If thoughts of Croatian cuisine conjure up images of greasy steaks with a side of boiled potatoes and sauerkraut, think again. While it still holds firm to its Eastern European roots and positively pleases meat-happy Balkan palates, Croatian food is a savoury smorgasbord of taste. Where it really stands out is along the Adriatic coast, famed for its seasonal ingredients, unique specialties and Mediterranean flair.
While mainstays along the seaside include unexciting breaded and fried lignje (squid) and seafood-topped spaghetti and risotto, look out for more remarkable specialties. For an appetizer to remember, try paški sir (Pag cheese), a salty sharp cheese from the island of Pag. The secret behind the pungent taste of this hard cheese is the diet of wild herbs that the free-range sheep feast on while producing their milk. Thin slices of cured and air-dried Istrian and Dalmatian pršut (prosciutto-like ham) are often on the appetizer list, served tapas-style with olives and cheese.
Dalmatian brodet (mixed fish stew) with polenta is a regional treat, as is the pašticada, beef slow-cooked in wine and spices and served with gnocchi. Lamb from the islands of Cres, Pag and Brač is deemed Croatia’s best, as it’s fed on fresh herbs, making the meat particularly flavourful. Try it at the konoba (tavern) of the luxe rural hotel Boškinac on Pag. On chic Hvar island, don’t skip the locally sourced creative fare served slow-food style at Zlatna Školjka inside a 13th-century townhouse; their gregada fish stew with lobster, sea snails and amberjack is a treat. For a more low-key and rustic meal, head to Robinson on the secluded Mekićevica Bay where you can dine in the shade of ancient olive trees.
Istria’s cuisine has been drawing gourmets from afar. Dishes to try include maneštra, a thick vegetable-and-bean soup similar to minestrone; fuži, hand-rolled pasta often served with truffles picked in the forests of Istria in autumn; and fritaja, omelette served with seasonal veggies, such as wild asparagus harvested in spring. Istrian olive oil is highly rated; the tourist board has marked an olive oil route along which you can visit local growers and taste the oil from the source. For a sample of Istrian cuisine, try the five-course three-hour degustation menu at Monte in Istria’s seaside showpiece of Rovinj, or the creative raw seafood at acclaimed Damir i Ornela (Zidine 5) in the unassuming coastal town of Novigrad.
Vis, one of Croatia’s faraway islands in the southern Adriatic and an ex-military base of the Yugoslav National Army, was off limits to foreigners until 1989. It has bounced back remarkably in the last few years as Croatia’s top destination for gastronomes, who feast on sumptuous seafood in the island’s two towns, Vis and Komiža, and many taverns in the island’s interior. The specialty is viška or komiška pogača, a square-shaped focaccia-type bread filled with sardines, onions and tomatoes. Restaurants with unfailingly good food are Pojoda (Don Cvjetka Marasovića 8; try their orbiko, orzo with peas and shrimp) and Kantun (Biskupa Mihe Pušića 17; sample the tuna prosciutto) in Vis; Jastožera (Gundulićeva 6; lobster is king here) in Komiža; and Pol Murvu in the inland village of Žena Glava (order the tuna pašticada).
Fish is of prime quality in Croatia – ranging from John Dory, turbot and monkfish to sea bass, cuttlefish and sea bream – as is the shellfish, including fine scallops and mussels. The best scampi come from the Kvarner Gulf; try them in the gourmet mecca of Volosko, at renowned Le Mandrać restaurant or the more informal Tramerka (Andrije Mohorovičića 15). Oysters from the town of Ston on the Pelješac peninsula and the Limski Kanal in Istria are top quality. Have them straight from the sea in Mali Ston or from the Istrida oyster farm in Sveti Lovreč on Limski Kanal.