From Anchovies in Dubrovnik to Donuts in Zagreb: An Exquisite Culinary Whirl Through Croatia

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Panorama Restaurant & Bar, Dubrovnik

 

Carving out enchantment in Croatia isn’t difficult – but visits to this pearl of the Adriatic Sea should absolutely extend beyond the more obvious cities of Dubrovnik and Zagreb. Indeed, in this ethereal land known for its otherworldly sites – as vividly depicted in Game of Thrones – there’s so much more to see.

We took the Kompas Adriatic Cruise on M/S Stella Maris, the compact luxury ship that allows for unprecedented access to sights and delights of those lesser known gems. Beginning in Dubrovnik and sailing north towards its final port-of-call in Poreč, the ship’s gracious and knowledgeable staff complement unique personal touches like lively info sessions, surprise island detours, and Croatian language lessons.

 

M/S Stella Maris

 

We were admittedly on a gastronomic mission – and thankfully, there’s an ocean’s worth of culinary gems at every stop.

Croatian fare is something of a crossroads of diversity and regional specificity, perhaps most easily divided up by coastal and mainland/continental fare. The former utilizes a lot of fresh seafood (squid, shrimp, lobster, octopus) and plenty of their award-winning Croatian olive oil – which is enhanced by an ample dose of fresh herbs and spices (think oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, rosemary); you’ll also recognize quite a lot of Mediterranean influences and resemblances to Greek and Italian (Venetian) cuisines.

 

Hvar

 

The latter is heavily characterized by Slavic influences, as well as some Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish (due to proximity and historical rule). You’ll see meat, fresh-water fish and vegetable dishes fortified by headier ingredients such as sweet paprika, roasted garlic and black pepper; and moreover, instead of olive oil, it’s sunflower oil and/or animal fats, such as pork lard for cooking and frying.

Highlights in the overall include cheese made from fresh sheep or goat’s milk from the Island of Pag, spicy sausages (kulen) from Slavonia, Dalmatian prosciutto, truffles from Istria…we could go on.

Here were some of the highlights.

 

Dubrovnik

Take the cable car up Srđ Hill and soak up sweeping panoramic views of the Old City of Dubrovnik, the island of Lokrum, the bay of Lapad, and the Elaphite Islands. Perched atop the hill is Panorama Restaurant and Bar; and considering your location along the Dalmatian coast – here, you must exercise your gustatory duty to eat freshly caught seafood. We recommend the Dalmatian Trilogy, a swimmingly delicious trio of octopus, marinated shrimps, and anchovies – best enjoyed with a glass of summer à la Grgić Pošip (2015).

 

Panorama Restaurant & Bar

 

Mljet

Take a stroll through Mljet National Park – this cherished green island oasis is situated on the Dalmatian south. It is the oldest national park along the Adriatic sea and hosts a wealth of flora and fauna, along with two unique features: the Great Lake and Small Lake. The latter on which you can take a small boat over to the Isle of St. Mary, where the 12th century Benedictine monastery awaits. The building is a bit of an anomaly; due to it being redesigned numerous times, architectural styles collide: Renaissance meets Romanesque meets Baroque. For a break from the history lesson, wander down to Restaurant Melita. With views overlooking the lake, enjoy a romantic meal on the terrace with local cheeses, black risotto and our favorite, grilled mljet lobster.

Korčula

Millenia-old winemaking traditions are revered here. So a visit and chat with Mr. Branimir Cebalo in his Lumbarda vineyard at Grk Cebalo is very much in order. Located about two miles from the Old Town of Korčula, they offer tours of the grounds and wine tasting: we recommend his Grk white wine, which offers reserved intensity and is gorgeously layered. Then make your way back to the shoreline to Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant – or more simply, LD Terrace. It recently entered the Michelin Guide and their Dalmatian fare with contemporary flourishes ideally complements the patio-perfect views of the Adriatic Sea. We recommend the gambero rosso & rose galić dish, which features local sweet, raw prawns, and a lush bisque that’s finished with a drizzle of herb-infused oil.

 

Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant 

 

Hvar

You probably know it as the island where international celebs and folks with fancy yachts congregate; but beyond the ritzy-glitz, there’s authenticity and charm waiting to be discovered. Wander the streets of this seaside town and make your way over to the Španjola, a Spanish fortress built in the 15th and 16th centuries. As you stand on historic antiquity, take in sunny views of the quaint town, the Adriatic and nearby the Pakleni Islands. Then head to the local Hvar Market for a basket of the freshest, sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted in your life. Sometimes life’s simple pleasures are just as sublime.

Split

Part of the Dalmatia region, this bustling city is the second-largest in Croatia and spread over a central peninsula. Head below ground for a brief respite from the crowds, explore the palatial rooms beneath the surface of a Roman Emperor’s namesake Diocletian’s Palace, deemed a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Then, wander over to the chic and lively Bokeria Kitchen and Wine bar for stellar Croatian wines (we recommend a medium-bodied white Stina vugava, from Brač); pair with the smoked and charred octopus, made with sweet stewed chickpeas and tomatoes.

 

Bokeria Kitchen 

 

Primošten

Located in the northeast town of Sibenik, Krka National Park is accessible nature at its finest. It’s a natural karst phenomena and rich in endemic species, but allows for leisurely strolls due to the many wooden paths. There are 360°views of lush forestry, streams, and seven waterfalls to behold –  of which the most famous and stunningly beautiful is Skradinski buk. After a jaunty workout, grab a seat by the sheltered overwater patio at Konoba Toni. The mixed grill is a must and features locally caught orada (sea bass), brancin (sea bream), calamari, clams, and shrimp. Fresh, sweet and tender – all else that’s required is a drizzle of local Croatian olive oil, lemon and salt.

Zadar

Situated along the Dalmatian coast, the past and present greet one another with a cool connectedness. With over 3000 years of history, a wander through the Old City of Zadar and you’ll be face-to-face with Roman forum ruins. Then encounter the present/future with art installations by Nikola Bašić along the coastline, which feature his psychedelic solar-powered Greetings to the Sun and water-symphonic Sea Organ. Then, get an ample fill of people watching on the patio of Pet Bunara as you tuck into Croatian-Mediterranean fare such as stuffed calamari that’s filled to the gills with a mixture of barley, Dalmatian bacon, goat cheese, fish sauce, capers and chives. And remember to take a peek inside the restaurant itself; its digs are built upon the archaeological ruins of the Old City walls – which you can see through their glass floor.

 

Pet Bunara

 

Rovinj

It’s hard to resist the charms of this impossibly romantic town. Situated on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj’s Old City is a basket weave of narrow winding cobbled streets, stone archways, flower-dotted window sills, and a central harbor lined with little batanas. Wander up to the foot of the Church of St. Euphemia for inspired views, baroque architecture and insights into its famed namesake martyr; then snake down around the back (with swimsuit in tow) to the Plaža Baluota and its swimming nook. Enjoy the crystal waters of the Adriatic Sea and views of neighboring Katarina and Banjol islands. Afterwards, head over to Gelateria Italia for baseball-sized scoops of gelato (two, if you please) – obvious winners are the pistachio and the Crema Siciliana (blood orange).

Zagreb

From that final port of call of Poreč, opt to venture into Zagreb, the capital – the three-hour drive meanders through majestic mountains and evergreen farmlands. Upon arrival, make your way over to St. Mark’s Church, and don’t be surprised to be surrounded by numerous wedding parties and a sea of brides in white waiting their turn outside in the courtyard to tie the knot at this historic 13th century gem. To this day, it is picture-perfect, even though a portion of the building was constructed in 1880; it still features the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, and the emblem of Zagreb. Ironically, the Museum of Broken Relationships happens to be situated a few feet away from all the “happily-ever-after” related going-ons. If the name isn’t enough of a giveaway, it showcases stories of heartbreak from all over the world. If you consider that the love of food is the most reliable form of affection, seek it out a block over and dine at local favorite Konoba Didov San, for Croatian comfort food. The restaurant inside is a tiny, cozy nook of a spot but in warm weather, seek out patio pleasures with charming views of the neighborhood and the Magdalenić-Drašković-Jelačić Palace. Try the Snails à la Dida – plump puževi sit in a rich gravy that includes roasted garlic and onion, and it’s served with crunchy polenta that’s riddled with crispy lardons. But true love will be found in the form of their fried fluffy donuts, served with their exquisite homemade cheese – the perfectly delicious ending to a delectable tour of culinary Croatia.

 

St. Mark’s Church