Croatia: Istrian Peninsula Trip Report
Some general remarks about coastal Croatian food:
Visitors will find that menus throughout coastal Croatia tend to be largely duplicative. By the third or fourth meal, you will be able to recite most of the entries in the various menu categories. Our guide in Hvar, explained that the locals like certain foods and aren't particularly interested in variety. We didn't have a problem with this since we adore fresh fish/shellfish and pasta dishes incorporating fish/shellfish, but we did tend to order new dishes the few times they made a surprise appearance on a menu.
We probably ate gilt head bream (Orata/Dorata) most often. This reflects the fact that we really like the taste and the fact that Dorata often is sized just right for two for dinner. (Note: some restaurants called Orata sea bream and others called it gilt head bream. The most detailed menu we encountered listed three or four types of bream alone.)
Unless you're truly squeamish about seeing a whole fish, part of the fun of ordering in Croatia is the moment when the waiter brings over the tray of available fish. If you learn to recognize the signs of freshness in a fish, you’ll enjoy this step of the meal. Seeing the amazingly fresh eyes and bright gills heightened my anticipation of the meal. I simply can’t buy fish that fresh at home.
Fish was typically sold whole and priced by the kilo, although menus typically offered at least one dish that involved a filet for solo travelers or pairs in which one person does not eat fish. The menus tended to group and price in two tiers. First class fish included sea bream and other types of bream and second class fish included sea bass.
With one exception, on the Peljesac peninsula, the waiters were very good about steering us to fish that were appropriately sized for the two of us. In general, we chose fish that produced about 140 grams per person. This was a nicely generous portion, especially since we often ordered an appetizer. At Bota Sare restaurant, in Ston, we ordered an over-sized sea bream for lunch, but we did so knowingly. The signs for freshness of that particular fish were the best I’ve ever seen and I wanted to taste the difference. (The waiter said that the fish had been alive when he set it on ice that morning. Even though we ate extremely fresh fish at other restaurants, this particular fish was definitely better than others.)
I earlier mentioned the largely duplicative menus, but we enjoyed tasting the variety in the way the same dish might be prepared from restaurant to restaurant. The cold marinated octopus salad showed the least variety from place to place, but we never tired of it. Still, we did enjoy the two original octopus dishes we ate. At the Old Mill (in Stari Grad) on Hvar -- yes I know Hvar is an island and not a part of the Istrian peninsula -- I ordered the pasta with octopus and zucchini. Sublime! Since that dish combines two commonly appearing ingredients, octopus and pasta, and it tasted so very, very delicious, I was frankly surprised more restaurants weren't offering it. In Rovinj, we ate at Puntalina and ordered a memorable spicy octopus dish being offered as a starter. We were particularly surprised that grilled octopus never showed up as we eat this often at a local Greek restaurant and a local Italian restaurant. In Split -- again not an Istrian destination -- our waiter seemed quite baffled by our request and insisted that the texture of octopus did not lend itself to grilling.
Although I can competently remove the head and rack of bones from a whole fish, most waiters and offered to do the job for us. I always said "yes" since they accomplished the job much faster
Now to the Istrian specifics:
Restaurant Kvarner: The red bouzara with scampi at this restaurant was the best version we ate throughout our trip. (We ate the red version with scampi at least once more and the red version with mussels another time.) In choosing this restaurant, we violated all the rules about finding delicious, non-touristy restaurants. It is located on the water and the menu is printed in at least three languages. If we had followed the "rules," we would have missed out some delicious eating. The red sauce was lick-your-plate good, with a vibrant tomato flavor blended with garlic, wine, and, of course, the scampi. I had delicious grilled calamari -- tender and flavorful. We got into a delightful conversation with the waiter about the quality of the food. At the end of the meal, we were offered a lemon sorbetto. What came to the table was, in fact, a drink that seemed to be a mixture of limoncello and cream. This item appeared on several other Croatian menus, and watching it being delivered to other tables, the preparation was always a drink. (I don’t know what words I might have used if I truly wanted to end my meal with my idea of lemon sorbetto.)
Najade: We began by sharing an order of red mussels bouzara. This tasted good, but the sauce was much browner and grainier, presumably from spices, and it didn't have the same bright taste of Kvarner's version. This is the place where we were introduced to a mysteriously-named-but- delicious "cavallo" fish. That’s the Italian name; I don’t recall the Croatian name. The word "cavallo" means horse, but no one in Italy or Croatia will know what you're talking about if you ask for "horse fish" in English. Say "cavallo" at a fish restaurant and you'll get something that similar to either a sea bass or sea bream -- I can't recall which.
This restaurant is also located on the water, but that is not obvious from the entrance. As a result, I wonder if this place at lunch would have had as many tourists as did Restaurant Kvarner. At dinner, the clientele is almost exclusively locals. In late May, the nights were too cool for us to comfortably eat outside, since no restaurant had the propane heaters I typically see in California outdoor restaurants. Despite the chill, we were the only patrons eating indoors. We later found out the explanation: smoking is banned indoors so those brave souls, shivering or eating in coats, were smokers.
Rovinj — My husband and I visited this lovely town along with Pula and its phenomenal amphitheater in the same day.
Puntalina Restaurant: This restaurant is along the water, literally the last restaurant after what seems to be many blocks of restaurants next to one another. From the back porch, the view over the water is glorious. Happily, this restaurant doesn’t sacrifice good food for a good view. My husband and I shared an order of the previously mentioned spicy octopus and an order of calamari over polenta. For the first dish, we were given a choice between spicy and non-spicy. Chileheads will be very unimpressed by the level of heat, but we found the seasoning to be just right. Spicy enough to have some authority but not so spicy that the taste of the octopus was overwhelmed. The rings of calamari were very tender and the polenta absorbed the lovely broth of tomato and shellfish stock.
Motovun – This is a great medieval town with an intact 13th/14th century wall for walking. You’ll have to pay to gain access to the town and visitors are not allowed to drive into the town requiring you to walk a reasonably steep road from the parking lot. Definitely worth the effort!
Agritourism Toni: You’ll need a car to get to this restaurant since it is located 2 kilometers from Motovun. I suggest you phone first, if only to reassure yourselves about finding the place. The last part of the trip is on unmarked dirt roads. (We were touring with a guide who knew the way.)
This is the type of restaurant travelers dream about. The daughter, a college professor, continues to work in the family business as the chef at least in the summer and the father is the maitre d’. There is no set menu. The restaurant can only sell what is harvested, foraged, or caught on the land and made in the kitchen. The food, therefore, changes with the season.
We began our meal with a platter of home-made Istrian prosciutto and pancetta. We certainly didn’t need to order this course since portions were huge. However, we’d passed up trying Croatian “ham” (as it appears in English on all menus) and we wanted the opportunity to try some. If you’ve eaten prosciutto in Parma, you’ll find this is a more rustic version – drier and a bit chewier – but super appealing.
My husband ordered fuzi with wild boar ragu. (Fuzi pasta is fresh egg pasta formed by folding the opposite corners of a small square of pasta to make a loose tube.) My husband was really happy with his dish. I preferred mine which was fuzi with wild asparagus and tiny dice of prosciutto in a yellow cream sauce. I’m guessing that there were lots of eggs in the sauce to account for the color. I’ve never eaten wild asparagus and these were a treat. If you don’t like the bitterness of broccoli rabe do not order wild asparagus. The stalks are much, much narrower than cultivated asparagus and, as I said, the taste is very bitter. The asparagus were a wonderful contrast to the creamy sauce and the smoky-salty taste of the prosciutto.
Although we had no need for dessert, our guide couldn’t stop complimenting the home-made apple pie she had eaten on an earlier visit. Her enthusiasm was justified. The apples filling retained lots of fresh taste without the addition of too much sugar. We all stumbled over one mystery ingredient in the recipe: the filling had a creaminess that was very elegant contrast to the apples. The daughter/chef used a Croatian word to name the homemade product she had used. That word meant nothing to our guide, although she guaranteed that it was not sour cream. With further questions of the chef, we learned that the chef slowly simmers milk. I guessed the ingredient was home-made condensed milk, but the word itself must be a local word or a chef’s word since an online translator yield the words “kondenzirano mlijeko” for condensed milk, a close-enough cognate that would have eliminated any mystery. Good eating regardless of the unfamiliar word.
We ate outdoors on very rustic picnic tables. There is also indoor seating for a cooler-weather visit.
Incidentally, if you’re concerned about going to this place without a Croat speaker, I can only report that a carful of German tourists arrived during our lunch. Between Toni describing his wild boar ragu as a goulash and a few other details I no longer remember, this group quickly and happily were able to place an order.
There are some items on the menu, like sausages simmered in sauce that require three hours notice. Our guide phoned no more than 30 minutes before our arrival.
Here’s the contact information about Toni's I found online. I deted the provided URL after discovering it was no longer valid so I have similar concerns about the remaining information.
Tel/fax: 385 52 681 651
Gsm: 385 98 1888869
Owner: Nadia & Lino Milanovi
This is helpful information. We own a house in Istria and have discovered so many off-the-beaten-path places with incredibly varied menus, even molecular gastronomy. Toni's is very good, isn't it? Did you get to any hilltowns other than Motovun? Did you enjoy Istria?
Thanks for your kind remarks.
I adored all of Croatia so I'm quite jealous that you own a house in Istria. We knew to expect lovely costal drives and coastal towns, but we were equally taken with the lush inland valleys. Add medieval towns, Roman sites, and excellent food to the natural beauty, and my husband and I were totally smitten. We would happily go back! (I even liked the tunnels in Istria! They were extremely well engineered from a human point of view with good lighting, including ground-level lights along the edge of the lanes, easing the transition from sunlight to darkness. After frightening drives in equivalent tunnels in coastal Italy, I was extremely impressed by Croatian tunnels!)
You used the phrase off-the-beaten-path places and, except for Toni's, we ate closer to the sites we were touring. I don't mean tourist traps, next door to an amphitheater/church/etc. but the one time we added a 40-minute drive for food (in Kotor) we didn't feel the results justified the drive -- no matter how delicious the meal. And it was delicious!
The one restaurant I regret missing is one a short drive from Lovran, in a fishing village. (Both the name of the town and restaurant are escaping me.) My notes did not include enough information about the outstaning cuisine -- well regarded chef, I think. As a result, we let our practical need to pack trump the exta effort to get to the restaurant our last night in Lovran.
With our equal love of history and eating, I think we achieved a good balance between touring and restaurant choices. However, I've participated in Chowhound enough to know that here I may be in the minority. I've read plenty of trip reports that elevate eating over touring ; those posters would have sought out more off-the-beaten-path places for variety.
Groznjan was the other hill town we visited. Absolutely charming!
Re-reading my original post, I realize I left out some comments about Istria's fabulous olive oil. Wow! Good stuff.
Incidentally, do you know what kind of fish we were served when we ate "cavallo"? The one web site I discovered once I got home did not include this fish in its excellent list. (URL below)
re: Indy 67
Thank you for taking the time to make your trip report. With things changing all the time in the restaurant trade, it's always great to get an up to date report.
I can tell you that "Cavallo" is a type of black sea bream with a more earthy taste than most other types.
I am wondering if you intended to visit my favourite restaurant, Le Mandrac? The chef is Deniz Zembo and It's in Volosko, not far from Lovran.
re: Indy 67
I know what you mean about being taken and smitten. There is so much to see in Croatia for such a small country. It is varied and beautiful. On our first trip we so fell in love with Istria that we felt such a strong pull to buy a house there (the story is longer than that, of course). The process was long and tricky. But we have it and it is lovely and in a glorious location. We are also in love with the language, culture, traditions, festivals, way of live, climate, etc. I am actually learning Croatian right now. It is known to be far more difficult than English.
Happy that you saw Groznjan. It really is lovely, isn't it? I think I have that little place memorized.
The olive oil is amazing. It is so green and grassy and peppery, unlike other oils I have tried. It is richer and deeper and stronger in my opinion. We always bring some back to Canada with us.
Cavallo is very good and unique. Though not my absolute favourite, it is delicious. Eating the fresh fish and seafood there is part of the experience and delightful.
Love your vivid description of the Istrian tunnels. That is so true! The engineering is brilliant.
Hopefully you will be able to return to Croatia. I love it so much that I just want everyone else to enjoy it, too. My heart belongs there. Whenever we leave, we feel as though we are leaving our hearts behind and that we are being forced away from something so dear to us. Just 13 weeks before our next trip there!
At our first dinner in Istria, the waiter brought three bottles of olive oil to the table. Two were oil made from the pressing of a single type of olive: one was very mild although not boring since it had that lovely green sweetness you mentioned and one was very green with a strong peppery bite. The third bottle was a blend of the two, although I didn't find out any information about the ratio of the blend. As far as my husband and I were concerned, the blend won the Goldilocks prize: just right!
After that successful start, we happily sampled Istrian and Dalmatian olive oil ever time it was set on the table.
At another meal, a waiter shared the following story with us: Croatian olive oil producers have been successfully competing in olive oil competitions in Paris. At the end of one such competition, the judge told all the Croatian producers that if Croatia could do everything as well as it made olive oil, it would be a world super power.
re: Indy 67
You surely had wonderful olive oil experiences! In my mind no olive oil compares. We've helped harvest olives (friends of ours grow them) and the whole thing is very interesting. The fresh oil is just amazing. How excellent you were able to try different ones.
What a great story the waiter told you about the competition in Paris! I receive daily e-letters regarding Croatian news and olive oil awards and stories are frequent in it. It will be interesting to see how entry into the EU next year will change things. Hopefully the artisans of every kind will continue to produce their products. There are many foods that would compete on a global scale such as various cheeses, wines, prsut and so on.