Let’s make a bet: if we allowed you 10 seconds or 10 minutes time to think about it, would you be able to name just one typical Croatian dish? Whether it is pad thai in Thailand or pizza in Italy, there is always at least one local specialty you intend to taste when reaching your destination. Always, or almost always, because visitors know nothing about Croatian cuisine – no matter whether they come from near or far. Even Anthony Bourdain owned up to it candidly in front of the cameras of No Reservations. “I didn’t have any idea what Croatian cuisine was. Zero, I had no picture in my mind” he admitted, only to end the programme with an enthusiastic conclusion: “Croatia is the next big thing”. Who knows?
The potential of Croatian cuisine
By now, most people are aware that tourism accounts for almost 20% of the country’s GDP, with close to 20 million visitors in 2018 and an impressive 6.5% growth rate compared to 2017. Croatia now appears in various Top Ten charts, comprising favourite destinations among US Millennials, and sunny beaches are no longer the sole attraction.
Busloads of Asian tourists mean that Zagreb is now on the map of organized package tours and the importance of such tourist flows have been consecrated by the Michelin Guide, which has been covering the country since 2016. The third edition of the guide includes 5 stars and 63 venues, with 15 in Zagreb alone.
“This selection shows the potential of the Croatian gastronomic scene, enriched by multiple influences: from the Mediterranean flavours of Dalmatia to Italian influences in Istria and Slavic tastes from Zagreb to Slavonia, which combine to create a unique culinary identity” states Gwendal Poullennec, the International Director of Michelin Guides, during the presentation of the 2019 edition of the Guide, which was held for the first time during the R’n’B festival weekend in Zagreb. Even though international foodies may view Michelin parameters as being somewhat outmoded, this is a start – here the Gault & Millau is more influential and fortunately there are other English sources such as Time Out.
Noel's dish, photo Mario Kučera
The only Michelin star in town is held by the Noel restaurant owned by chef Goran Kočiš. After years of experience in Germany, he has come back home to promote international cuisine in his own city, with an interpretation based on modern techniques, elegant presentations and Croatian ingredients sourced from small-scale producers. The menu ranges from Adriatic tuna sashimi / wasabi / sesame cracker to Foie gras variation and, as well as a splendid wine list, it is also possible to accompany food with cocktails or sake. A lunchtime menu of 3 courses is priced at 190 HRK, a 4-course dinner at 490 HRK and 7 courses at 690 HRK.
Another case of “brain return” is that of chef Marin Rendic who, following his work experiences with Noma, Arzak and Mugaritz, has opened the Bistro Apetit, “the best restaurant in Zagreb” according to Gault & Millau with its rating of 16 points. The menu follows the rules of today’s contemporary cuisine with starters such as Ribeye tartare (45 days dry-aged), Cuttlefish ragout, basil polenta, Grana Padano foam or Home-made tagliatelle , beef tail ragout and pea foam. A 5-course tasting menu comes at 420 HRK, while 7 courses are priced at 620 HRK. Even though 85€ ca is not a great deal to pay by foreign visitors’ standards, it may nevertheless seem too pricey from their point of view for a cuisine that has been already been experimented more or less everywhere, and yet it is very popular with the locals.
The new guard
Croatia is a young nation. No more than twenty years have gone by since it became independent from what used to be Yugoslavia and since the Balkan war, which put an end to the state control of all forms of production, including all agri-farming activities, and a socio-economic crisis that had brought the country to its knees. For two decades, it was a country with no more to offer tourists than miles of uncontaminated beaches and to its own people, a one-way ticket to take them elsewhere. Officially, more than two million Croatians reside abroad, while four million have chosen to stay but, fortunately, there are signs of a reverse trend.
A new generation, including young chefs who had departed for distant places, has now decided to return home to build their future. As the tourists flock to Markov square in Zagreb to watch the famous Royal Cravats engaged in the changing of the guards’ ceremony, another change is taking place and it is happening in the kitchens.
Local products, seasonality and a focus on small-scale producers combined with modern techniques and attractive presentations: the formula is always the same, interpreted more or less convincingly.
Mano2's dish, photo Mario Kučera
Having frequented kitchens of the likes of Amass in Copenhagen, chef Hrvoje Kroflin is now at work at the Mano2 restaurant, where he puts the accent on the finest ingredients and is not averse to recovering ancient traditions spiced up with fermentations and marinades. In a fashionable restaurant located in the city’s financial district, you may skip the tasting menu (only served at weekends) and enjoy an excellent offering of Croatian fare, along with some more creative dishes. Here you will find Skradin Risotto, Dalmatian Soparnika and dishes such as the Mano2 Steak, roast cauliflower with smoked goat’s milk butter, caramelized shallot, mushroom juice and Portobello mushrooms.
Childhood recollections and national dishes constitute the inspirational source of NAV, the restaurant run by chef Tvrtko Šakota which opened in January 2019. With a seating capacity for no more than twenty diners, the venue’s offering consists in a 7-course lunchtime gourmet menu priced at 490 HKN or 10 courses at dinner for 690 HKN. There is one menu only which changes almost every day, or according to the guest’s requirements. The signature dish is jagle, a Croatian polenta made from autochthonous maize, served with Pag cheese that has been aged for 18 months and olive oil. The basket of sourdough bread has to be ordered separately, with a choice of three different types of dough and combinations: beetroot and cream spread, quinoa and fermented butter, vegetable black and lard.
NAV restaurant, photo Mario Kučera
Zagreb is called the city of a million hearts. It even has a Museum of Broken Relationships (not to be missed), and a small bistro on the museum premises, called the Brokenships Bistro. The concept of this venue is to give a contemporary twist to traditional recipes, which are presented in two formats and based on sharing dishes rather than eating them in any particular order. A small number of dishes priced at approximately 80 HKN, 40 for half portions, such as Risotto with ricotta and salted lemon zest, fermented tomato and ginger crisps; Trout ceviche; Pig’s ears with mustard seeds, parsley pesto and green beans seasoned with basil and cheese aged in sheepskin sacks. Good value for money and a wine list of natural and biodynamic labels, a formidable selection of breads and other leavened products, some outdoor tables and an attractive well-kept dining room with a prompt service but, more importantly, dishes which make no attempt to imitate fine dining venues.
Brokenships Bistro's dishes, photo Margo Schachter
In the kitchen, a team of just under thirty-year olds, led by chef Matija Jagić produces comforting food which may not be particularly original but is certainly tasty and has no time for the formalities of grand restaurants, starting from amuse-bouches and petits fours pastries. Here, the new guard has already skipped a restaurant generation and is now focused on bistronomy. The sort of food offering I would gladly return to and would like to have on my own doorstep.