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Jul 11, 2010 09:40 PM

4 nights in Istria - best (high end) restaurant?


My wife and I are two foodies from San Francisco, and we'll be in Rovinj for July 27-July 31, but have a rental car. Which restaurant would you recommend for a special dinner? We of course have heard of Zigante, but we've read it's overpriced, overrated, and...perhaps it won't be truffle season when we are in Croatia?

Thanks in advance!


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  1. Zigante is definitely overpriced and overrated. But there are other options and truffle season has begun. Black truffles. White truffles are not available until some time in the Fall. For a special dinner, try Valsabion in Pula. About 45 minutes south of Rovinj. Or the restaurant at the hotel San Rocco in Brtonigla (a bit inland, close to Porec/Tar).
    Brtonigla also has Astarea, which is worth a visit, although not as "special," and there's Gina's in Pula and the Konoba Stari podrum in Most, closer to Umag and the Slovenian border.

    13 Replies
    1. re: CMDALD

      Thanks so much for the help. Valsabio looks great, and relatively convenient.

      How is Monte in the old town of Rovinj? It's a few blocks from our hotel, and we were wondering how Monte compares to Valsabion and Valsabio was worth the drive.

      thanks again!

      1. re: ak45

        My work takes me to this part of Croatia every 6/8 weeks, and I revisit the better restaurants, as well as some new ones.
        The best by far are Valsabbion in Pula and Le Mandrac in Volosko, both recently awarded joint first place in Croatia, in Gault/Millau guide, the well respected restaurant guide. Monte and Blu in Rovinj are fine, but not on the same level.
        Use your car, you won't be disappointed.

        1. re: Euro Kevin

          thanks. We have a reservation for Valsabbion, and we are really excited!

        2. re: ak45

          We are Americans who live here for part of each year. Bought a house a few years ago. Have seen the peninsula boom.
          I would rate Valsabion over Monte's...definitely worth the drive and the experience. But you absolutely need reservations at this time of the year. The whole coast is teeming with tourists right now. Also allow a slow pace for the dinner. If officially it isn't a "slow food" participant, it should be. Drive time from Rovinj should be no more than 45 minutes once you are on the highway. A bit slower on the coast road now because of the congestion.
          For not as special a dinner, but a great meal nevertheless in a beautiful area, try Petra's in Vrsar. Not far from Rovinj. Run by an Austrian-French couple. The town of Vrsar and the marina are splendid. The restaurant itself is about 2-3 kms. South from the marina. As they say around here "dobar tek," (bon appetit).

          1. re: CMDALD

            Hey CMDALD, would you by any chance, have a place in quiet countryside not far from Klostar?

            1. re: Euro Kevin

              Are you referring to the Klostar that is in the mainland, to the East of Zagreb? That's the only Klostar I know of in Croatia. If so, there are a couple of places in Ivanic Grad, which is not that far away. Nothing like Valsabbion or Monte's or what is available in Istria, but a couple of typical konobas that serve the typical Zagorje cuisine of the region. If so, I'll try to get you a couple of names. Was there a couple of years ago.

              1. re: CMDALD

                Sorry, I sent you off on the wrong track, was referring to your house. We have friends who live near Klostar, a tiny hamlet inland from Porec. Heard them mention they had American neighbors, and wondered.....

                1. re: Euro Kevin

                  Sorry ... we are closer to Motovun. That we know of, there are about 10 American couples/families that have bought properties on the peninsula. There might be more.

                  1. re: CMDALD

                    I realize this is an old post. We are the only Canadian couple I know of who have bought a house in the area. We are not living there yet (residency laws) but travel there whenever we can. There is definitely some wonderful eating in Istria. Our house is very rural so we are able to do a lot of foraging (i.e. wild asparagus, wild garlic and herbs, fruits and nuts, etc.).

                    1. re: chefathome

                      There is a relatively large (by Istrian standards) expat community in the Motovun-Oprtalj-Livade area. British, Dutch, Americans, German, Belgians. Residency laws affect us all in one way or another. And putting up with overly anxious Slovenian border guards, specially for those of us with non-EU passports. But the landscape, region, food and culture are superb and well worth some of the hassles of being here. The truffle festival in October in Livade, sponsored in part by Zigante, is a something to behold.

                      1. re: CMDALD

                        Near our house are Slovenians, Germans, Austrians and Italians - we are quite a little group!! I hear you about the landscape, culture and so on making beauracracy worthwhile. Talk about red tape with buying our property! It costs 100 euros for this paper to be signed, 300 for that one to be stamped...and it is not as though it is speedy, either! But everything is taken care of including starting up a company (which was the law for foreigners when we purchased a few years ago). I really enjoy the truffle festivals in Livade, Groznjan, and so on. We go every October - our flight leaves 15 weeks from today...

                        1. re: chefathome

                          Here's a recent article that might interest you (and others). Other than the restaurants, the real charm of Istrian dining and where one is going to find the best local foods are in the konobas (inns) or agroturismos (farmhouses) that dot the landscape.
                          "Istrian gastronomy is gaining a momentum at Jeunes restaurateurs d’Europe, Europe’s leading association for fine dining, a club of the “Europe’s best young restaurants and chefs” that are considered to be the entrance to the grand gourmet world. Today there are 7 restaurants from Istria part of the JRE: four from the west Istrian coast have been members so far:

                          *San Rocco from Brtonigla
                          * Pepenero from Novigrad
                          * Damir & Ornella from Novigrad
                          * Monte from Rovinj

                          And three new joined on Wednesday June 1:

                          * Plavi podrum from Volosko
                          * Le Mandrac from Volosko
                          * Kukuriku from Kastav"


                          1. re: CMDALD

                            It is truly a foodie destination if you know where to look. I also have celiac disease so my restrictions can

                            I am very familiar with those first four you mention but have not been to the last three (although I have read about them). Cannot wait to try them on our next trip.

      2. I recently dined here before the big summer rush of 2011 and I can say it's worth the price. I splurged for the 13 course tasting menu and coffee and the meal clocked in at around 3 hours and $170 per person which was exceptionally reasonable (A normal tasting menu is ~100 USD, with 5 wine pairings it's ~150 USD.)

        The dinner consisted of:

        1) Champagne starter - a full glass of Croatian sparkling wine which I can say is one of the best I've ever tasted. It was crisp, delicious, and very subtle.

        2) Olive course served in cocktail glasses, consisting of a tapenade (my favorite of the three, absolutely bursting with fresh olive flavor), a warm and exceptionally light virgin oil from the region, and a "cream of olive" which was like tasting a rich earthy butter. It went very well with the homemade olive bread and cauliflower bread served with the dish.

        3) Minced crab served with "sauce of internal crab organ" as the waiter said, roe, powdered parsely, and sea salt. All ingredients were brought in separate dishes and combined in a shaker at my table and prepared before me. Absolutely fresh crab meat. It (and all of the other seafood dishes) tasted like they came directly from the deep ocean. Exceptional quality. My only complaint of the evening was with this dish. As great as it was I found a few small pieces of shell in the mix, which is a no for very high end, but it was delicious.

        4) A sweeter Istrian wine was brought to be paired with the next few dishes, I was brought a single scampi cooked absolutely perfectly, then dipped in liquid nitrogen and rolled in rough sea salt. The scampi was then dipped into a boiling hot rum and herb sauce and served. It was a single bite... but what a bite. Light and flavorful, full of herbs and the deep ocean. It was extravagant.

        5) Minced scallop (also fresh and perfectly cooked) served on a bed of warm cauliflower pate and rough cut raw cauliflower. You can tell that this restaurant relies heavily (heck, exclusively) on local and seasonal ingredients. Nearly everything I was served was very light Mediterranean food elevated to haute cuisine. It was a very hot day and having light and balanced flavors with their superb wine was heaven.

        6) "Soup from the stones of the sea" - A test tube of dehydrated soup and powdered stone was brought to my table and mixed right before me with boiling water to create a small and delicate soup. This was delicious seafood broth and the presentation was quite novel.

        7) A dry Croatian chardonnay was brought for my next dish which was an octopus roll. Quite possibly the best octopus I've ever eaten. Rolled in a batter made partially from octopus it was exploding with Mediterranean flavor (think olives and the sea). It was rich, warm, and unlike most octopus and squid dishes, not rubbery. Exquisite and tender and easily my favorite course of the evening.

        8) "Seafood sausage" - A single sausage link made from three types of fresh caught fish. I have no idea how they combined the fish into such a perfect item but this was a rich and flavorful course with light but satisfying spice and just a hint of fresh seafood. It was served with an astoundingly good warm spinach puree sauce. They managed to capture the fresh spinach flavor and remove the grassy aftertaste that you can get with cooked spinach. I could have eaten the sauce just on it's own.

        9) A very bright and light Sauvignon Blanc was brought for the next dishes. Next course was filet of sardine served with vegetable sauce and filet of sardine in squid ink served with sardine sauce. A fantastic preparation which includes your (white gloved) waiter adding the sauces from paint tubes at your table. The squid ink filet was my favorite of the two and was warm, rich, and had just a hint of grilled crunch.

        10) Tuna with shredded vegetable (served in a small filet) with a very thin layer of pounded monkfish on top. All served over a bed of cauliflower pate. Very light. Not my favorite dish of the evening but satisfying and fresh none the less.

        11) A Croatian red is brought for my meat dish which consisted of veal cutlets and gravy topped with an egg white/marshmallow filet. The filet on top was not at all sweet and complemented the veal very nicely. The veal was perfectly cooked and presented a hearty and well rounded finish to the meal.

        12) An incredibly good (but not sugary) dessert wine was brought for my dessert. "Interpretation of Tiramisu". A single sphere of Tiramisu rests on a bed of nuts and coffee and the waiter injects the Marscapone into the sphere at your table. Served with lingonberries and chocolate sauce, this was a fantastic dessert.

        13) The final dessert (with coffee after) was a piece of chocolate with orange rind, two coconut vanilla morsels and a praline cluster with lingonberries served on a marble slab. Three more great bites to end the night.

        14) Coffee and time to relax while the sun started to set.

        All in all a truly exceptional meal. What sets Valsabbion apart however is the skill with which the wines are paired to the food. I've never had better wine pairings. Everything fit perfectly and the wine was of a quality I've almost never experienced. It was astonishing how good the wine was. I could actually tell which flavors would be featured in my next dishes based on the wine they would bring.

        I can also say that the service was also probably the best I've received at any restaurant. Every course was perfectly timed so as not to rush the meal. It was a perfect pace with perfect presentation and absolutely flawless service. It's a service you simply can't experience outside of a restaurant that isn't holding one or more Michelin stars. Major kudos in this department.

        My only critique would be that I would have like to have seen more flavor variation. The seafood was all flawlessly executed and of perfect quality but it felt like the menu played it a bit safe. The octopus and sausage were my favorite courses because that's where the kitchen played with flavor and strayed the most from traditional regional flavor combinations. But don't let that deter you. The food is wonderful and matches up perfectly with a hot summer day.