No Pomp Just Circumstance: Notes on Two Weeks of Croatian Dining

Nick Sylvester



On the flight back from Zagreb via Brussels to JFK NYC, the duration of which yours truly and his ladyfriend sat way deep in aisle 42, a light and all too frequent breeze away from a broken-door pisser, there was a black woman in a Delta stewardess outfit, handing out small sealed cuplets of still water. These are your standard-issue containers of water for a trans-Atlantic Delta coach-class flight, as far as I understand. The cuplet’s aluminum peel-off lid had the name of its producer, DECANTAE, in one of those vaguely medieval tavern-type fonts. In small print around the circumference was something about the cuplet being "filled at Trofarth Spring, North Wales" and its "Composition" being "In Accordance With Results Of The Official Analysis February 1998." There were no further details about the analysis. Decantae is, by its own trademarked estimation, "The Prince Of Natural Waters." No explanation was given as to why or how one becomes or would even want to become "the prince."


Possible title for future piece: "In Search of the Prince of Natural Waters."


We spent two-and-change weeks vacationing in Croatia, June 30 through July 16, mostly in or along the Adriatic Sea: Dubrovnik in the way south; Lumbarda on the island of Korcula; a port city called Split; then up north to the small town of Njivice, on the island of Krk; the landlocked capital city Zagreb; with small stops in between the bigger ones obviously, at Mali Ston on the wine-growing peninsula Peljesac, at the historic city Trogir and another coastal town called Zadar, home of the Sea Organ. As waves crash underneath a set of large marble steps, water enters a series of thirty-five tubes with holes beneath sea level, and the pressure incurred produces this soothing multi-harmonic exhalation. It’s simple, but you can’t hear it if you aren’t quiet. The Sea Organ opened in April 2005, an urban architectural oddity now masquerading as a tourist trap, and so inevitably the kind of thing most people leave thinking "that’s it?", often saying so aloud. They are their own disappointment.


A trio of memories that underscore the often fantastical degree of proximity, both physically and chronologically, we had to our food and drink:

-At a restaurant in Lumbarda called More, which has table seating right up to the Adriatic, where we ate fresh branzin (sea-bass) whole, a heavy man in suspenders brushed by our table, bent down, and proceeded to yank on a thick rope that led somewhere into the water. After six or seven tugs he pulled out a three-by-three cage, inside which I counted three live crabs and another crab, upside-down, murdered. This man in suspenders was kitchen help, we realized, and fully intended to serve the crabs that he had just caught, right there by the restaurant, like seconds ago, to diners who, seconds before seconds ago, had just ordered the things.

-Paski sir, or cheese from Pag, often comes into stores as a Trappist-style goat cheese that tastes something like a cheddar-manchego hybrid, a little bit nuttier than both though. The cheese is delicious and way cheap and an excellent low-stress lunch item when coupled with Dalmatian smoked ham, or prsut. On our way from Zadar to Njivice, we drove through Pag, which is an island just north of the city and the only stretch of barren land I saw in Croatia: rolling red hills with no vegetal stubble, Martian to a Hollywood extreme, by no means a desert but the kind of place David Lynch might have considered during the pre-production stages of Dune. In the valley below one main road, we could look over and see low-lying loom-like machinery entrenched in a narrow river, mining the water for what was an entire country’s supply of sea salt. As the road contorted itself around Pag’s terrain, we also drive by small enclosed pastures of the goats whose very milk, we presumed, was responsible for the cheese we snacked on along the way. Goat crossing signs were not uncommon.

-After swimming in the freakishly clean and clear waters by Lumbarda, I was coming back onto the beach via a semi-respectable breaststroke when I narrowly avoided a small, foot-long squid, just kicking it by some rocks near the coast. I don’t remember being particularly fearful, in no small part because I thought the squid was just a piece of seaweed. Later that afternoon, we ate at the "Familly Restaurant" Feral, which served us whole two grilled squid of about the same proportion as the one I had seen just hours prior.


Grilled squid––good, fresh, grilled squid––has a slight mineral taste to it, and is actually kind of fleshy and not at all rubbery. Which is to say it does not taste anything like the fried calamari you get at stateside establishments, where what little squid is served acts mostly as a vehicle for the deep-fried crust, which itself serves mostly as a vehicle for whatever sauce happens to be served with it, normally something like one of those not-quite-salsa, not-quite-Ragu red ones.


The New York Times recommended a restaurant in the town of Split called (Konoba) Varos, which served by far my favorite version of black risotto. Black risotto is served pretty much everywhere, a real benchmark dish. Risotto is rice-shaped, but crucially a pasta, and supposed to be slightly stiffer than rice. Bits and pieces of squid are thrown into the mix, and then the whole platter is doused with thick jet black squid ink. It doesn’t have much of a taste on its own, but the ink tends to make the whole meal seem significantly heavier. So you can reasonably end up drinking beer with the pasta (I recommend the ubiquitous Ozjusko) or even a fuller red wine. In the dining room where we sat, up in a corner was a nook locked in by two iron support bars. There was a rock behind these bars, right up to them, and it looked eerily squid-like. It also looked sad, maybe for being imprisoned unjustly, which is I why I wouldn’t recommend looking at it.


Another almost equally delicious squid/seafood risotto can be found at Kapetanova Kuca, the “Captain’s House,” in the town Mali Ston. It might be a car-only type trip, not sure the busses stop here since it’s right at the edge of the Peljesac peninsula.


We had been tipped off, so to speak, that Croatian service was of the less-is-more persuasion, veering to the extreme of less, and not at all like French waiters’ aspirations to invisibility. Most times this was fine. We were not in a rush for one, and there was none of that anxiety of imposition one can feel in New York, e.g. the very concept of "holding up" a table longer than one should. I empathize with both sides, both as an eager customer who’s watching two schmucks dillydally at a table where I could be stuffing my face already, and as a waiter who’s rock/hard-placed into either pushing the table along and offending the party (who will tip less in turn) or being too polite and risking a small tip night in toto anyway. But still there’s something aggravating about aloofness in the service industry––about the contract between customer and business being taken so much for granted. There was hardly ever any hustle––rather an anti-hustle that could put any lax Italian server to shame. This was alarming. At Rozarij in Dubrovnik, a kuna-only joint tucked up one of the alleys off the old city’s main drag, our waiter heard us discussing the check, and whether we would have to zip back down to a nearby ATM. He interrupted. "You can pay tomorrow if you want," he said. We paid him immediately.


The Bebic family of Pansion Bebic, where we stayed in Lumbarda, throw a weekly party-feast for their guests: a roasted lamb, homemade soups and pastas and desserts, live music, 20-30 people in total, elaborate toasts, etc. They are a family of three: Bebic, his wife Vesna, and their son, whose name I forget despite the fact that I watched him for close to a half-hour one night meticulously setting and resetting the silverware of a place setting, the logic and endpoint of which arrangement were known to him only.

The dining space is an open-air porch, with the kitchen tucked behind what basically looks like an enormous snack bar at a swim club. There were two long tables, and mostly couples sitting at them, of which we were the youngest and the only Americans. At the top of our table was a Slovenian woman who looked like ex-NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. Across from us were an Italian couple from Venice, and to their left were a Belgian couple from Bruges, whose male component I caught rubbing the enlarged stomach of the female component, though I was unsure whether she was pregnant or if this prandial stomach-rubbing business was a Belgian thing. To their right was a man from Switzerland who seemed extremely proud of himself for knowing several languages; this man looked like pre-heart-attack era David Letterman.

Bebic the Father brought over two bowls of watery vegetable soup almost immediately, making uncomfortable small talk in close proximity to my companion, who later explained to me that Bebic was laying out his desire to kiss her. The lamb came out next, more fat than lamb, clearly the worst part of the lamb, which I understood as a circumstantial thing, i.e. we were the last to arrive. Klappa, the three-piece musical ensemble (accordion, bass, and this mini-guitar called a tamburica), got up from their table and launched into a set of traditional Croatian tunes, then "Yellow Submarine," then "When The Saints Go Marching In," the words to which everyone except us seemed to know. With unnecessary bravado and a prankster spirit that was more destructive than truly comical, Son of Bebic brought out dessert to the Italian couple across from us, these semi-sweet, semi-fried dough balls that reminded me of the Dunkin Donuts "munchkins" that kids in grade school used to bring into class on their birthdays. He put the tray down, then suddenly, shot his arm back to the tray, picked up a munchkin off the couple’s plate, threw the munchkin into his mouth like it was some kind of circus trick, then shrugged at us, as if to say, "I am a semi-retarded man and know no better."

Not to be bested by his son, Bebic the Father began pouring some kind of alcoholic liquid onto the floorspace between the tables. He made a line of it about ten feet long, walked back to its top, lit a match, and threw the match onto the liquid, setting off a line of three-feet tall flames that snaked underneath the seat of some woman wearing a cotton dress. Not to be bested by his father, Bebic the Son repeated the stunt, though this time it didn’t have the same effect.


In Njivice there were two ice cream open-air places, Fontana and Passage, side by side, not unlike the two Indian restaurants on First Avenue, both brightly lit and with seating areas and two sets of equally pushy-screamy employees who bark at you to eat their ice cream and not the other guy’s, the needlessly showy, competitive spirit of which places struck me as very un-Croatian.


Dining elsewhere there really was this let-food-be attitude that encompassed the preparations, the service, the decor, etc. This was the norm, and funny to me because your only-organic types in the states are almost considered health freaks—hippies even—for demanding that the food they ingest not have some kind of plastic or pesticide or genetic manipulation.


We visited a family-owned olive grove way up on a hill in Lumbarda, looking over a beach, and were told that the owner refused to use pesticides on the lot, refused to touch the plants, just let them go. So sometimes the olive yield is stupendous, other years profitless and awful. This refusal to control also seems to go hand-in-hand with an indifference for reputation or consistency, these two qualities being attributes of brands, and the artificial upkeep of these brands being their ultimate undoing. And in this case, the branding also implies some kind of ownership over a natural product, which seems antithetical to the Croatian mindset I tended to encounter.

A half-mile down the hill, Cebalo is a grower of an extremely rare, extremely indigenous white grape varietal called Grk. Unlike more popular vines, Grk vines don’t fertilize themselves, meaning they need the fertilization of another varietal in order to sprout their grapes. The Grk grapes themselves, unlike those on bunches produced by bisexual species, are all different sizes, further complicating the harvesting and processing since one can never tell how many grapes he’ll have to crush and distill in order to fill a bottle. As far as wines go, this one’s a pain in the ass to produce—yet apparently Lumbarda has produced it for two millennia, since the Greeks first inhabited the island. I’m not sure if this is blind respect for tradition so much as the realization that if the land’s successfully produced a crop for the last two grand or so, how could you dare throw bug killer on the vines or futz with the soil, and possibly ruin a really special thing just to keep your margins high?


Most restaurants serve almost exclusively young Croatian wines, vintage 2005 and 2006, really fruity and eminently drinkable and with not much of a fuss to them. Besides Grk, which has a light and fruity and a slightly grassy note to it at the end, we enjoyed Plavac, which is the primary red wine grown, and has a real black and blueberry kick to the nose, but is tame and unilaterally fruity on the palate. There’s also Posip, which is a golden-colored white wine, really dry and native to the island of Korcula.


If you haven’t figured out already, the big revelation for me was that Croatian food is best when it is the least Croatian—when there is as little interference, human and temporal and physical, between the food and my face. And yet there’s something extremely Croatian to how much they themselves value non-interference, their food’s maximal potency inversely borne of tactically minimal preparations. My favorite meals included whole fish the length of a Motorola RAZR cellphone, lightly fried—just popping them into my mouth while trying to pretend that I’m not a little skittish about eating animals’ heads—and oysters that were so fresh the kitchen doesn’t even sand off the shells’ barnacles and miscellaneous sea-funk. My favorite meals lacked pomp; it’d be hard for me to imagine a chef acting as if he was even remotely responsible for the deliciousness of the buttery rukatac fish I had in Korcula City. If I thought the fish was delicious, it was because the fish itself was delicious.


In Dubrovnik, we ate at a place called Nautika, purportedly the nicest restaurant in the city, with all possible bases covered: attentive waiters; amuse bouches; men who carry handbrooms to sweep the crumbs off the table when you’re not looking; some kind of smooth jazz piped in via hidden Bose speakers. The restaurant pats itself on the back for having served Pope John Paul II on June 6, 2003, treating him to a tasting menu of grilled sea-bass, some kind of tricked-out lobster, fish soup, two desserts, and making that same exact meal available to tourist hoi polloi as the "Gold Medallion" menu, which we ordered at a price, along with a Dingac from Berba, 2003 vintage, whose potpourri nose reminded me of chianti cut with merlot and cab. Everything I ate had some kind of haute twist to it; bite by bite I felt myself being dragged further and further from the sea.


A while ago, scientists figured out how to transpose a cold-water fish gene into a tomato, the goal being to make the fruit frost-resistant. Food-wise tomatoes seem more like an ancillary player anyway, something you put on a burger or in a salad for a splash of red, but never something snacked on by itself, so I don’t remember being too upset about this. I was not a V8 guy.

You wouldn’t believe it, but having a fish gene in a tomato actually affects the taste of the tomato. There’s something marvelous about how similar genetically modified supertomatoes are to silicone-enhanced breasts: large, resistant to cold temperature, superficially alluring, unnatural, firm but tasteless. This was not something I realized until having what may have been the first "real" tomato I’ve had in who knows how many years, in a tomato salad at Feral in Lumbarda again. The plate was merely tomatoes and onions, salted and doused in olive oil––what stateside would have been a condiment tray. These were the freshest, most complex condiments I had ever had: The tomatoes even had an orange-like acidity to them, vaguely sweet, and were reported to have been plucked just seconds before preparation, from the Familly [sic] Restaurant’s backyard garden.


What I’ve spent the last year mulling over, or at least have been paying more attention to, is the extent to which I really have no idea where my food comes from or what exactly I’m eating. I’ve tried to shape up to an extent, eating only foods with ingredients I recognize or could point out in a supermarket. I’ve been thinking how difficult this must be for a chemist or biologist. They know exactly what high fructose corn syrup is. They can differentiate between benzoates and propionates, maybe even by taste. They love pointing out to hippies that water is also technically a chemical. Anyway I’m pretty happy I’m not a chemist since this rule wouldn’t really hold up.


Maybe after the NBA’s Tony Kukoc, the most famous Croatian is Marco Polo. I counted about 87 Marco Polo Restaurants or Trattoria Marco Polos in the course of the first few days before giving up count. Unwittingly, the completely unrelated restaurants form some kind of chain restaurant akin to Cracker Barrel or even Ruby Tuesday’s, and we avoided them instinctively, though perhaps unfairly.


I’ve been asked for a conclusion. The best I can do is parting words. The prsut is really delicious, something I haven’t stressed enough. We missed the butcher one evening. Out of desperation we bought an airtight plastic of pre-sliced prsut, the kind with who knows what preservatives, and it was still fresher than 99% of the meat I’ve had from Whole Foods. This was the same night we found out our funds were tapped and we couldn’t afford any more meals, anything at all really. We drove back to Zagreb the next morning, eating pretzel sticks and leftover bread. We hoped we wouldn’t run out of gas in the middle of a tunnel.