The thin sliver of stunning Croatian coast alongside the Adriatic has seen its fair share of conflict over time. It is only twenty odd years since Dubrovnik itself was under siege from the forces of Serbia and Montenegro on the flimsiest of pretexts and it is remarkable how unscathed the magnificent Old Town appears, when a quick cable car ride to the Fort Imperial overlooking the city and the museum therein confirms it was anything but.
As a result, one could understand and even sympathise with any residual negativity Croats might feel towards their northern neighbours. Less clear is what they’ve got against the Swiss, or more specifically, their chard. I rather fell in love with Croatia – the climate and the culture, and to a certain extent the cuisine – so why they insist on serving overcooked and over-seasoned Swiss chard with everything is beyond me, especially when it has the consistency of tissue paper that has been left to marinade in washing up liquid.
Vegetables do not seem to be a Croatian strong point. The seafood on the other hand is excellent, and four of us headed along the coast to Cavtat on our first evening to find some. Cavtat is something of a rich person’s playground, as evidenced by the number of enormous yachts showing off along the seafront. There was some of the usual touting for business from the restaurants, but in the end we ‘opted for’ (they offered us free schnapps) Toranj, which proved to be a fine choice; especially if you like young men playing water polo next to your table, adding a slightly bizarre homo-erotic element to proceedings.
The schnapps arrived with a small plate of smoked mackerel pate – something of a Croatian tradition, and a very pleasant way to start a meal while we got to grips with the menu. To put it simply, if you like squid, go to Croatia. They do a lot of it and they do it very well. Black risotto made with squid ink is ubiquitous, and none the worse for that. There were also plump mussels and some seriously disappointing deep fried oysters. I thought they might be interesting but they weren’t, unless you’re interested in food with the consistency of rubber bands in cardboard but without the flavour.
My main course was a considerable step up as my girlfriend and I shared the fish platter, which is so good I noticed it had even made it into our guidebook. A delightful selection of prawns, langoustines, mussels and clams came with potatoes, a vinaigrette dressing and even some rock mussels, which were new to me and quite chewy – I’m glad I tried them, but I could happily live without ever doing so again. A bit like the Swiss chard they’d partially hidden under the whole sea bass. Across the table a buzzara, or fish stew, was more of the same but more garlicky and requiring a bib to eat, although, if you’ve seen our friend Simon eating ice cream, that’s just more of a general rule to keep him presentable. A plate of grilled squid was just bloody good, even if it too was charded. This was simply very good seafood, cooked properly and wonderful to share whilst men who had forgotten their bibs splashed about nearby.
We weren’t planning on pudding, but maybe the schnapps had kicked in, or the bottle of Malvasija Dubrowcka which was white, dry, delicious and meant we had ordered a couple of chocolate soufflés before we realized what we were doing. The moment they arrived, we broke them open to discover that they were in fact fondants. We suggested this to the waiter, who replied, quite reasonably,
“You can call them fondants if you want, we call them soufflés”.
He was wrong, of course, but it’s not his fault he’d probably never even seen Masterchef and by this point all the evidence had completely disappeared. All in all, an impressive start to the holiday, and whilst not a steal at over forty quid a head excluding service, the days when one could flounce into Eastern Europe expecting everything to be practically given away are over, and with good reason.
Our next port of call was just that, and I could not really recommend it highly enough. Lokunda Peskarija has every right to be awful – not only a tourist hot spot itself, its many tables are also either side of one of the main entrances to the Old Town. However, as tourist spots go, it is pretty special. I can’t do Dubrovnik any justice here – just look at a picture and go. And while you’re there, pop into Lokunda, right by the harbour wall, which is perpetually busy, but cleverly gets round this by serving a simple selection of (more) brilliant seafood in one of the most stunning locations on the planet. I had some proper oysters – because they serve natives here as a matter of course – before we all tucked into pans of mussels, baby squid, grown up squid and prawns. There was some bread, some wedges of lemon and a little glass of Subrian Miličić (dry, white, again) for me. There was no chard to be seen. It all came to 635 Kuna or eighty quid for four and then we all went and had an ice cream from one of the many parlours dotted around that make you suddenly remember how close you are to Italy and how good lemon ice cream can be if done properly.
There are hundreds of places to eat around the Old Town, and as is often the case when in close proximity to World Heritage sites, you take your chances to an extent. There is one street dedicated almost entirely to pizzerias, so why I ended up having fairly unremarkable chicken fajitas there is beyond me (at Šilok, not actively unpleasant but I think we could have chosen better.) However, one of the better appointed destinations is Klarisa, set in a heartbreakingly beautiful courtyard adorned with purple bougainvillea where we sat at an immaculately linen covered table for one of the funniest meals I’ve ever had. The food itself was slightly disappointing for one of the supposedly finest eateries in the city. Things started well with more complimentary pate and service was excellent throughout. An octopus salad was an exercise in tasty simplicity and a swordfish carpaccio was light, zingy and meaty all at the same time. The cold platter ‘Klarisa’ was more of the same, but this time with smoked tuna and marinated sea bass, while a prawn risotto was good but could have done with the wine being cooked off a little more.
Main courses, though (mostly) attractively presented were more problematic. Amberjack is a meaty fish not dissimilar to tuna, and surely the only real sin is to overcook it, which is exactly what they’d done until it just resembled what it was – a large lump of protein on a plate. My John Dory fillet was relatively tasty but spoilt by the slimy and unpleasant skin still attached to it. A sea bass fillet and sole in champagne sauce were much better. Grilled vegetables and chips were perfectly acceptable, possibly because it gave them no wiggle room to include chard anywhere (except under a couple of the fish.)
Only two of us were drinking (a very serviceable house white,) so it is a bit difficult to explain what happened next. Actually, it isn’t. Despite loving both live music and eating out, I have never been that excited about combining the two. Indeed, a couple of days earlier, we had hot-footed it from one restaurant when we noticed the last table was two feet from some empty music stands – a course of action thoroughly vindicated when we walked by later to hear the worst ever synthesizer-led version of ‘Smoke on The Water’ being murdered for the benefit of the remaining guests. Klarisa had gone a whole step further with gold suits for the band (one of them also had a gold guitar) and the obligatory chanteuse emoting her way through a number of tunes you had hoped you would never have to hear again. It started badly enough with the classic opening notes of a Casiotone preset segueing into what I would charitably describe as a ‘take’ on My Way. At this point, it’s best just to give you a set list – Theme from The Godfather, Delilah (which is when I think we properly lost it,) Norah bloody Jones. Yesterday. Crazy. Hilarity at this point involved hari kari mimes and the idea that no one ever ordered dessert here because they couldn’t make it past Crazy.
We did order dessert, possibly out of guilt, and a pretty reasonable crème brulee with peach compote arrived alongside a less exciting warm chocolate square with vanilla ice cream, and, er, ‘English sauce’ which was, needless to say, the funniest thing we had ever heard. Until that is, we managed to predict both Careless Whisper and Always on My Mind in quick succession at which point we had to leave because hysteria had set in. I couldn’t recommend Klarisa highly enough, but sadly that is not for all the right reasons, and there are probably better meals to be had for getting on towards £200 including service. They did give us a nice complimentary plate though.
My better half and I returned to Cavtat for our last meal which turned out to be a wise choice. We were found a table on the first floor terrace of Dolium that afforded us excellent views of the richest man in Norway’s massive £25m yacht. (Yeah – but is he happy?) Our waiter was an older chap whom I was slightly worried was run off his feet, not helped by an over officious manager (or owner) quietly bollocking him the whole time. This was unnecessary and annoying, but it was the only blot on an otherwise lovely meal.
We started again with oysters and then shared ‘Sea pearls’ – a big bowl of shellfish and squid (although not much sign of the advertised crab) in a glorious garlicky broth. This was followed by a whole sea bass cooked in salt, expertly filleted at the table (take that Mr Manager.) This is so clearly the best way to eat this fish – every time I have it I am amazed all over again by how moist and delicate it leaves the flesh, and this was no exception. Dessert was crème caramel – another Croatian tradition that I’m not that wild about but at least it wasn’t chard – and ‘cake of the day’ which was a fairly workmanlike tiramisu. Free schnapps was offered but declined, and a glass of house white wasn’t the best I’d had, but the standard of both food and surroundings more than compensated.
All in all, a delightful conclusion to a lovely holiday in a country I had previously only associated with tennis players and garish football strips. Thanks to the kindness of my girlfriend’s parents and their very pleasant villa we have an open invitation to return, and I’m sure we shall. Having said that, I am tempted to visit Switzerland first to see if they have maintained their famed neutrality, or are doing something unspeakable to a Croatian vegetable at every meal. Knowing them, they’ve probably covered it in either melted cheese or chocolate, which will never work because, as we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold.