Croatia. I'll admit the first thing I think of is not food. Or wine.
But sparkling seas? Yes. Spiny Sea Urchins? In their mutilating millions. (Note to self: pack jelly shoes)
I first travelled to Croatia almost 13 years ago as a uni student on a shoe-string budget. We lived on packed lunches of cheese, ham and bread, and I don't remember much else about the food; vaguely Mediterranean fare but not a patch on Italy across the Adriatic.
Despite my misgivings, I did actually have one of my earlier wine epiphanies on the small island of Vis - I've probably scribbled somewhere in a travel notebook what exactly it was... Something local, so it's quite likely to have been Pošip (pronounced Poship). I remember the experience vividly; sitting in an artfully ramshackle courtyard of a local bar, the sun setting, crumbling Venetian architecture around us, after a day spent breathing in the scents of rosemary, pine and sea air. It's one of the 'moments of truth' in my wine journey that I look back on, when you realise how setting, context and mindset are two thirds of our experience of a wine.
This time I was utterly blown away by both the food and wine. Perhaps I was just eating at a different calibre of restaurant this time? Or perhaps in the last 13 years things have gone from strength to strength with increasing tourism and demand? After all, in terms of climate and natural assets (political turmoil aside), there's really no reason for them to not have an exquisite food and wine culture.
For a brief overview of Croatian wine, see the beginning of my Oenophile's Dalmatian Sailing Itinerary
We were in Croatia for two weeks, on a chartered 42ft sailing yacht. Lunch was always an at-anchor affair, while for dinner we like to come ashore. We experienced many different restaurants, all to varying degrees of greatness - but here are my top 5.
I think restaurants are as good as any pillar to build an itinerary around and these 5 are well worth it. If these whet your appetite, head on over to my post which gives you a tried-and-tested two week sailing itinerary with the below, and many more gems to discover.
1. Zori Restaurant, Palmizana Bay, St Klement Island, part of the Paklinski Archipelago.
You can access this restaurant also by a taxi boat from Hvar, otherwise you can take a marina berth at ACI Palmizana (and take a short walk to the opposite side of the island, about 5 minutes) or a mooring buoy in the little bay directly in front of the restaurant. This place is seriously special. The service is off-the-scale; every single service person we interacted with went the extra mile in one way or another. They seem like they're having fun and are really proud of what they've created. They do a variety of different tasting menus with wine pairings and also a la carte. The attention to detail is really evident, from the carefully curated Gin & Tonic menu, to ensuring that each course is served with detailed explanation of provenance. We enjoyed some of the best wines of the whole trip at this restaurant; a producer called Galić which was exceptional. Particularly:
- Galić White 9: A barrel fermented and lees-aged wine made from a blend of 50% indigenous grape Graševina, 25% Chardonnay and 25% Sauvignon Blanc. It sounds like a strange blend, but it really worked.
- Graševina Leon: A dessert wine from late harvest dried grapes - absolutely stunning, and could rival a top Sauternes any day.
Palmizana 19, 21450, Hvar, Croatia
2. Augusta Insula, Zaklopatica Bay, Lastovo Island
The Island of Lastovo is part of the Lastovo National Park, so expect to find unspoilt loveliness.
Here, like many places around the Dalmatian islands, moorings are connected to restaurants, with the understanding that you'll take a free mooring in return for dining at the restaurant. Seems like a good deal to me.
Book ahead to secure your place, and when you sail in to bay, you can expect to find a satisfyingly stereotypical salty old sea-dog waiting there with a big crinkly smile, ready to catch your stern lines and throw you a lazy line. You'll find it's the same guy grilling freshly caught fish on the open fire grill like a boss. We were drawn to this place by the promise of Lobster Spaghetti and it turned out to be one of the best lobster spags we'd ever had. We were 4 people at this point in the trip and rather than serve 4 individual bowls of pasta, we were instead presented with an oversized cooking pot, filled to the brim with lobsters and spaghetti drowning in a rich, tomatoey, lobster sauce; absolute perfection! Great wines too - a beautiful Pošip from Nerica Winery.
Zaklopatoca Bay, Lastovo National Park, Lastovo Island
3. Joseph's, Polace Bay, National Park Mljet
This place is about as rustic as it gets, but what makes it special is the location in another perfect, unspoilt little bay. You can step off your boat (again free mooring with power and electricity, in return for eating at the restaurant) straight onto the little restaurant terrace with about two steps. Perhaps we were lucky with the particular waiter we had the night we arrived, but we were looked after with the attention and pride befitting of a Michelin star restaurant, (starting with a little welcome shot of local spirit once we were safely moored up). The lobster spaghetti (yes, we were becoming aficionados by this point) was cooked with a rich slow-cooked onion and tomato sauce that you imagine would take hours to make. No short cuts here. Fresh fish, great wine list, local cheese, smoked ham and seafood. Even in high season, this felt like the restaurant was there just for us, as our private chef, waiter and secluded water side terrace.
No website - book mooring through MySea app.
4. Nigra Restaurant, Korcula Town, Korcula Island
Korcula town is a beautifully preserved medieval town, just perfect for a golden hour stroll. The restaurant Nigra has a great little spot looking back over Korcula Bay with its beautiful medieval fortress. Locals claim Marco Polo was born here. Located a few minutes walk away from what feels like the touristy 'centre', sitting on their little ocean-side terrace or rooftop, it feels like you've found the best seat in town. Great Croatian wine list and local food, and lovely service.
Korcula Town, Korcula Island +385 98 925 4406
5. The Fisherman's House, St Klement, Paklinski Archipelago
We're back on the Paklinski archipelago, so this place is easy to get to by taxi boat from Hvar, even if you're not sailing. An island of mainly pine trees and not much else, there is a real Robinson Crusoe feel about the set up here. The power may go off at any moment. There is only bottled water. The restaurant is created from old stones, light fittings fashioned from shells, the tables laid out amongst fig and olive trees, under rustic looking wooden arbours. It's all about the fresh fish, expertly prepared. Here we had some of the best prawns we've ever eaten, and I'm talking as someone who's been schooled in the art of the prawn. How can you tell if your prawns are super fresh? They should still have long, intact whiskers. The whiskers are the first thing to snap off; they certainly won't survive being frozen or generally hanging around, passing through too long of a supply chain, container to container. If all of your prawns have long distinguished whiskers, then you know you're onto a good thing. Prepared simply with garlic, top quality olive oil and parsley you can't really beat it. This was followed by exceptional fish, proudly and expertly prepared in the simplest way. A characterful cast of dogs and cats belonging to the friendly Croatian-Danish owners adds to the overall experience.