and scenic spots, the eastern European country is also a burgeoning culinary hot-spot. And traveling through its many towns and communities, savoring their regional gastronomical offerings, serves as a summer well-spent.
THE LESSER-KNOWN DELICACIES OF ISTRIA
In November, as the boisterous tourists dissipate, many seaside Croatian cities transform back into sleepy fishing villages. Ancient port towns dot the coast of the Istrian Peninsula, where rolling hills with occasional towering cypress trees dwarf the rest of the local flora.
This area is slowly becoming more celebrated for extra virgin olive oils (utilizing olives that have been harvested by hand), as well as the production of black and white truffles, and dry, well-balanced white wines. One of the most dominant grape varieties found in the Istrian peninsula is the Malvazija, (pronounced as MAL-VAH-ZEE-YA), an indigenous grape grown for over two thousand years in that region and aged in Acacia barrels.
Wines that are aged in these encasements have a similar mouthfeel to French oak barrel-aged wines, but have a much more subtle woody flavor that allows for the fruit forward bouquet to become even more pronounced. It pairs wonderfully with exquisite shrimp and sea bass, which are caught right off the coast, as well as savory mussels that are farmed in small bays or coves of the peninsula.
THE HAPSBURG’S PLAYGROUND
The city of Pula boasts one of the worlds greatest architectural treasures: an amphitheater constructed sometime between 27 BC and 68 AD, listed among the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world. Two hours east of the Pula Arena lies the resort town of Opatija. In the late 1800s, aristocrats and nobility would flock to their vacation villas on the Opatija Riviera to enjoy a variety of seasonal activities.
Ruzmarin, one of modern day Opatija’s finest restaurants, is a reflection of the county it resides in: cozy, unpretentious and not without its secrets. Visitors who insist on walking will certainly put a lot of physical work toward their meal because this hidden gem’s elusive location can be found behind a hotel and a residential area that leads to a romantic surprise: an exposed terrace nestled on top of a steep hill.
With a menu that almost reads like War and Peace — i.e., it’s long — it can be hard to make a decision on what to order. But the highlight of the meal comes after the plates have been cleared from the table, when the waiter brings out complimentary homemade Teranino. The Istrian liqueur, a local favorite, is derived from Teran, a red wine from that region which is spiced with cinnamon, anise, fennel and nutmeg. Not overpowering or overly sweet, the beverage is a bit reminiscent of a port or sherry.
THE CENTER OF IT ALL
As you arrive in the old city of Dubrovnik, climbing up on the ancient walls to get a bird’s eye view is practically a rite of passage as a local and visitor alike. If you look hard enough, you can find 360 Dubrovnik, the city’s only Michelin starred restaurant, tucked away in its walls, structures that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Center.
As the name promises, you get a 360-degree view of the walled city. Chef Marijo Curic marries seasonal and locally sourced Croatian ingredients with modern French cooking techniques; the food is flavorful, sophisticated, and inventive. The constantly evolving menu promises delicious surprises with ingredients that are seasonal, just like the actual restaurant, which opens its doors in late March and closes at the end of October.
Pantarul is another regional gem, this time located in Lapad, slightly off the beaten track in the newer side of Dubrovnik. The menu is an eclectic mix of Asian, Mediterranean and French cuisine that somehow finds a refreshing balance as a result of locally sourced ingredients. Wine aficionados will enjoy the many selections of very reasonably priced Croatian wine. It’s not fine dining, however, the relaxed atmosphere, and the low hum of locals speaking in Croatian really adds authenticity to the ambiance. The portions are very generous here, especially if you try the tasting menu featuring five or six courses.
A TRIP WORTH TAKING
There are currently five restaurants in Croatia which have been honored with Michelin stars — most recently Noel in Zagreb and Draga di Lovrana in Lovran. While the summer will eventually come to an end, a culinary adventure spent delighting in whimsical dishes brimming with regional flair never goes out of season.