Zagreb & Dubrovnik
Can anyone recommend modestly priced restaurants serving local (or Serbian) food in Zagreb & Dubrovnik. We do not want to eat Italian food in Croatia and some of the places we dug up appear to be far too expensive for our budget. So local places favored by the locals would be great.
Pretty much anywhere that says "Konoba" at the beginning of the restaurant name is a Croatian restaurant.
Zagreb is inland and colder than coastal Croatia so the food in the capital tends to be heavier and more based on meat. We were less enthusiastic about food in Zabgreb than food in our coastal destinations, like Dubrovnik.
What follows is what I wrote about our dinners during a visit in 2012.(I'm not claiming these will meet your budget but Zagreb is not a destination that makes the board often so its worth posting even if you can't use the information)
Le Bistro: This is the cafe within the Hotel Esplanade where we stayed in Zagreb. We ate dinner there the first night after a somewhat problematic trans-Atlantic flight that resulted in missed connections from Frankfort to Zagreb. By the time we arrived in Zagreb, we wanted to keep life simple and this was a wholly acceptable option.
We made a meal of strukli, a side salad, strawberries, and wine. We were told that the wine was chardonnay, and, although the label was from a Croatian producer, "chardonnay" was what the label said. The wine followed the French style of chardonnay with crisp citrus notes and nice minerality. I strongly prefer the French style to the Californian so I was happy. Much later in the trip, we were introduced to Posip at a winery on the Peljesac peninsula. I thought Posip and the Croatian "chardonnay" were very similar. This was echoed by the comments of the gentleman who did the pouring at the winery. Strukli is a dish that is very, very similar to a blintz: very thin dough is filled with cottage cheese or cottage cheese mixed with sour cream. This cafe served the baked version, although a boiled version exists. This was very, very rich and very, very delicious! (If you read on, you'll find my praise of rich strukli somewhat paradoxical, but I'm talking about our first encounter with Zagreb cuisine and perhaps the creamy richness was just what we needed after a very stressful flight over.) My husband and I split one order. This was plenty given its richness and the generous size of the portions. (We rounded out the meal with a mixed salad and fresh strawberries.) Strukli can be eaten as a savory dish, the way it came to our table or sprinkled with sugar and eaten as a dessert.
At breakfast the next morning, I learned at least part of the secret behind the strukli's success. The cottage cheese the hotel was serving was the best cottage cheese I've ever eaten, and I eat cottage cheese with fruit every morning for breakfast. The cottage cheese has a tang to it that is just extra-ordinary. Because of this taste, I thought perhaps the cheese might be made from sheep's or goat's milk but during a walk through the Dolac market I learned that the milk is cow's milk. Incidentally, judging from what I saw in the Dolac market, the Zagreb residents sure do love their cottage cheese. I lost track of the number of vendors selling nothing but cottage cheese.
Vinodol: My husband and I made a meal of three starters: octopus salad, shrimp salad, and fava bean and cuttlefish stew. (The first two were from the regular menu and the third was a special for the day.) The food was delicious and the service was excellent. Portions were so generous that we really hadn't needed to order a third item. However, the taste of the cuttlefish stew was so lovely that we happily finished the dish. It was strawberry season and we could see dozens of appealing-looking strawberry desserts en route to other tables, but we skipped dessert. We ate in the covered terrace area, but we had a chance to see the interior. Very charming.
Ivica i Marica: (These are the Croatian names for two characters in a story that is the equivalent of the Hansel and Gretel story.) This restaurant came as our biggest disappointment. All the web sites and information about this restaurant talk about its emphasis on healthy eating -- on whole grains and preservative-free foods. I'm sure that's true, but the cuisine itself tends to the heavy and rich. My husband and I ordered two entrees and shared these: pork tenderloin stuffed with sauteed mushrooms and pasticada, a marinated and braised beef dish. The pasticada was the star of the meal, a sort of cross between sauerbraten and beef bourgignon. The pork tenderloin really illustrated my criticism: When I read the words "mushroom sauce" on the menu, I imagined a wine sauce with mushrooms, but the dish arrived with a thick cream sauce. I'm sure the cream and flour and butter in the sauce were the highest grade possible, but I don't connect cream sauce with healthy food. The four fish options were fried squid, two trout dishes, and branzino (sea bass). I guess we should have ordered fish instead, but we knew plenty of that was coming with our days in coastal Croatia. Besides, we had assumed that a restaurant that goes on and on about its healthy food could offer healthy meat dishes.
Gallo: This is an Italian restaurant in Zagreb with an emphasis on seafood. After three nights of inland cuisine, we were ready for lighter food and we were happy at this place. My husband began his meal with a fish soup. He was surprised to discover the preparation consisted of clear fish broth with some fish and shellfish in the bottom of the bowl. This turned out to be the model we would find throughout coastal Croatia. Although a different preparation, the taste was very good. I had some slices of crudo, although I can't remember the type of fish. We shared a grilled Branzino (sea bass) and drank our first bottle of Malvasia wine (Croatian spelling Malvazija), a lovely white.
I've written about an explicitly Italian restaurant, but traveling in coastal Croatia (e.g. Dubrovnik) even the food that appears to be Italian is somewhat different from the food you'll find in Italy itself. The difference I remember most is the use of particular spices and the quantity of spice. In Lovran on the Istrian peninsula, I remember eating a version of bouzara (a tomato-seafood preparation) that was so loaded with spices the sauce was somewhat grainy. Besides, Croatia has legitimate claim to the Italian-esque food on the table. It was part of the Venetian empire, and Venetian food relies more heavily on spice than do other regions of Italy. (FWIW, Marco Polo is a native of Korcula, a city in modern-day Croatia.)